Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Legend of Dan Donnelly: Ireland’s Unbeaten Heavyweight Champion

By Peter Silkov

Throughout boxing’s deep and storied history, the Irish have for a long time figured prominently as one of the great fighting nations who have produced, in various shapes and weights, countless outstanding fighters and champions. The legendary Dan Donnelly is one of Ireland’s earliest and certainly most enduring heroes. He was a bare-knuckle fighter whose exploits, both in and out of the ring, made him a hero throughout Ireland, at a time when Ireland desperately needed a hero. 

Rumour has it that Donnelly was born upon St Patrick’s Day in 1788, which would have been very fitting in Dublin Ireland.  Donnelly was born into poverty, one of 17 children, and the son of a carpenter who was often sick and out of work. Like the majority of the people around him, life for Donnelly and his siblings was a hand to mouth existence. Despite this harsh upbringing, Donnelly developed into an imposing physical specimen, standing just less than 6 foot and weighing around 196 pounds.  Legend has it that Donnelly had a freakishly long reach, with hands that reached down to his knees. The truth of this has never been fully substantiated, but one of Donnelly’s arms would later become a legend all on its own.

As a youth, Donnelly followed his father into carpentry, and seemed destined for an unremarkable, humdrum existence, like those around him. Yet, Donnelly’s size and personality marked him out early on as something a bit special. He was a charismatic individual, who enjoyed socializing, had many friends and admirers, even before he had found fame with his bare fists.

Donnelly also got into regular fistfights on the streets of Dublin. Such street fighting between young men who had drunk more than their fill was commonplace in Donnelly’s time (as it is now), but Donnelly showed unusual strength and ability in these tussles, amd soon gained a reputation as a formidable fighter. Although, it was also said by some people that he would only fight when provoked by someone or something he had seen. Indeed, Donnelly seems to have been quite the romantic hero from very early on in his adult life, and stories abound of him going to the aid of damsels in distress, and intervening when gangs are on the rampage. Donnelly gained the reputation as someone who stood up to bullies and toughs. Long before he had even fought a professional fight, the people of Dublin looked upon him as a hero, as his reputation grew with every tale of his most recent valiant exploit. There may be a question hanging over the truth behind some of these early tales of Donnelly, after all, the art of embellishment and story telling is no where stronger than in the Emerald Isle. At the same time, there’s no denying that there must have been something special about young Dan Donnelly for him to gain such attention that he would have stories told about him from such an early age.

Soon Donnelly had gained the attention of two fervent sponsors of prize fighting, fellow Irishman Captain Kelly, and Captain Barclay, a Scot. Together, the two captains persuaded Donnelly to channel the fistic prowess that he was using almost nightly for free, into a professional arena where he could be handsomely paid for it.

During this time in late 1814, there happened to be a troupe of English boxers touring Ireland. The most formidable boxer within the troupe was Tom Hall, who had recently gained notability by beating George Cribb, the brother of the Heavyweight champion of England Tom Cribb. Soon arrangements were made for Hall and Donnelly to meet.  The fight took place on September 14, 1814, at the Curragh, in County Kildare, which was famous for both the breeding of racehorses and the innumerable prizefights that would take place there. The spot known as “Belcher’s Hollow,” was a natural hollow around which a crowd would form to watch the two bare-fisted contestants fight it out in the 22 foot square base that would be roped off in order to form a ring. This is where a huge crowd of 20,000 people came to watch Donnelly take part in his first official prizefight.

The fight itself ended controversially in the 15th round. Hall, finding himself overpowered the longer the fight went on, had taken to falling down without being hit in order to end each round (prize ring rules of the day being that a round ended only when one of the contestants hit the deck.) This tactic of Hall’s, though valid in some ways under the rules of the time, drew more and more frustration from Donnelly. In the 15th round, when Hall again fell onto his knees without taking a blow, an enraged Donnelly hit him square on the ear, bringing forth a torrent of blood.  At this time, Hall’s seconds jumped into the ring declaring that Donnelly had committed a foul, and demanded that the Irishman be disqualified. The referee, however, perhaps mindful of where he was, or rather just not a fan of Hall’s tactics, declared that he would not disqualify Donnelly, and that Hall himself deserved to lose for repeatedly going down without being hit. With Hall refusing to fight on, an impasse was reached, culminating in both sides claiming victory.  Hall’s backers and the English writers claimed that Donnelly had lost on a foul due to his hitting Hall while he was down. Donnelly’s supporters saw it completely the other way, with Donnelly being the rightful winner due to Hall’s refusal to fight on. Ireland had a new, much needed hero. This was a time when Ireland was still coming to terms with the consequences of the “Act of Union,” which had basically reduced Ireland to just a leaderless pawn in the English pocket. Donnelly’s win over a highly ranked English fighter, such as Hall, was seen as a huge blow back against the ever more powerful English imperialists. Donnelly had given England a bloody nose with his victory and was hailed all over Ireland as their champion.

