Danno O’Mahony: Ballydehob’s world champion wrestler

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2008), Volume 16

A 1936 publicity photo of Danno O’Mahony, signed by the man himself.

A 1936 publicity photo of Danno O’Mahony, signed by the man himself.

Danno O’Mahony was born on 29 September 1912 to Daniel and Susan O’Mahony at the family farm in Dreenlomane, Ballydehob, Co. Cork. He had six brothers and one sister. The parish priest was astonished when baptising Danno, saying that he was the strongest child he’d ever seen. As a boy he was abnormally large and strong, which was very useful on the farm.
At thirteen Danno left school to help on the family farm. He also hired himself out to work on neighbouring farms and on road maintenance jobs. While still in his teens Danno became known for his athletic ability. When he was twenty years old he won the Cork county championship for throwing the 56lb weight in Macroom.
After the death of his mother in 1933, Danno and his brother Flor enlisted in the national army. They soon went to the Curragh in Kildare to attend an army training camp. Both of them were extremely strong and soon became known throughout the camp for their sporting abilities and strength. Danno, however, was stronger than Flor and soon broke many army records with the 56lb weight and other weights. The records he set remained unbeaten until the late 1990s, almost 70 years later. As part of his army training he also participated in wrestling and boxing, often against his brother, who was his nearest equal.

‘A young wrestler who could beat the world’
Six months into his army career Danno was discovered by Jack McGrath, a wrestling promoter who was looking for ‘a young wrestler who could beat the world’. He quickly signed Danno up and secured his release from the army. Danno didn’t want to leave Flor alone but was told to go with Jack and become a famous professional wrestler with good pay. Jack was pleased that Danno had some experience in wrestling, and after some training in London Danno had his first fight against Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis in London’s Stadium Club on 6 December 1934. Lewis had been world champion four times in eleven years and was one of the most famous and respected wrestlers of his time. Danno did well to draw with this legendary opponent, who was expected to win easily and quickly. After this Danno had two more minor wrestling matches, which he won easily. Realising the extent of Danno’s strength and ability, McGrath then took him to the USA, where he believed he could have a good career.
In America Danno met Paul Bowser, who liked his wrestling skills and signed him up to a five-year contract worth $100,000. Jack McGrath would be Danno’s manager, and his arrival was publicised among the Irish-American population by Bowser. At the time every wrestler had his own signature move, and while training with McGrath Danno developed what was to become known as ‘the Irish Whip’. In his first fight on 4 January 1935 Danno defeated Ernie Dusak. Over the next year and a half Danno eliminated all other claimants to the world title—Rudy Dusek, Lewis (again), Jim Londos, ‘Jumping’ Joe Savoldi, Sonnenberg, Chief Little Wolf, King Clancy, Steel and Jim Browning.

Danno tops the bill at New York’s Madison Square Garden in April 1935.

Danno tops the bill at New York’s Madison Square Garden in April 1935.

Danno wins the world title
Finally there was only one man standing between Danno and the world title, Ed Don George, a former title-winner himself (in 1931), hoping to win again. The venue for this spectacular title fight was Braves Field, Boston, and over 60,000 fans crowded in to watch it on 30 July 1935. The referee was none other than Jimmy Braddock, the reigning world heavyweight boxing champion, nicknamed ‘Cinderella Man’.
The clever members of the crowd gathered as early as six o’clock, and as time passed it was easy to see why. By eight o’clock there were thousands of people waiting to either buy tickets or get in with pre-booked tickets; because so many people were travelling by car there were massive traffic jams, some nearly a mile long. It is estimated that the box office took in over $70,000. The police were out in their hundreds in case of riots or fights after the match. Danno was first to come to the ring, a whole ten minutes earlier than George. Both were given lengthy cheers when they first came out with their escorts. Danno’s was, of course, Jack McGrath, his manager and friend, while George’s manager was Frank Dellamano. Then came the referee, Braddock, and then the pre-fight pictures were taken. After this the fight began.
Nothing much happened in the first 30 minutes as George kept avoiding the Irish Whip. Then George took advantage and it looked as if he would win. Danno was thrown twice from the ring. The second time the referee started the count to 20 and George began to celebrate, thinking that Danno wouldn’t get up. Danno, however, had other ideas; he jumped back into the ring and into action. He threw George from the ring; thinking he had already won, George stayed down, pretending to be injured. If he had already won and Danno had attacked him Danno would have been either suspended or fined, but he hadn’t and the referee had counted to 20 by the time he returned to the ring. He was furious when he saw Danno’s hand raised in victory by Braddock. A riot ensued. Some of George’s squad rushed into the ring and attacked Braddock, but Braddock, being a professional boxer, was more than able for them. It took more than fifteen minutes to calm everything down and then Danno O’Mahony was announced as the winner, presented with the diamond-studded belt and declared the heavyweight all-in wrestling champion of the world.
The year was 1935 and Danno, aged 22, having only begun wrestling two years previously, was the undisputed wrestling champion of the world. In Ballydehob on the night of Danno’s win there were celebrations all over, with bonfires, street music and plenty of drink.

