Seconds Out – Frank McNally on the unexpected comeback of James Joyce’s semi-legendary boxer Myler Keogh

An Irishman’s Diary

After a long count of 105 years, Myler Keogh rose again this week, at least in the form of a headstone erected by admirers

After a long count of 105 years, Myler Keogh rose again this week, at least in the form of a headstone erected by admirers

 

Most boxers fight at least once too often in their careers, a tradition that Dubliner Myler Keogh appears to have upheld. Middleweight champion of Ireland at his peak, he was well past that when, circa 1904, Jem Roche of Wexford knocked him out in what may or may not have been Keogh’s last fight.

From there his life descended into obscurity and eventually, in 1916, an unmarked grave in Deansgrange Cemetery.

But after a long count of 105 years, Keogh rose again this week, at least in the form of a headstone erected by accidental admirers.

They know of him mainly because another of his 1904 fights featured in the book Ulysses, by James Joyce. Hence the opening words of Frank Cogan when unveiling the gravestone on Tuesday: “Friends, Joyceans, countrymen, and countrywomen. Today we come, not to bury Myler Keogh, but to praise him.”

If Ulysses can be believed (and it can’t in this case, as we’ll explain later), Keogh’s finest moment was when he boxed a British soldier, Percy Bennett, aka “the Portobello Bruiser” at the Antient Concert Rooms in what is now Dublin’s Pearse Street.

As one of Joyce’s characters summarised, he “dusted the floor” with Bennett. In the words of another, he finished him off with a punch “that made him puke what he never ate”.

The result was also a triumph for Keogh’s promoter Blazes Boylan, who had boosted the betting odds by spreading rumours that his man was drinking heavily, while Keogh was instead secreted away down the country, “in the county Carlow”, training hard and eating duck-eggs.

The irony of Myler’s renewed fame is that the Bennett bout never actually happened, except in Joyce’s head.

There was a real-life Percy Bennett all right, but he was known mainly as a cricketer before a career in diplomacy took him to Zurich as Britain’s consul general. Residents of the Swiss city then also included Joyce, who had a row with Bennett and took his revenge by putting him in Ulysses, on the wrong end of Myler.

The real-life Keogh had been born in Donnybrook – then a semi-rural outpost of Dublin although already an international byword for fighting, thanks to the notorious fair – in 1867. His father, James “Clocker” Keogh, was a boxer too. And he may have been named after yet another famous fighter of his era: Myles Keogh (1840 – 1876).

The latter was a career soldier who served in the Papal Armies during the Italian war of independence, then the Union army in the American Civil War, and later in the “Indian Wars” too, until he finally ran out of luck at Little Bighorn.

The papal medal he wore there born the words “Agnus Dei” (“Lamb of God”) and was later seen around the neck of Chief Sitting Bull.

This might explain the nickname Joyce gave Myler Keogh, “Dublin’s Pet Lamb”, which is now also on his gravestone. There was nothing lamb-like about Keogh otherwise, even before he turned professional. As Cogan noted, he was known to the police around Donnybrook from an early age, with a couple of his brawls earning trips across the city to Kilmainham Jail.

His greatest years as a boxer were the 1890s, when the sport was in transition from the bare-knuckle variety to Queensberry rules. But it was still a rough business, even for the spectators. An Irish Times report of one of Keogh’s fights, in 1895, reported that the crowd in the “pit” was at least twice the capacity, with refugees climbing to the balcony for safety and police unable to prevent a mass invasion of the “ten-shilling seats”.

Not content with the official bill, some in the audience organised their own bout mid-programme, with other spectators forming a ring. As for the main attractions, Keogh and Dan Kenny, they were initially too sedate for spectators’ liking. Or, as the reporter said: “they appeared at first not to be inclined to kill each other”. Then, in Round 2, Kenny suffered a blow that “stretched him”.  

Keogh died in 1916 at the South Dublin Union: an impeccable conjunction for a fighting Irishman, except that it was in June rather than April, and the union was again a workhouse rather than the rebel garrison it had briefly been. He was buried at public expense then, without a headstone.

But in an early celebration of Bloomsday 2021, Minister of State and Dun Laoghaire TD Ossian Smyth laid a wreath on Tuesday at his newly marked grave. Andrew Basquille performed the world premiere of a ballad in Keogh’s honour. Those paying respects included Seamus Cannon of the Friends of Joyce Tower Society and writer Vivien Igoe. In the best tradition of Joycean funerals, even though it was 22 degrees and sunny, there was also an unidentified man with a mackintosh.

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