The birthplace of the modern prize ring may have been England, but fighting is a birthright of the Irish and part of their patrimony. Boxing has long drawn its participants from those clinging to the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder – a position familiar to the Celtic people for centuries during their sojourn in the violent and vexing Northern climes.
So the Irish fought – with fists, guns or bombs – to improve their lot and somehow better their chances in the lottery of life.
The Irish viewed boxing as an equal opportunity employer. At home or abroad, sons of the Emerald Isle sought the ring to determine their destinies with their own hands. English landlords may have owned their land, but Irish fighters could at least win back their pride in a prize fight. On American shores, when seeking employment in the land of opportunity, they may have encountered signs that read “No Irish Need Apply.” That slogan, however, did not apply to the fight game. An Irishman could punish an Englishman or a Know-Nothing inside a boxing ring and instead of getting arrested, they were applauded. No other public stage offered them the opportunity to flaunt their identity the way boxing did.
An exhibit called “Fighting Irishmen: A Celebration of Celtic Warrios” at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan celebrates that identity. On display are artifacts from the premiere Irish fighters of the last century.
In the latter part of the 19th Century, the success of John L. Sullivan and the popularity of middleweight champ Jack “The Nonpareil” Dempsey (no relation to the future heavyweight champ of the same name) inspired many young Irishmen to pursue boxing. In turn, their success inspired boxing promoters, already a devious lot, to convince fighters of other ethnic backgrounds to adopt Irish names. It was a tradition that was practiced well into the first half of the 20th Century. Thus, Norman Selby won the middleweight title as Kid McCoy, Vincent Morris Scheer captured the junior welterweight crown as Mushy Callahan, Ovila Chapdelaine became a light heavyweight champ by the name of Jack Delaney and Joseph Cukoschay joined the distinguished list of “Irish” heavyweight champions as Jack Sharkey.
The exhibit officially opened with a gala reception on Sept. 19. Approximately 250 people attended, including Irish Assistant Consul General David Healy, Jay Tunney (son of Gene Tunney), the family of Billy Graham, Charlie Sharkey (nephew of Sailor Tom Sharkey), boxing historians Steve Lott and Mike Silver, actor Thomas Cavanagh and Father Joseph M. McShane, President of Fordham University.
(TheSweetScience.com’s Cassidy clan was also well-represented at the event.)
“Everyone loved the exhibit,” said Jim Houlihan, the exhibit’s curator. “We couldn't have asked for a more positive response.” Among the items on display are John L. Sullivan's punching bag and Jack Dempsey's sports coat. There are fight-worn trunk, gloves and robes from the premiere Irish fighters of the last 100 years.
But the most interesting item is certainly the mummified right arm of bare-knuckle champion Dan Donnelly, which is on loan from the Byrne family of Ireland. (It should be duly noted that TheSweetScience.com’s own “Irish” Bobby Cassidy, a southpaw, offered to donate his left arm to Houlihan so the exhibit could have a matching set. No news on the negotiations.)
“I think it's probably one of the oldest and most unique pieces of sports memorabilia,” said Houlihan of Donnelly’s arm. “People who are knowledgeable about boxing have heard about the arm. But to the uninitiated, they think you are kidding until you explain the story.”
The story goes like this. Donnelly became the pride of Ireland in 1815 after he defeated British champion George Cooper in 11 rounds in a grassy meadow near Kilcullen, Ireland. A stone monument stands at the site, which is now known as Donnelly's Hollow.
The fighter was toasted in pubs all over the auld sod and the extended binge may have contributed to his death at the age of 32 in 1820. The era also happened to be the heyday of grave robbing and thus days after his interment, Donnelly went missing.
According to legend, an attempt was made to sell the cadaver to a local physician but he must have been a boxing fan and ordered the body returned. He did, however, keep a souvenir. He severed Donnelly's right arm – the one used to knock out Cooper – at the shoulder. Over the years the arm was owned by a medical college in Edinburgh, Scotland, a traveling circus and a Belfast bookmaker. Finally it wound up with Desmond Byrne, who proudly has displayed the arm in his pub since 1953.
“We have some old and rare stuff, but this is the rarest item we'll have, that's for sure,” Houlihan said. “We needed a special permit to get it out of Ireland. It's a national treasure.”
Josephine Byrne and other members of the Byrne family (they loaned Donnelly's arm to the exhibit) also attended the opening. In a special tribute, Colm Brennan, sang, in Gaelic, a song which was dedicated to Donnelly back in 1815.
The exhibit runs Nov. 30, Mon-Fri 10-4 or by special appoint. The Irish Arts Center is located at 553 W, 51st between 10th and 11th Aves. For more information, call: 212-757-3318