Editor’s Pick: The severed arm of Dan Donnelly

Dan Donnelly
Patrick Myler tells the story of legendary bareknuckle champion Dan Donnelly and how his right arm came to be one of boxing’s grisliest souvenirs

COLLECTORS of boxing memorabilia will proudly show off signed gloves, discarded gowns and trunks, maybe even blood-spattered towels from distant ring battles. Too gruesome for some, treasured by others. The most macabre of ring relics? Hard to beat the chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear bitten off and spat out by Mike Tyson in their notorious clash 23 years ago. A quick-witted, if strong-stomached, ringsider scooped the bloodied object off the canvas and wrapped it in a handkerchief. The following month, Pete Stevens, a New York commodities broker, became the proud owner of the grisly ‘souvenir’. He bought it for $18,000 from an MGM guard who allegedly swiped it from a chaotic dressing room. Somehow, it turned up three years ago in a TV commercial, which showed a contrite Tyson handing back the said item, encased in a jar of formaldehyde, to Holyfield, who graciously accepted it with an apology from Iron Mike. So, it might be thought, Evander’s recovered ear chunk must earn top spot on any list of bizarre boxing mementoes. Well, not quite.

How’s about a fighter’s actual arm?

Irish bare-knuckle champion Dan Donnelly’s bludgeoning right limb, cut off by body snatchers exactly 200 years ago, has been preserved for all that time and has been displayed in pubs and travelling exhibitions.

Dubliner Donnelly, Ireland’s first true sporting icon, had taken ill after consuming a large quantity of ice-cold water while perspiring heavily following a vigorous ball game.

His death on February 18, 1820 came as a huge shock to his legion of followers. Who could believe that a strong, healthy young man – he was still in his early thirties – could succumb to a training ritual he had followed throughout his fistic career?

Donnelly’s funeral procession through the streets of Dublin was attended by huge crowds along the route from his pub in Pill Lane (now Chancery Street) to Bully’s Acre graveyard in Kilmainham.

The Sporting Magazine (March 1820), acknowledging his special appeal to the poorer classes, reported that ‘at least 80,000 men, women and children attended the funeral, the roads and streets leading to the burial ground being covered with a moving mass of rags and wretchedness’.  

Such were the many legends attached to his name that he was widely believed to have received a knighthood from the Prince Regent, who later became King George IV, in recognition of his successes. The claim, however, is not borne out in the official records.

Born in Townsend Street, Dublin, in the 1780s (the actual date remains unconfirmed)

Donnelly was the ninth of 17 children, including four sets of twins. When he was old enough, he followed his father, Joseph, into the carpentry trade.

It was while defending his father, who suffered from bronchitis and took a severe bout of coughing in a local pub, that Dan revealed his ability to use his fists. A bully who took exception to the older man’s predicament demanded that he leave the premises. Dan’s pleas to be left in peace were met by a challenge to a fight.

Though reluctant to get involved, he stood his ground against the bully’s charge and levelled the tormentor with a hefty blow to the head. Word of his action quickly got around the neighbourhood and Donnelly was persuaded to try his luck as a professional fighter.

So successful was he in his early ring ventures that he came to the attention of Capt William Kelly, a wealthy landowner and racehorse owner, who recognised his potential and convinced him of the fame and fortune that could lie ahead under the right guidance.

Kelly installed Donnelly at his estate in Maddenstown, Co Kildare, and promised to provide him with financial support while following the expert advice of Capt Robert Barclay, a Scottish friend of Kelly’s and a renowned boxing trainer.

When his backers were satisfied that Dan was ready to be tested against a worthy opponent, a match was arranged with Tom Hall, from the Isle of Wight, who was on a tour of Ireland giving boxing exhibitions and instructing young men in ‘the Manly Art’.

News of the fight drew massive interest and an estimated crowd of 20,000 packed the location on the Curragh, in County Kildare, on September 14, 1814.

Donnelly lacked his rival’s experience, but he was the bigger and stronger man. Hall, realising he was heading for defeat, used underhand tactics to avoid punishment. He frequently dropped to the ground to gain a rest as, under the rules of the day, a round ended when a man went down and he was given half a minute’s rest to recover.  

