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
It wasn’t until he saw the family name in a list featuring Mike Tyson’s favourite boxers that Des Kilbane began to realise that his father had been right after all. Growing up on Achill Island in the 1970s, Kilbane was enthralled by the heavyweight boxing glamour of Ali and Foreman and had heard vague stories of a relative who had become a world champion boxer in Cleveland, the city which had become an unlikely refuge to generations of Achill Islanders.
Leaving Achill was nothing new: you can’t live on rugged beauty and just as his father had left the island to work seasonally as a ‘tatty’ picker, Des Kilbane left for London when he was 17, working with multi-national companies before finally turning towards his vocation as a film maker.
It was while in London in the 1980s that he happened upon the Tyson list bearing the name of Johnny Kilbane, featherweight champion for a record 11 years, sitting there among the more predictable luminaries like Sonny Liston and Jack Dempsey. He knew there had to be a good story there but it was only in recent years, when he found a website dedicated to the Cleveland boxer and maintained by Kevin O’Toole, a great-grandson of the fighter, that he decided he had to try and put it down on film.
“It was a way of telling the Achill-Cleveland story,” Des Kilbane explains. “I have an aunt and uncle in the city and loads of cousins there without whom I would have been lost when we were trying to make the film. For quite a long time, Johnny Kilbane was almost entirely forgotten about. I think in terms of boxing, he was just a couple of weight divisions away from immortality.
“But he also changed the concept of Irishness within Cleveland . . . that whole thing that the Irish weren’t to be trusted changed with his emergence. Two hundred thousand people turned out to greet him when he won came home from California as a featherweight champion in 1912. He was a very important figure in that city.”
The barest sketch of Johnny Kilbane’s emergence as a boxing celebrity carries the picaresque elements of the fiction of Mark Twain. He was born in 1889 in ‘The Angle’, a teeming Westside emigrant stronghold which was tough and impoverished, to an Achill father and Cleveland-Achill mother, Mary Gallagher. Johnny Kilbane was definitively Irish in build – stocky and strong and had the kind of impish grin that would make Mickey Rooney a fortune a few decades later.
Although Kilbane came to excel at boxing, he was smitten by vaudeville theatre and could sing, dance and was an accomplished violin player. His lucky break came when a friend guided him towards a local boxing coach called Jimmy Dunne: “If you can fight he will soon find out,” he was told, “and if you can’t, he won’t be half as long.”
He could. Kilbane flourished under Dunne’s advice. A local reputation was forged when he bested Tommy Kilbane (no relation) in a 25-round slug-out held in a barn lit by four oil-burning lights and carrying a purse of $408. He then embarked on a series of successful fights which led to a trip to box Abe Atell in that featherweight title bout of 1912.
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.
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.
Johnny Kilbane’s reputation flourished to such an extent that at one point, the section of Cleveland where he lived was called Kilbanetown. That he chose to stay in the city rather than relocate to the jazzier American cities mattered to Clevelanders. Kilbane was influenced by none of boxing’s darker roads and became celebrated for his generosity. But after he died in 1957, his legacy quickly fell into obscurity.
Des Kilbane’s documentary has coincided with a revival of the recognition of his achievements. The name of Kilbanetown has been revived and made official on the west side. The American Archive Society has commissioned Irish bronze casting sculptor Rowan Gillespie to create a commemorative piece depicting Kilbane in three phases of his life – boy, boxer and politician. Kilbane’s film captures what may have been his greatest contribution to Cleveland: he thought it to be the best place he could possibly lived.
“He stayed in Cleveland too rather than going to California or New York or Boston where the Irish were. He would not change that,” said Des Kilbane, who enlisted Willie Vlautin, a dedicated fight fan and front man with the inimitable Richmond Fontaine to compose a soundtrack for his film, which will show at both the Celtic Media Festival and the Arizona Film Festival in April.
The interest has helped provoke a new wave of interest in a boxer whose reputation after death was remembered only by aficionados of the game like Mike Tyson. Two thousand and twenty two will mark the centenary of Johnny Kilbane’s visit to Achill. The locals have acknowledged his memory in a way he would have most approved, by getting the Achill boxing club up and running again.
n Croí Trodach will be shown tonight on TG4 at 9.30pm.