Triumphant return to Ireland

The life-sized statue of Danno O’Mahony erected in the centre of Ballydehob in 2001.

The life-sized statue of Danno O’Mahony erected in the centre of Ballydehob in 2001.

Danno, along with his manager Jack McGrath and his wife Esther, set sail from Boston for Cobh, Co. Cork, on 18 July 1936 aboard the liner Scythia. Upon his arrival he was welcomed by thousands of admirers. People flocked from all the neighbouring towns and villages to welcome their Cork hero; even the lord mayor of Cork turned out, an indication of the importance of the occasion. The 50-mile journey back to his hometown of Ballydehob became a motorcar procession. All the inhabitants of every town they passed through on the journey came out to cheer them on and to welcome Danno home. Late that night they arrived in Ballydehob, but the lateness of the hour would not keep the ecstatic and proud residents of the town from welcoming and congratulating their hero.
This was also Danno and Esther’s honeymoon, and the next day they went on a tour of the local area in a motorcar. Danno showed her his former school, introduced her to some old friends and met the parish priest. A few days later they were invited to the residence of the lord mayor of Cork, where Esther was presented with a Tara brooch and a silver tea set. Danno next visited his old army training camp at the Curragh. He participated in many sports events that the locals had set up to demonstrate his strength, and he even beat his old records, which he had set as a teenager.
On 30 September 1936 Danno and Esther left for America after spending over three months in Ireland. Before he left he promised his family that he would retire from wrestling after another two years and then return to Ballydehob forever. When Danno returned to the USA he defended his title a few times before facing Steve Casey, another Irishman, from Sneem, Co. Kerry. Steve and his family had moved to London and one night, while working as a bouncer at a night club, he was seen throwing a troublemaker over a taxi by two wrestling promoters. They decided to take him to the gym and soon Bowser, who was always in the market for an Irish wrestler, took him on and he was brought to Boston, where he won his first match and became very popular, just like Danno.
On 20 July 1937 Casey and Danno met; Casey won using his ‘Killarney Flip’. But wrestling in America was losing its popularity, so in 1938 Danno went back to Ireland in the hopes of promoting wrestling there. In Dublin he again faced Steve Casey, who had by now beaten him three times in America. It ended in a draw. Casey defeated Danno for a fourth time in Mallow, Co. Cork, later the same year. Danno returned to America, where he was beaten by Casey for the fifth and final time. He had lost his title and his career was slipping away, so in January 1941 he moved to Santa Monica, California, where he opened a bar and named it O’Mahoney’s Irish Whip. He was happy there and wrestled in small clubs but had given up his professional career. He and his wife Esther now had four children, Dan, Eileen, Bill and John.

Untimely death

Danno with his sons, Dan and Bill.

Danno with his sons, Dan and Bill.

After his retirement Danno spent many holidays at home in his native Ireland. On one particular visit he was travelling from Dublin to Ballydehob with his two brothers and two friends on the night of 2 November 1950. A truck driver had pulled in at the side of the road to check a tyre. Danno was driving and didn’t know the road well as he had been on it only a few times before. He was travelling at an average speed and when he came upon the truck, which had no lights on, he crashed into its rear end. He suffered two broken legs, two broken ribs and an injured hip. Unbelievably, everyone else was fine, even the truck driver.

When the ambulance arrived, Danno was dragged out of the wreck and taken to Portlaoise hospital in a serious condition. At the hospital it was discovered that he also had internal injuries and surgery was performed straight away. Unfortunately he was too severely injured, and died on the night of 3 November 1950 at about 9.15pm.
It came as a great shock to the people of Cork, and indeed Ireland, to discover that Danno had died tragically in a car accident. Danno’s funeral was one of West Cork’s biggest ever. There were representatives from every town in the county, and every single person from all the neighbouring towns came to pay tribute to the great Danno O’Mahony. His funeral Mass was held on 6 November in Ballydehob church, where only half the people present could fit inside. His coffin was then carried to Schull cemetery, all of five miles away. It was followed by all the mourners, with his family and closest friends at the fore. He is buried in Schull cemetery and his grave can be visited today.

David O’Mahony is a pupil at St Fachtna’s de la Salle School, Skibbereen, Co. Cork.

Further reading:

J. W. Pollard, J. Lewis, M. P. O’Connell and J. Hicky, Danno Mahony: Irish world wrestling champion (Ballydehob, 1985).

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