Daniel Roy Connelly: an Extravagant Stranger on his unusual Irish roots

Theatre director traces his Irish connections from an unlikely boxing ancestor to Beckett and Cúirt

For years, a portrait has hung prominently in whichever my current home of a bare-fist boxer, face in profile, wearing long johns and a shamrock belt. I've been told he's my great-grandfather who was from Cork, went by the name of "Gentleman Jim Connelly", perhaps as tribute to the better-known "Gentleman Jim Corbett", a world champion face smasher. Connelly lived from 1865 to 1935 and saw a fair amount of his own blood in that time. The portrait was coloured over in the 1960s I was told but at the right angle the black and white still shine through. This poem about him appears at the beginning of my memoir, Extravagant Stranger. It comes as my earliest clear memory, a vital commissioning vignette that sets up Irish resilience through some absurdly challenging times:

The Photo-Portrait Of Gentleman Jim, 1865-1935

The black-and-white photo-portrait, size of a Vegas Round card, profiles in a tree-shaded garden, his back to a thick brick wall four blocks high, left, right, my great-grandfather; a bollard of a man in long johns and plimsolls; a champion boxer.

When at last I can hold my own cutlery my father tells me about the milk-pale Irishman with bare fists raised, the outlaw wanted by the Marquis of Queensbury.


See there, the shamrock belt, Jim was champion of all Europe, southpaw, which means he led with his right leaving his left for the hook, like this, boom-boom, they’d go at it for hours, knuckle-to-knuckle, toe-to-toe. See the lick of red hair pasted down by generations, the Connelly knees, legs slightly bowed, look at how we’re standing now, our feet at three o’clock precisely, “Gentleman” because he dressed with care and spoke with excellent grammar. That’s your blood, son, up there’s a man who took a lot of beating, all of it against the law. If the policeman had come … He’s standing tall because he hit them all back and a hell of a lot harder too; that’s you.

Since my father died, Gentleman Jim has hung above me. There is no limit to resemblance. We don’t go down so easily, sharpened by self-harm. He is nowhere to be found on Google. Unorthodox, the genes fight gamely on.

* * * * *

Gentleman Jim hung over me when I directed my beloved Samuel Beckett in Shanghai in 2009 with a pure-gold Irishman, Patrick McQuillen, a Dubliner, my 60-year-old Krapp, face-paint and cowboy boots. China taught me you can't sell tickets for shows, you need a licence and you'll never get one, stay under the radar or forget it, so you sell a 200RMB glass of wine with free entrance to an exhibition. The resilience required to push against local legal barriers, the can-go-on, can't-go-on nature of foreign performance in China, there he is, up on the wall. Patrick McQuillan taught me how the Irish tell their stories to rapt audiences, how to use a Dublin accent, how to weep every night for the love of your life, he might have come straight out of The Dubliners but it was Beckett and he was Krapp in Krapp's Last Tape. There was Gentleman Jim in him, the posture, the set chin, the one last pose for the camera, the readiness to begin.

Gentleman Jim was up on the wall when I wrote the poems that won first prize – and readings – in Fermoy and at the Cúirt Festival, Galway; I was treated royally; a connection seems undeniable. A great topping: The Moth took one of my favourite pieces, a rarity a favourite gets picked up in my experience. At the age of 51, Ireland has fully appeared in my writing life and not of the $20-for-your-next-ancestor way but in a deep sense, I believe, of the will to listen to what the world says and respond with conversations full of the dramatic I, of the eye for the bizarre, of the bizarre as normal and vice versa, of the many absurdities of our lives played out globally now more than ever before, a camera for every syllable uttered into the writer's ear. It's the wit and the quibble make me feel a distinct Irishness.

While a strong streak in me is undoubted, I'm a Connelly all said, I know so little of my Irish culture. What if I tell you about my dad's many trips abroad to Dublin for share-dealing when I was a kid and the smell on his coat when he brought me my present, and that I was named after Danny Boy? Fraud. But my connection to Wilde, Joyce and Beckett, to laughter at the foolishness of the world, is what drives my work. The spirit of Gentleman Jim presides within, stand up, be who you are, get slapped around, slap back, though whether this be another Celtic myth or a challenge more empirically realisable I'm yet to fully discover and in point of fact don't care.

He’s there. I passed his story on to my own son a few years ago, warning him to use words as weapons, not fists, or else end up like Gentleman Jim who only has half a face. And don’t forget laughter. Because eventually you have to laugh at being hit so often.

All said, he's there in the portrait and he looks like us. Champion of all Ireland in his shamrock belt, family legend I'd love to find true but you won't find me kissing the Blarney.
Daniel Roy Connelly is a performer, director, writer and professor of English literature at John Cabot University and The American University of Rome. Extravagant Stranger is published by Little Island Press and can be purchased at all good book stores or on Amazon.