At the time of his death, Dan Donnelly was broker than Mike Tyson, but 186 years later the legendary bare-knuckle champion finally made it to Broadway.
Which is to say, part of him did.
In anticipation of an exhibit entitled “FIGHTING IRISHMEN: A Celebration of the Celtic Warrior,” due to open at New York’s Irish Arts Center next month, the curators staged a media reception at Gallagher’s Steak House in midtown Manhattan yesterday afternoon.
Dan Donnelly was the guest of honor. Or, more accurately, his right arm was.
The timing of the 3 pm event was carefully orchestrated to avoid unveiling the boxer’s mummified limb in conjunction with the busy lunchtime traffic at the onetime speakeasy at the corner of 52nd Street and Broadway.
Although the display of a human body part flown in from Ireland sufficed to bring curious members of the Fight Mob flocking to Times Square yesterday, some of us, including myself and Gerry Cooney, were on more familiar terms with the piece de resistance. Over the course of several visits to the Hideout Pub in Kilcullen over the years, I’d met up with Donnelly’s arm before.
In 1989 I had helped arrange for Cooney to make his first trip to Ireland, to serve as the spokesman for a boys’ boxing tournament Father Joe Young had arranged at Adare Manor, and we flew into Dublin for a press conference at Buswell’s Hotel. (Through a chance encounter that morning, Cooney wound up posing for a photo op with another bare-knuckle pugilist of some repute, the late Prime Minister Charles Haughey, the result of which was splayed across the front pages of several newspapers the next morning.)
On the day we were leaving for Limerick, we’d arranged for a taxi-man friend, Brendan Freeman, to drive Cooney around on a sightseeing trip. It was Finbar Furey who insisted that Freeman take Cooney to the Hideout “to visit Dan Donnelly’s arm.”
Following that introduction, I’d stopped off in Kilcullen on several occasions, usually to surprise visiting American friends. I also recall the wonderment of my six-year-old daughter upon her first encounter with what she called “The Giant’s Arm” – although, contrary to legend, Dan’s reach wasn’t inordinately great, and his arm probably no longer than my own.
(During the tenure of Donnelly’s appendage at the Hideout, it was displayed alongside a vaguely simian caricature of the decedent, accompanied by the claim that Dan’s arms were of such extraordinary length that “he could button his knee breeches without stooping.”)
Having appropriated Steve Collins’ Nom de Ring, the Irish Art Center exhibit is also supposed to include everything from John L. Sullivan’s punch-bag to Jack Dempsey’s sports coat, Cooney’s ring robe, and John Duddy’s trunks. Liam Neeson, a familiar figure at ringside when he’s in town for New York boxing shows, is nominally the chairman, while the actual exhibition has been curated by Jim Houlihan, who persuaded Josephine Byrne (the widow of the late publican Jim Byrne, who owned the Hideout and, hence, Dan’s arm) to bring the much-traveled relic on its first visit to America.
The legend of how the mummified right arm came to repose a few miles from what is still known as ‘Donnelly’s Hollow’ at the Curragh remains a tangled tale, but by most accounts, Donnelly’s corpse was “Burked” shortly after its internment, and spirited off to the medical college at Edinburgh University.
When a few of his friends learned of this fate, they set sail to Scotland in an effort to retrieve his remains, but by the time they arrived Dan had already been dissected, and they returned with what was left – his right arm. For nearly two centuries the appendage served as the centerpiece of traveling carnivals and medicine shows, and was later put on display in pubs from Belfast to Kildare.
Turning the mummified arm into a souvenir might seem a grisly exercise, but is it really any more grotesque than, say, preserving Einstein’s brain? (The last we heard, Albert’s cranium was still pickled in a mason jar somewhere in Kansas.)
As every Irish schoolboy should know (although, in our experience, startlingly few actually do), Dan Donnelly was the first Irish-born heavyweight champion of Britain, in an era in which the claimant to that title was the de facto heavyweight champion of the world.
Donnelly’s two most celebrated bouts took place at the Curragh of Kildare. In the first, in 1814, he defeated Tom Hall from the Isle of Wight for a prize of 100 sovereigns, with upwards of 20,000 spectators on hand.
At Donnelly’s Hollow a year later he knocked out George Cooper in eleven rounds. Then, in 1818, Donnelly traveled to London, where he defeated the English champion Tom Oliver at Crawley Hurst. Over 100,000 pounds is said to have changed hands that day, and Dan was subsequently knighted by the Prince Regent (later King George IV), who became his patron.
Donnelly’s fame was such that he was ‘presented’ with no fewer than four Dublin pubs, but his celebrity status apparently went to his head, and he had become his own best customer by the time he died in 1820 at the age of 32.
According to accounts of the day, Donnelly’s funeral procession through the streets of Dublin was witnessed by 80,000 men, women, and children. He was buried in the Bully Acre at Kilmainham, only to be spirited away by the grave-robbers less than 24 hours later, thus setting in motion a chain of events that would lead Dan, or at least part of Dan, to debut on Broadway yesterday.
(Special thanks to The Irish Times)