‘Sir Dan Donnelly’, Ireland’s unbeaten underdog and scourge of English fighters
At the Curragh 200 years ago, the Dublin pugilist was facing defeat when a kiss from his manager’s sister revived him and a legend was born
A poster celebrating Dan Donnelly.
Tthe mummified right hand of Dan Donnelly from the exhibition, entitled The Fighting Irishmen: Celebrating Celtic Prizefighters 1820 to Present. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Sir Daniel Donnelly was buried in Bully’s Acre, in the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, but not for long. Grave robbing was big business in Dublin, with the medical profession offering good money for fresh corpses in the name of research. The only human cadavers that could legally be dissected were those of executed murderers and, in a land where professors of surgery outnumbered the recently hanged by six to one, contraband corpses were a valuable commodity.
Donnelly’s friends guarded his grave to save the champion from such an indignity, but this was Dublin in the depths of winter and, as Carrick’s Morning Post reported, “the severity of the weather prompted them to make too frequent libations on the tomb of the departed champion and disabled them from perceiving or opposing those riflers of the House of Death”.
The grave robbers took Donnelly’s nicely frozen corpse to the laboratory of a Dr Hall, but then had the misfortune to discover that the medical man was a boxing aficionado. The doctor demanded that Donnelly be returned to Bully’s Acre, but reached first for his hacksaw and cut off the champion’s right arm. More about that limb later.
Fight to the finish
This story begins on the Curragh 200 years ago next Friday. On November 13th, 1815, the first major international sports event to be staged in Ireland pitted the country’s best man, Dan Donnelly, against England’s George Cooper in a fight to the finish.
The English were on a decent run. The Irish rebellion of 1798 was a mismatch, Wellington had battered Napoleon at Waterloo and George Cooper, a bargeman from Staffordshire, was 10-1 on to perform a similar job on Dan Donnelly.
Surviving accounts of the fight read like a screenplay. For sheer melodrama, it’s hard to beat Dan’s miraculous recovery after a second-round knockdown. One version of the tale, retold in the Ballad of Donnelly and Cooper, has the prostrate Dubliner on the brink of an ignoble defeat when the beautiful sister of his manager enters the scene. Miss Kelly bends down to kiss Donnelly and whispers that she has bet her brother’s entire estate on his success.
A revived Donnelly fought on, and by the 11th round it was obvious that Cooper was beaten. Donnelly put an end to it all by knocking Cooper senseless with two bludgeoning punches, the second of which broke his jaw. The victor walked to the top of what is now “Donnelly’s Hollow” to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd, and to this day his footprints are cut into the grass, maintained there by the thousands of people who walk in them each year.
It’s hard to overestimate Donnelly’s impact, and that of his victory over Cooper, on the course of Irish sports over the next 200 years. Donnelly became the nation’s first sporting idol, a heroic figure who established the tradition of the never-say-die underdog so prevalent on the back pages to this day. This is the terrain of Prof James Kelly, whose recent tome A History of Sport in Ireland 1600-1840 is a portrait of the sporting landscape in an era where blood seemed to be an essential ingredient. According to Kelly, Donnelly’s victory raised the morale of a nation.
“It was greeted in Dublin with unqualified joy, because it dovetailed with embryonic nationalist sentiment fuelled by economic disappointment and resentment at the failure of the Union parliament to concede Catholic emancipation,” he writes.
Nineteenth-century Ireland also found it highly entertaining. While Donnelly’s place in history was enshrined with his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, the sport in which he participated bore little resemblance to that practised by his fellow Irish inductees, such as Barry McGuigan. A Donnelly fight could last a minute or an entire afternoon.
A round ended when a man was unable to stand any longer and a victory was only achieved when an opponent was unconscious or dead, whichever came first.
As for the fighting itself, there were few restrictions in terms of which part of the body you could hit, or hit with. This was a long time before anyone conceived of the noble art of self-defence, which is just as well for Donnelly, who, even in an age when boxing stylists were thin on the ground, was not regarded as a great technician. His great strength was his great strength, and he was a big man for the times. At 6ft tall and more than 14 stone, he was a 19th-century giant.
Donnelly was born the ninth child in 17, a son of Dublin’s docklands. He was 12 years old when Wolfe Tone succumbed to his inevitable defeat.
