Achill-Cleveland story lives on in the exploits of a true trailblazer, Johnny Kilbane

Croí Trodach (A Fighting Heart) is the epic story of a world featherweight champion on TG4 tonight

Wed, Mar 19, 2014, 01:00

There were only eight weight divisions in the sport at the time and any title fight was big news. Within months, his ring prowess was being referenced in others sports: a Mayo 16th edtion of the New York Times carried a report on a fracas involving Detroit’s fiery Ty Cobb who entered the crowd to quieten a Yankee heckler and “Johnny Kilbaned him right where he stood”.

One of the triumphs of the documentary is the inclusion of recently discovered ‘lost’ footage of the fight, which took place in Los Angeles in front of 10,000 people. Word of Kilbane’s victory reached Cleveland well before the fighter himself: a snowstorm delayed the train journey back to the midwest and he made it home on St Patrick’s Day to find himself greeted by what remains Cleveland’s largest public gathering.

Kilbane held his title for 11 years, combining his title fights with turns in the theatre, investing shrewdly in stocks and property and, in a vision that was generations before its time, setting up an exclusive health and fitness retreat where he would personally coach wealthy businessmen towards a fitter way of life.

He lost much of his wealth in the financial crash of 1929 and had already surrendered his title to Eugene Criqui, a remarkable French fighter who was shot in the face in World War One only to return to boxing with a reconstructed jaw.

Celebrated visit
But Kilbane had visited Achill in 1922, the year before he lost his title belt. At the time, it was a celebrated visit but when Des Kilbane was growing up on the island 50 years later, it was dimly remembered – at best.

“When I began researching Johnny’s visit I learned that people were surprised because they were expecting a huge man when they heard about this world boxing champion and, of course, Johnny was very small.

“When he came to Achill in 1922, he looked across Achill Beag and said: ‘That is where I am from’. And he started crying. So he had that attachment to the island that a lot of people who originate from Achill have.

“The Mayo News records for that year were lost in a fire so it was just was just word of mouth then . . . I couldn’t find any record of his arrival here in Ireland. But my father remembered seeing him and huge crowds came out. There was a monastery in Achill which is in a bit of a ruin now but he gave an impromptu boxing exhibition down there.”

By then, the pattern of emigration from Achill to Cleveland had been well established but the sight of Kilbane, urbane and immaculately dressed, was for Achill families the most vivid advertisement of the possibilities that life held for those who left. The visit led to the establishment of a boxing club on Achill, which died away mainly because once young people reached working age, they left anyway.

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