Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Donnelly's Hollow pageants

They only happened twice, but the Donnelly's Hollow An Tostal pageants held in the early 50s are still strong in local folk memory.

They're certainly embedded in mine, because as a nine- and ten-year-old I was one of the lucky youngsters who sold programmes at the events for a shilling apiece. We were allowed keep tuppence on each, so it was a profitable gig.

An Tostal was a national festival scheme, which encouraged local communities to undertake pageants and similar events, to boost the budding tourist industry.

It was a time when Kilcullen Boxing Club was doing well sportwise, but needed an injection of funds  — there were considerable expenses in ferrying young lads to tournaments in all corners of the country.

At the time, my Dad, Jim Byrne, was president of the club and Lieut Cyril Russell was the trainer. At some stage a plan was hatched to commemorate the famous 1815 bare-knuckle fight between Dan Donnelly and English champion George Cooper. The original fight had taken place just before Christmas in 1815 at a hollow just on the edge of the Curragh, in from the Kilcullen Road.

The pageant idea was enthusiastically taken up by the club members and other locals. Plans were put in train to make it an event which would attract an audience from far beyond the locality.

The key characters were cast — club stalwart Jim Berney was to be Dan Donnelly, and Kevin McCourt would play the part of Cooper. My uncle, Tom Byrne, and local man John Ffrench were appointed as seconds to the fighters. A 'crowd' was organised from the Kilcullen GAA football team.

Sunday April 19 1953 was chosen for the event. A number of things had to be done. The fighters themselves had to learn the Rules of Bare-knuckle Boxing, formulated in 1741 by the then British fighting champion Jack Broughton. 'Rules' might not be the best description ... such tactics as gouging, butting, hair-pulling and pouncing on the adversary when down were all permitted.

A certain choreography had to be devised. The original fight had lasted 11 rounds and a long time. This re-enactment was just the first event of a programme which was to include demonstrations of wrestling, fencing, judo, and modern boxing which would include Kilcullen club notables like John McKenna and Hugh Peacocke. Also a number of Army gloves and members of clubs from Newbridge and Dublin.

There was no television, so promotion of the event was dependent on friendly newspaper correspondents, and a version of what would today be termed direct personal marketing. Quite simply that involved the main protagonists and the Kilcullen GAA 'rent-a-crowd' — and anyone else who wanted to go on a skite for the night — dressing up in costume and doing a tour of the towns in the locality. Transport was the trucks of my Dad's 'Leinster Beverage' mineral water enterprise. Stopping points in each town and village were, by no accident, pubs.

Other things had to be organised. Seats and PA systems would be provided courtesy of the Army, programmes were written for printing by the Leinster Leader, and advertising to pay for same had to be gathered.

The weather might have been prayed for, too.

The programme for the first pageant itself — there's a copy in the Kilcullen Heritage Centre — is interesting in its own right. Not just for the articles, which included a Ballad and a Profile of Dan Donnelly and a contemporary account of the famous fight as well as some detail on the Broughton Rules and the other fighting sports which were to be presented on the day. The advertisements, to anybody still with a memory of the old days in Kilcullen, are gems.

The opening one was an appeal for the founding of a Fund for injured professional jockeys, on a page paid for by an anonymous 'well-known Amateur Rider'.

The 'Famous Jockey Hall Hotel' with its Riding School and Hunting Establishment also bought space, while the spot beside it taken by the Irish Judokwai organisation was probably a 'contra' for their taking part in the Pageant. They were selling a three-month course in Judo for twenty-five shillings.

The Grand Hotel in Droicead Nua (Newbridge) was 'justifiably famed for its admirable Cuisine and Homely Atmosphere'.

D Brennan & Sons in Kilcullen were 'Main Ferguson Dealers' and sold 'any make of car' as well as being Builders Providers, Ironmongers, Seeds & Fertilisers salesmen, and also ran a General Hardware and Drapery.

Byrne & Co Ltd, my grandfather's business of General Hardware and Drapery Merchants, could supply 'all Farm and Household Requisites' and were agents for 'Hoover' cleaners, 'Wolseley' electric fencing and 'Rayburn' cookers.

Local advertisers in the timetable part of the programme were Peter Moloney, Draper and Outfitter; Dan O'Connell MPSI, Pharmaceutical Chemist; the 'Hide-Out' Lounge and Grill at Byrnes of Kilcullen; Nolan Victuallers; and T Berney & Sons, Saddlers.

Other adverts were placed by Mallick's Bar, 'just a stone's throw from Donnelly's Hollow'; The White Horse Inn in Kilcullen; McDonnell's Radio and Electrical Stores who provided 'all leading makes' of 1953 Radio 'from 3/6d weekly'; Joe McTernan's Lounge, whose 'customers come back'. Other businesses with no connection with Kilcullen also advertised.

The day itself? Well, memory is for obvious reasons a bit on the 'sunny summer days' side. But I do have the lasting impression that it was indeed a fine day. The fact that a carelessly thrown cigarette end set the gorse on part of the 'Hollow' alight bears that out. What might have been a disaster was apparently only averted by the 'timely intervention of an Engineers Sergeant'.

Contemporary accounts suggest that many thousands of spectators came from the locality and from as far as Dublin, thanks to the publicity efforts.

It was certainly successful enough for the event to be repeated the following year. This time, though, the Pageant commemoration was the Finale, with essentially the same cast of reprobates.

There was also a stronger local connection. The Irish fighter's mummified right arm had been presented to Dad for his Hide-Out pub, consequent on the publicity about the first pageant. Originally taken by a Dublin surgeon for study after he had temporary custody of the fighter's body courtesy of a couple of grave-robbers ...

New advertisers in the Souvenir Programme, still a snip at a shilling, included N Bardon of Kilcullen, Grocery, Bar and News Agency; Bill Malone of Kilcullen, Grocery & Greengrocery; J O'Brien of Hillside, Kilcullen, Confectionery and Grocery; Mrs Burke, Kilcullen, Grocery, Confectionery and Greengrocery. (As you can see, Kilcullen supported a lot of Grocery shops in those years.) And again, many contributors from outside Kilcullen too.

All of which are their own stories of a bygone age.

Perhaps there are readers out there who might be able to tell me their own stories of the two events, and of the people mentioned in this piece?

But in the meantime, I've already had a lot of fun jogging my own memory. And, by an amazing coincidence, as I put the last words to this piece, who should sit beside me in the bar but 'Dan Donnelly' himself, in the person of Jim Berney, now 73, who played the part all those years ago. I said I'd love to have some of the old photoghraphs of the time, and he told me he had an album of copies.

So that's why we have more than the programme pages to illustrate this. Many thanks, Jim.

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