Fury Brothers – Frank McNally on the history of boxing, James Joyce, and the curse of cold Guinness

The US boxer John Carmel Heenan fighting England’s Tom Sayers in 1860

The US boxer John Carmel Heenan fighting England’s Tom Sayers in 1860

 

Despite being contested by men named “Wilder” and “Fury”, the latest world heavyweight boxing title bout was a calmer affair than the one that inaugurated the series, 160 years ago. But restrained as it was by comparison, the fight in Las Vegas at the weekend did have interesting parallels with an event of April 17th, 1860, in a Hampshire field.

That too was an Anglo-American affair with an Irish subtext: the US representative, John Carmel Heenan, had been born in upstate New York of immigrants from Tipperary. The bout pitched him against England’s Tom Sayers, an older and more experienced opponent, although also much shorter and lighter.

It was of course bare-knuckle, with no limit on the number of rounds. It was also illegal. But there was huge interest on both sides of the Atlantic, with the immediate audience including Charles Dickens, WM Thackeray, and the British prime minister. And the two men managed to pummel each other for 37 rounds without interruption.

Even then, as Heenan had Sayers trapped in the ropes, it was the English crowd that intervened. When order resumed, the boxers fought for another five rounds, to no decisive end. Both sides claimed victory, but it was officially a draw.

Despite lingering acrimony, they subsequently combined in a promotional tour of these islands, sparring publicly. Of their Dublin bout in June 1860, the city’s then newest newspaper The Irish Times scoffed: “This extraordinary exhibition, which has engrossed the thoughts and occupied the hours of every bully, sot, roué, and ‘fast man’ in the metropolis for several days, came off yesterday, in the Rotundo Gardens. The so-called champions arrived lately in this city, and put up in the Prince of Wales Hotel, Sackville Street, which ever since has been besieged by the class above alluded to.”

But we know the Heenan-Sayers saga left a deeper impression on some Dubliners because, half a century later, it was mentioned in a publication even more prestigious than The Irish Times. Yes, the inevitable James Joyce worked it into Ulysses, where his alter ego Stephen Dedalus stops outside a Dublin shop:

“In Clohissey’s window a faded 1860 print of Heenan boxing Sayers held his eye. Staring backers with square hats stood round the roped prizering. The heavyweights in light loin cloths proposed gently to each other his bulbous fists. And they are throbbing: heroes’ hearts.”

Were he alive today, the magpie-like Joyce would surely take an interest in the career of Tyson Fury, the latest world champion and self-styled “Gypsy King”, if only for his name. Like the writer’s own, it’s a common one among the Irish Traveller community. 

And although, unlike the Joyces, Brownes, and Bodkins, the Furys were not among the 14 tribes of Galway, Joyce did co-opt one for an arguably greater honour. In place of Michael Bodkin, doomed real-life love of Nora Barnacle, he substituted the name Michael Furey, placing him – via the immortal closing passage of The Dead – in one of literature’s most famous graves.

Speaking of which, and further to Terence Killeen’s column here on Monday about the late Stephen Joyce, I too can testify to the experience of having received one of those dreaded phone-calls, nearly 20 years ago now. It turned out to be the friendlier kind. But that wasn’t immediately apparent.

I had written a column complaining about – of all things – the historically downward trend in the temperature of draught Guinness: from a balmy 15 degrees to low single figures. And I was lamenting that the chilled pint had now spread even to the west, where until the 1990s you could still drink stout at room temperature: a creamier and lovelier thing than the arctic version.

Of a recent journey to Galway, I wrote: “. . . the newspapers were right. Cold Guinness was general all over Ireland. The temperature was falling on every part of the dark, central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, father westward, softly falling in pubs along the dark, mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, on every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. And if he was a pint drinker, he’s better off dead.”

A few days later, the phone rang. The grave voice announced itself “the grandson of James Joyce”. Then, as Terence noted, there was a pause to let this sink in, during which my blood temperature also sank. But eventually, still in sombre tones, the caller declared he had enjoyed the joke, and thought his grandfather would have too. He could speak with some authority, he added, because they still communicated frequently, at the grave in Zurich.  

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