Fighting Irish

Dan Donnelly, pugilist

I have always had a weakness for the Regency period, and a dilettantish interest in dangerous exertion. In Regency Rogue (1976), Patrick Myler tells the story of Dan Donnelly (1788?-1820), one of the most renowned of the bare-knuckle boxers, a sport intimately associated with that rakish period. “No other man”, observes the author, “who ever stepped into a roped square…is so well feted in story, in legend or in song”.

Donnelly was the ninth of seventeen children of a Dublin carpenter, who became famous very young by beating up a sailor who had insulted his father. He then beat noted pugilists, and developed a reputation as a chivalric fighter, and defender of the weak. He came to the attention of the leaders of the sometimes lethal sport, from England’s Jack Broughton and Tom Cribb to the black American, Tom Molyneux. The boxing historian Pierce Egan wrote in his classic Boxiana (1818) of the Irishman’s “prodigious strength, no lack of courage [and] good knowledge of the science”. Pugilism was hugely fashionable, nicknamed “The Fancy”, and followed by Lord Byron and the Prince Regent, who it was claimed had secretly ‘knighted’ Donnelly for his abilities. Donnelly’s 1815 opponent, the Staffordshire bargeman George Cooper, is thought to have been the inspiration for George Borrow’s gypsy fighter, The Flaming Tinman, in The Romany Rye.

Although Donnelly only fought three major fights, one lasting an astonishing thirty-four rounds, he won them all, and legends clustered around him. Despite being almost as famous for drinking as for fighting – one English critic claimed that Donnelly’s idea of training for a fight was to limit himself to no more than twenty-five glasses of whisky a day – he became a focus for Irish nationalist sentiment. After one fight, the outlines of his footprints were cut into the ground by the adoring crowd, and they can still be seen in the Curragh.

His arms were popularly said to be so long that he could tie his breech knee ribbons without bending down. When he died, his body was dug up by body-snatchers and sold to a surgeon, who amputated his arm (in truth, no longer than proportionate for a six-footer) before returning the remainder of the corpse for reburial. The arm was later used by medical students for anatomy lessons, then went through a succession of curio dealers and betting shop owners, before spending several decades displayed over a bar in Kildare. Between 2006 and 2011, it was on show in New York and Boston before coming back to Kildare, where it is looked after by the descendants of the bar owner. It is a powerful artefact of a colourful and violent kingdom, the underbelly of the era of Jane Austen.

This review first appeared in Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

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