The reluctant pugilist

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), Letters, News, Volume 13

The reluctant pugilist 1DONNELLY, Dan (1788–1820), pugilist, was born in Townsend St., Dublin, eldest surviving son (having been predeceased by four sets of twins) of seventeen children of Joseph Donnelly, carpenter, of Dublin; his mother’s name was Gore. Typical of his chosen sport, his life is one in which reality and mythology are not easily separated. Legend holds that the doctor who attended his birth predicted that he would perform great deeds for Ireland. Standing 6ft tall and weighing fourteen stone when fully grown, he was a compassionate, equable man, whose life was a pursuit of merriment, facilitated by an astonishing capacity for alcohol. Fittingly, his first recorded foray as a fighter came in a public house when, following an insult to his father and with deep regret, as his was not a violent disposition, he defeated his father’s detractor and then the detractor’s friend. On foot of these exploits his fame spread throughout the city; but, reluctant to inconvenience his socialising or to be seen as a fighter, he eschewed all offers of combat till finally he overcame his diffident nature to defeat a man previously regarded as the best in Dublin, and duly claimed that title.
He resolved never to fight again, but at the insistence of his fellow Dubliners he agreed (again in a public house) to defend the honour of Ireland by fighting the famed Englishman Tom Hall in the Curragh, Co. Kildare (14 September 1814). His training for the fight, the subject of extravagant wagers, was held at the Kilcullen home of Capt. Kelly, a racehorse trainer, who posted sentries around the estate to prevent all possibility of escape to local hostelries. The fight ended with claims by Hall’s camp that their man had been struck while on the ground, but the verdict was awarded to Donnelly, a decision possibly encouraged by the presence of 30,000 of his countrymen at the ringside. He celebrated his victory by embarking on a five-week binge funded by his sixty guineas purse. Penniless, he returned to work as a carpenter before he was forced again to fulfil his patriotic duty and fight another English champion, George Cooper. Once more housebound at Kilcullen, he appears to have demonstrated uncharacteristic restraint and trained diligently for the fight, which took place (13 December 1815) at the original Curragh site, by now renamed Donnelly’s Hollow. The best performance of his career saw him overwhelm Cooper and claim the purse of £60. Acclaimed once more as a national hero, he made his way back towards Dublin in a carriage pulled by his admirers.
Announcing his retirement, he was set up as a publican on Capel Street. Marriage and children tempered his lifestyle for a time, but he soon reverted to the ways of his youth. He drank his profits and was soon heavily in debt. Periodic sobriety and attempted industry saw him open further public houses on Poolbeg Street and in the Coombe, but the pattern earlier established was repeated, and in 1819 he travelled to London to attempt to clear his debts. Apparently uninterested in prize fighting, he fought a series of exhibitions against a leading English fighter, Jack Carter. Eventually he was forced to fight the low-rated Ben Burn in London, whom he beat, but he resisted any suggestion that he should fight the imposing English champion, Tom Cribb. He defeated the veteran Tom Oliver at Crawley Downs, watched by 10,000 people in a less than impressive display that saw him claim the 200 guineas purse after 32 rounds. His convivial nature and unquenchable thirst brought him to the fore of London society, which was wooed by his boundless charm and humour. He counted the prince regent among his circle of friends and later restyled himself ‘Sir Dan’, claiming to have been knighted for bravery. Women proved almost as great an attraction as alcohol, and his boxing performances undoubtedly suffered from the venereal disease he contracted on his amorous forays. His revelry ended when his wife travelled to London and brought him home penniless to Dublin. He was given a hero’s welcome and was led through the city astride a white horse.
After staging exhibitions at Donnybrook Fair (1819) he declined, for the last time, to return to the ring and instead set up a public house at Pill Lane. He died there, after a sudden illness provoked by the rigours of his lifestyle, on 18 February 1820. His funeral drew a huge crowd as it passed through the streets of Dublin, before burial at Bully’s Acre, Kilmainham. Minor riots ensued on foot of reports, apparently correct, that his body had been snatched by grave-robbers. A mummified arm, alleged to be Donnelly’s, is in the Hideout public house in Kilcullen, having passed through Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin and served for a time as a circus exhibit. The headstone on his grave was wrecked by members of a Scottish regiment and its exact location is now unclear. A memorial obelisk was erected (1888) at Donnelly’s Hollow, where his footprints can still be seen, allegedly dug out by a rapturous crowd following his passage from the ring after defeating Cooper. He was elected to The Ring magazine’s boxing hall of fame and is commemorated in numerous ballads and dirges.

Paul Rouse is an editorial assistant with the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

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