His potential as a fighting man was discovered in the Dublin slums when Dan’s Barney Eastwood figure, a Capt Kelly, witnessed him saving one in a long line of damsels in distress. Kelly was one of “the Fancy”, as aristocratic prizefighting enthusiasts were known. While on a trip to England, Kelly was stung by the remarks of two pugilists who ridiculed Ireland’s reputation for producing good fighting men.
The captain became Donnelly’s patron and manager, lending him money and employing renowned Scottish trainer Capt Robert Barclay to add finesse to his natural strength and to keep him away from women and taverns.
Barclay succeeded in getting Donnelly into good enough shape to beat seasoned English fighter Tom Hall in September 1814, and the legend was born.
“Donnelly’s achievements elevated pugilism in Ireland from a faintly disreputable sport to an activity that for a time transcended the lowly social origins of its practitioners, and often brutal demeanour,” writes Kelly. “Thanks to Donnelly, the improved profile of the sport in Ireland not only encouraged well-known English pugilists to travel to Ireland with offers to take on all-comers, but also ensured that Irish fights were afforded notice that they would not previously have received.”
Donnelly took over the running of a pub in Capel Street, but he was too generous with free drinks for his growing number of friends, as well as being rather fond of sampling his own supplies.
He needed to fight again, but there wasn’t a fighter in Ireland capable of giving him a decent match. London was where the money was to be made. He took a few exhibition contests before being pitted against another leading English fighter, Tom Oliver. Once again Donnelly was the underdog, and once again he defied the odds and battered the Englishman senseless.
That was the end of Donnelly’s fighting career and, like Rocky Marciano a century and a half later, the Dubliner retired undefeated. His 3-0 record might not match the Rock from Brockton’s 49-0, but then Marciano didn’t walk away with a knighthood, as in the tantalising story recounted by Donnelly biographer Patrick Myler:
“Among the more fanciful legends that attached to Donnelly was the claim that he was knighted by the Prince Regent. It was said that, on being introduced to Donnelly, the prince remarked: ‘I am glad to meet the best man in Ireland.’ The cheeky pugilist replied: ‘I am not that, your royal highness, but I am the best in England.’ So captivated was the prince by Donnelly’s personality, we are told, that he bestowed upon him the honour of a knighthood. Regrettably, there is nothing on record to authenticate the story, but Donnelly took delight in presenting himself thereafter as ‘Sir Dan’. A five-gallon spirit jug that he kept at his public house, and is now in private ownership, has a small plaque attached that reads, ‘Sir Dan Donnelly, Irish Champion, Pill Lane, 1820’.”
By now, Donnelly was renowned more for carousing and drinking than any pugilistic achievements. According to Myler, one story of his eventual demise records that he drank “an almost incredible number of tumblers of whiskey punch at one sitting. He then swallowed half a bucket of cold water, while in a state of profuse perspiration, after the aforesaid tumblers, and burst a blood vessel and departed this life.”
Shops throughout the capital were closed for the funeral and, in the Phoenix Park, guns were fired in a salute. A public subscription raised £2,327, enough to erect a handsome table tomb with a suitable inscription, ending in the lines: “Lament the man who fought to crown your fame, / Laid prostrate Cooper, Oliver and Hall, / Yielding to none but Death, who conquers all.”
And so back to that severed right arm. The ghoulish trophy embarked on a journey that would eventually take it back to the scene of its greatest triumph. The arm that felled England’s finest found itself in Edinburgh University, where it was disinfected and lacquered and used in anatomy lessons.
It then became an exhibit in a travelling circus, before a Belfast bookmaker and landlord named “Texas” McAlevey displayed it at a pub called the Duncairn Arms. A wine merchant named Donnelly (no relation) later bought it, passing it on eventually to Jim Byrne, who owned the Hideout in Kilcullen, the nearest village to Donnelly’s Hollow.
In recent years it has travelled in the cockpit of an Aer Lingus jet to be part of an exhibition called The Fighting Irishmen in New York, a celebration of the men who dominated American and world boxing during the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
It seems fitting that the weapon that started it all, the arm that smashed George Cooper’s jaw 200 years ago, was the star attraction.