The Irishman’s patience eventually wore out and he lashed out with a punch that caught Hall on the side of the head while he was on the ground. Hall’s seconds demanded Donnelly’s disqualification, while Dan’s corner insisted that the blow was accidental and, besides, Hall deserved to lose for going down so often without being hit. 

The dispute was unsettled and no official result was announced. Donnelly’s supporters, however, were in no doubt of their man’s superiority and enticed him away to a local tavern to celebrate his ‘victory’. By the time he tore himself away from his adoring fans, several days after the fight, he hadn’t a penny left of his split of the 100 guineas purse.

If Donnelly had added to his already healthy fan club by his impressive performance against Hall, he would soar to demi-god status after his next ring appearance at the same location on November 13, 1815. His opponent, George Cooper, from Stone, in Staffordshire, was one of the main contenders for the championship of England. He was a skilled technical boxer, punched hard with both fists and had shown deep degrees of courage and endurance.

All of this came to nought when opposed to the bigger, stronger Irishman, who finished him off in the 11th round with a tremendous blow that broke Cooper’s jaw.

The huge outburst of cheering could be heard in villages miles away and bonfires were lit on hills in celebration of his victory.

To this day, the spot on the Curragh is known as Donnelly’s Hollow. The conquering hero’s footprints as he strode up the slope to his waiting carriage have been preserved, leading from an 8ft limestone obelisk marking the event. The great John L Sullivan, son of Irish emigrants to America and last of the bare-knuckle world heavyweight champions, visited the site in 1887 and was one of the subscribers to the fund for the erection of the monument.

Donnelly tried to cash in on his fame by taking over the running of four Dublin pubs at different times. Alas, he squandered much of the profits by dispensing free drinks to his cronies and downing a fair few himself. It was at his last licensed premises, in Pill Lane, at the rear of the Four Courts, that he made a fateful decision.

He would undertake a boxing tour of Britain, earning money by sparring in exhibition bouts and perhaps tempting the English champion, Tom Cribb, into what would be a guaranteed lucrative showdown between the champions of the two countries. Despite several attempts to arrange it, the fight never happened.

Dan did, however, take on a formidable opponent in Tom Oliver at Crawley Downs, in Sussex, on July 21, 1819. In what was to prove his last contest, Donnelly won a gruelling encounter lasting one hour and ten minutes when the much-punished Englishman failed to answer the call of ‘time’ for the 35th round.

Despite his victory, Donnelly failed to make a great impression on the English fans. His sub-par performance was partly excused when it was revealed that he had fought with an injured right hand and, more tellingly, that he had been caught out ‘chasing petticoats’ when he was supposed to be training hard. 

On his return home, billed as ‘Sir Dan Donnelly’, he was booked to appear in a series of exhibitions at Donnybrook Fair, but preferred to spend most of his time in the pop-up pubs. If the main attraction couldn’t be guaranteed to appear, it was no surprise that the venture was a flop.

Still idolised as a national figure, whatever his indiscretions, his sudden death in the following year was followed by the outrageous event that has helped keep his name alive to the present day.

Body snatchers, aware of the monetary value of such a prime specimen, had done a deal with a prominent anatomy professor. This was a time when human cadavers were in short supply for study at anatomy schools, as only the bodies of executed criminals were legally used.

The public outcry that followed the revelation of the removal of Donnelly’s remains prompted the recipient to surrender his ‘catch’ for reburial, No one noticed, however, that the shrouded figure lowered back into the grave was incomplete.

The same right arm that had felled so many foes had been severed and was to prove a popular, if gruesome, public attraction for the next 200 years.

Among the various purchasers was Frank Bradley, editor of the Mirror of Life, who, over 100 years ago, displayed the mummified arm in a glass case and generously invited visitors to call and view it at his London office.

By the 1950s, it was back in Ireland, at the Hideout pub in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, just a couple of miles from the scene of Donnelly’s celebrated ring triumphs on the Curragh.

There it remained, a curiosity for visitors to discuss over a pint and a sandwich, until 2006, when the pub was sold. Since then, the world’s most remarkable sporting relic has been kept in private ownership.

Patrick Myler’s biography of Dan Donnelly, first published in 1976, was re-issued in 2010 in a revised edition entitled ‘Dan Donnelly, 1788-1820, Pugilist, Publican, Playboy’.

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