By Ron Jackson
One of the most enduring boxing legends is the one of a famous fighter whose preserved right arm was still exhibited nearly two centuries after his death. It is part of the story of an Irishman, Dan Donnelly, whose exploits in the days of bare-knuckle fighting made him a folk hero in the early 19th century. Among the many legends surrounding Donnelly was that the Prince Regent awarded him a knighthood. The fascinating story of Dan Donnelly can now be read in Patrick Myler’s follow-up to his first book on Donnelly, Regency Rogue – Dan Donnelly, his Life and Legends, published in 1976. Titled Dan Donnelly 1788-1820 – Pugilist, Publican, Playboy the new book is a 200-page paperback, published by Lilliput Press, Dublin.
Myler, a boxing correspondent, also wrote The Fighting Irish: Ireland’s Role in World Boxing History (1987) and A Century of Boxing Greats (2000).
When he first wrote Donnelly’s biography in 1976, Myler set out to separate fact and fiction, explaining why the idol of the poor also won widespread admiration among members of the upper class.
Writing the new book, he tried to present an honest appraisal of Donnelly’s life. In doing so, he also exposed some of the legends about Donnelly.
During his original research into Donnelly’s life, Myler failed to find any living descendants. However, several members of the wider Donnelly family from outside Ireland later made contact with the author, enabling him to fill some of the gaps.
Donnelly was probably born in Townsend Street, in the docklands area of Dublin, in 1788. He was the seventh of ninth children of a Dublin carpenter.
He was reluctantly launched into prize fighting when he, as a youngster, beat up a bullying sailor in a pub.
Unfortunately, Donnelly’s private life did not match his fighting skills. Through heavy drinking, he lost four pubs. Yet he was admired by aristocrats as much as he was by the poor.
When he died in 1820, newspapers reported his age as between 32 and 44. According to the original inscription on a monument in Donnelly’s Hollow on the Curragh of Kildare, about 50 km from Dublin, he was born in 1770.
When a new tablet was installed, the year of his birth was changed to the more widely accepted 1788.
Donnelly died on February 18, 1820. On the day of his funeral, shops and other businesses closed for the day.
As the funeral procession made it way to Bully’s Acre at Kilmainham, en estimated 80 000 people watched.
On the bitterly cold morning of February 21, the grave lay wide open. The body had been taken away. It was traced, according to stories handed down, to the premises of a prominent Dublin surgeon.
He was warned that unless he agreed to have the corpse reburied he would take the late Irish champion’s place. He had no choice. The body was reburied but the doctor had secretly cut off the right arm and shipped it to Scotland.
For many years, the preserved limb was kept at Edinburgh University, where it may have been used by anatomical students.
The arm probably “survived” for nearly 200 years because it had been immersed in a tank of alcohol and given a coat of varnish.
It was later passed on to the owner of a travelling circus who exhibited it around the country until 1904. It was then returned to Ireland, where Hugh “Texas” McAlevey, a Belfast publican, put it on display in a glass case at The Duncairn Arms.
McAlevey later hid it in the attic of his bookmaker’s shop. After his death, the attic was cleared out and the arm came into the possession of a Belfast wine merchant, Tom Donnelly, who was not related to famous fighter.
In 1953, Jim Byrne Jr, owner of the Hideout pub in Kilcullen, County Kildare, took ownership of the arm, seeing the commercial benefits of linking his premises to the legend of Dan Donnelly.
The site of the fighter’s famous victory over Englishman George Cooper on December 13, 1815, was only 3.2 km from the Hideout.
Byrne arranged for a re-enactment of the fight at Donnelly’s Hollow and at the same time exhibited the arm in a showcase in his pub.
A large painting of Donnelly adorned the wall of the pub, with a caption that claimed Donnelly’s arms were so long that he could button his knee-breeches without stooping.
This was a myth. The preserved arm was not of abnormal length. It matched that of man of just over 1.83m – Donnelly’s height.
The arm was exhibited until the pub was sold by Des Byrne, son of the late Jim Byrne. Since Des died in 2006 his widow, Josephine, has kept the arm in private ownership.
Some years ago, I visited the The Hideout to view the arm and walked around Dan Donnelly’s Hollow where his historic fight against Cooper took place.
Myler has done a wonderful job of updating and re-telling the story of Dan Donnelly.