Fifteen months later, Donnelly faced England’s George Cooper, a fighter highly regarded in England, who felt that his experience and skill would be far too much for the raw and inexperienced Irishman. The fight took place on December 13, 1815, once more at the Curragh, but with Belcher’s Hollow now renamed Donnelly’s Hollow, in tribute to Dan’s victory over Tom Hall. Again, it was as if the whole of Ireland had converged on the Curragh to see their champion in action. Cooper at 168 pounds was outweighed by about 20 pounds, but in a fight that was fiercely contested from the start, he made good use of his superior experience and skill, at times making Donnelly’s aggressive rushes look crude and foolish.  However, by the 7th round, Donnelly’s superior strength and endurance began to tell, and he slowly began to take control of the fighting.  Finally, in the 11th round, Donnelly landed a huge right hand that smashed against Cooper’s mouth, lifted him off his feet, and sent him sprawling senseless onto his back.  Donnelly had been victorious once more.  The spectators (except for those who had come over from England to support Cooper) were besides themselves with joy and adulation, and as Donnelly victoriously made his way back to a waiting carriage, a handful of his fans followed in his wake and dug out the imprint of every footstep that he took. Almost 200 years later these almost mythical footsteps, which have been named “The Steps to Strength and Fame” can still be seen in Donnelly’s Hollow.

Donnelly’s standing and celebrity now reached such a height that it was on a par with something akin to what today’s rock stars might expect to experience. Every man wanted to be his friend and buy him a drink and every woman wanted to be something a little bit more. Donnelly, generous and sociable by nature, found it hard to turn either offer down, and with his new friends, money inevitably ran out (as it invariably did, quite quickly.) Donnelly thought nothing of buying drinks for everyone, friend and stranger alike. Soon the money that Donnelly had been paid from his fights was all gone, spent almost quicker than the time it took to earn. Like so many others, both before and after him, who had grown up in similarly poverty stricken backgrounds, Donnelly was to fall victim to the overwhelming trappings of his success.

Needing money due to his every increasing prolificacy, Donnelly toured England in 1819 with Jack Carter boxing exhibitions. The exhibitions were very successful, drawing large crowds wherever they went, but Donnelly spent his money as quickly as it was handed to him. On July 21, 1819, Donnelly fought Tom Oliver, another highly rated Englishman. This hard fought battle took place in a ring on Crawley Hurst, a few miles outside of London. Once more, Donnelly’s exceptional fortitude and strength saw him come through another grueling epic, and he was finally victorious after 34 rounds, essentially rendering his opponent senseless.

Prince Regent Image:
Rumours abound that sometime before, or after this contest, Donnelly met the Prince Regent, later to be George IV.  The Prince is said to have remarked, “I am delighted to meet the best man in Ireland” to which Donnelly replied, “Not in Ireland, your Royal Highness, I’m the best in England.” The story goes that the Prince was so impressed by this brash, yet, charismatic Irishman, that he knighted him on the spot.

While the truth about this supposed knighthood may never be known, what is undeniable is that the adulation of Donnelly in Ireland. Even in parts of England, where he had made an impression wherever he roamed, his celebrity had reached even more heights that are extraordinary. Poems and songs were dedicated to him at an almost alarming rate. The great Tom Cribb was still the Heavyweight champion of the whole of Britain at this time, and a match between Cribb and Donnelly would surely have been a ‘natural’ and a huge spectacle no matter wherever it took place.  Unfortunately, it never happened.  It is true, Cribb had been inactive a long time by 1819, and would fight only once more before retiring, and it is possible that he did not fancy facing the burly Irishman. The truth behind this non-fight we will never really know, but what is known, is the tragic direction that Donnelly’s life took after he defeated Tom Oliver.

