The Long Arm of Dan Donnelly Doc of the Week

The Long Arm of Dan Donnelly

He was the first heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Long before belts, associations or even proper rules, Dan Donnelly was widely acclaimed as the finest pugilist of his day. Born in Dublin in 1788, his exploits made him both the darling of the Regency classes and a potent symbol for Irish nationalism. This is his remarkable story. eir sport 1, Sat, Oct 7th 08.25

Donnelly only ever had three ‘official’ fights but it was enough to seal a towering reputation that has echoed down through the ages. Such remains his standing as one of the sport’s true legends that he was inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2008. Not bad for a carpenter’s son from Dublin’s docklands!

Raised in poverty, Donnelly was one of 17 children. He followed his father into the carpentry trade but, like him, he was fond of a few drinks and developed a taste for whiskey from an early age. In his later years he never went to bed without having a bottle within arm’s reach. A man with more than his fair share of bad habits – he was a notorious womaniser as well - it is remarkable he achieved what he did in such a short life.

Well-known throughout the city, Donnelly never courted trouble but quickly established a reputation as a man who could look after himself. It invoked the envy of Dublin’s unofficial boxing champion who began to follow him from pub to pub demanding a fight. Donnelly refused to be provoked at first, but eventually relented and agreed to a contest on the banks of the Grand Canal. He tried to talk his opponent out of it right up until the first bell but to no avail. He subsequently won the fight and was crowned city champion.

His exploits brought him to the attention of one Captain William Kelly who, upon overhearing some English boxers dismissing Ireland as a country with no fighting men worth talking about, decided to arrange a match between Donnelly and Tom Hall, the English champion of the time. The scene was set for Belcher’s Hollow, a natural amphitheatre near the army barracks on the Curragh in November 1814. More than 20,000 spectators converged by whatever means they could to view proceedings. Hall drew first blood, but Donnelly’s strength eventually wore the English champion down and he was declared the winner after Hall refused to continue. He had ‘bloodied the English nose’ – it made him a national hero overnight.

Cooper’s challenge

But Donnelly quickly drank away the considerable purse he earned from his victory over Hall and was soon broke again. When George Cooper, another leading English fighter, challenged him to a bout, he jumped at the chance. The match was set for November 13th 1815, once again in Belcher’s Hollow. Britain was riding high following Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo that summer. The Irish nationalists saw this as a chance to take them down a peg or two!

It was billed as the biggest fight in boxing history. Once again, the crowd exceeded 20,000, all desperately baying for a Donnelly victory. But things didn’t go well in the early stages as Cooper dominated. Legend has it that Captain Kelly’s sister slipped him a lump of sugar cane to revive him at the end of the fifth round, pleading in his ear that she had bet her entire estate on his success. Whatever she said or did, it seemed to work and Donnelly fought like a new man from then on, eventually finishing the fight in the eleventh with a single blow which smashed Cooper’s jaw.

The crowd were ecstatic and traced his footsteps back to the main road, digging out mounds of earth where he had walked that are still visible today. The location was renamed ‘Donnelly’s Hollow’ in his honour and a small obelisk would later be erected denoting the site where the contest had taken place.

He bought a pub with his winnings which wasn’t a very good idea. It proved unsuccessful as he spent most of the time drinking with his customers. His final fight came in July 1819 when he travelled to England to defeat Tom Oliver in a gruelling bout that lasted 34 rounds.

Long arm

He died less than a year later in February 1820 at the age of just 32 after, if the rumours are to be believed, a serious whiskey binge. Such was his fame that shops throughout Dublin remained closed for the funeral and guns were fired in salute in Phoenix Park. A public collection raised £2,327 to erect a tomb with an inscription that ended: “Lament the man who fought to crown your fame, Laid prostrate Cooper, Oliver and Hall, Yielding to none but Death, who conquers all.”

He was buried at Bully’s Acre in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. But he didn’t lie undisturbed for long despite the fact that his friends had set a watch by the burial site. It was the age of the grave robber, with the medical profession offering good money for fresh corpses. With his friends otherwise engaged in a local hostelry, the thieves removed Donnelly’s body to a certain Dr Hall in the city. But he turned out to be a boxing fan and ordered them to return it at once. Before they did so, however, he took a hacksaw and removed the champion’s right arm. It eventually found its way to Edinburgh University where it was disinfected, lacquered and used in anatomy lessons for many years. It later became an exhibit in a travelling circus before finally being given to the owner of ‘The Hideout’ pub in Kilcullen, Co. Kildare, the nearest village to Donnelly’s Hollow.

There it still sits proudly for all to see – the long arm of Dan Donnelly, the arm that ‘bloodied the English nose’, the arm of the first heavyweight champion of the world.

Images: INPHO

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