Donnelly never fought again. Feted and admired wherever he went, Donnelly’s life fell into a pool of constant carousing from bar to bar. His money was soon gone again and his excesses were soon taking a visible physical toll upon him. Within a matter of months of the Oliver victory, Donnelly was reduced to begging for money from friends and former backers, as the once huge procession of hangers-on melted away from their dissipated hero.  In February 1820, Donnelly staggered alone from a Dublin bar and collapsed unconscious outside, where he lay in the rain all night. The next morning he was found, soaked to the skin, and shivering.  Pneumonia set in, and a few days later on February 18, 1820, Ireland’s undefeated heavyweight champion was dead.

As often happens with such fallen heroes, Donnelly’s death brought forth a huge outpouring of grief and tributes. An estimated 70,000 people lined the streets of Dublin to watch, grim faced, as Donnelly’s hearse proceeded slowly on, followed by carts and carriages covered in flowers. Donnelly’s death even inspired a eulogy by the famed poet and prize-fighting fan, Lord Byron.

However, Donnelly’s story and legend was not over yet. Just hours after he had been buried at Bully's Acre, Donnelly’s body was dug up and removed from his coffin, by the kind of grave snatchers that were prevalent at the time. When the loss of Donnelly’s body became public knowledge, the whole of Dublin was in an uproar, with people rioting, as they demanded the return of their hero’s remains. Eventually, amid all of the uproar, an eminent Dublin surgeon, Doctor Hall, spoke up and confessed that two students had delivered the body to him for scientific research, but claimed that he had not been aware of the corpse’s identity and would rebury it himself. The truth is more likely that Dr. Hall knew very well the identity of the body being delivered to him, and that he had Donnelly snatched from his resting place ’to order’, but had not been ready for the outpouring of rage and fury that the deed had provoked.  Although Dr. Hall did indeed rebury Donnelly in his grave, it is unlikely that his followers were aware that he had been replaced into his coffin minus his right arm.

Whether this annexation of Donnelly’s right arm was an act of defiance on the good doctor’s part, or simply due to him being overwhelmed by the medical fascination of the arm that had made Donnelly a feted and undefeated fighter throughout all of Ireland, we will never know. Eager to hide his grisly acquisition, Dr. Hall sent Dan’s right arm over to Scotland, where for almost 50 years it was studied by medical students at Edinburgh University. When the mummified limb, now black and stiff, was no longer of any use for research, it was sold to a Victorian circus, and for years earned the circus’s proprietor a small fortune as it was displayed upon countless tours of England.  Then in 1904, a Belfast publican and bookmaker Hugh “Texas” Mcalevey brought the arm and displayed it for some years in his bar. Eventually, feeling that the blackened and shriveled limb was keeping customers away, Mcalevey put the arm upstairs in his loft, where it stayed for nearly 20 years until his death in the late 1940s.

Upon Mcalevey’s death, Dan’s arm was rediscovered by wine merchant Tom Donnelly (no relative to Dan it seems) who in turn passed it on to Kilcullen publican Jim Bryne, in 1953, who put it on display in his bar “The Hideout,” which was situated just a mile from the site of Donnelly’s famous triumph over Cooper.
Donnelly’s arm became a popular attraction and Bryne even organized a reenactment of Donnelly’s famous encounter with George Cooper.

Donnelly’s right arm remained on show at the Hideout in pride of place, for over 50 years, as the pub was passed on to Bryne’s son upon his death.  Then, when Bryne’s son decided to sell the pub, Donnelly’s arm found its way to New York in 2006, as one of the main attractions of the “Fighting Irishmen” exhibition, at The Irish Arts Centre.

The arm returned to Ireland in 2009 and is regularly one of the feature attractions at various boxing themed exhibitions.  Despite legends to the contrary, all known studies of Donnelly’s right arm seem to point to the conclusion that his arms were of normal length for a man of his size. Dan Donnelly is still celebrated as one of Ireland’s most enduring heroes and figures in Irish folklore.

Today an imposing stone monument, which was renovated by public subscription in 1953, stands in the centre of “Donnelly's Hollow” at the site of his famous victories over Tom Hall and George Cooper, beside the famous footsteps that he took following his conquering of Cooper.


Almost 200 years since his death, Donnelly is still a hero to many an Irishman.  He was a fighter, even if only for a short time, through his fistic exploits, that gave England a bloody nose, and in doing so gave renewed hope to the whole Irish nation.

Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and

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1 comment:

  1. OT: The world is all eyes and ears for May 2. The PacquiaoVsMayweather Megafight will be epic, that's for sure!