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Dan Donnelly: Ireland’s First Sports Celebrity

Dan Donnelly: Ireland’s First Sports Celebrity – John tells us about one of Dublin’s most famous boxers

Dan Donnelly was born in March 1788 in Townsend Street Dublin and was the ninth child and eldest surviving son from a family of 17 children. His father was a carpenter and Donnelly worked alongside him for a time. When fully grown, Donnelly was tall and well built for his time, standing at about 6 feet tall and weighing in at 14 stone and he would become a legend in his own lifetime due to his prowess in bare-knuckle boxing and his defeat on Irish soil of two of England’s toughest fighters. The reach of his punch was renowned, with one story circulating at the time having it that his long arms were able to tie his knee-high boots without Donnelly having to bend down.

Donnelly’s life before fame

In his youth Donnelly earned a reputation as a man who was slow to be provoked but was a tough fighter when he was pushed to it.  He is reputed to have beaten up two men in a pub who had insulted his father, while another tale about him before his rise to national fame concerns his rescue of a woman who was being attacked by two men in Dublin’s docklands. That fight resulted in him sustaining a badly injured arm which required the attention of a surgeon to save it from amputation. Another story in circulation at the time describes how he took the risk of carrying the body of an old lady who had died from a contagious disease to local graveyard and buried her body himself in a grave which had been reserved for a ‘woman of distinction’.

As news of his fighting abilities spread throughout Dublin, one man who had grown jealous of Donnelly’s reputation, managed to persuade Donnelly to fight him in a match held on the banks of the Grand Canal. Donnelly was victorious and was proclaimed the champion of the city.


Dan Donnelly’s rise to national fame

It is reported that one day, Dan’s toughness and potential as a fighter was witnessed by  Captain William Kelly during a fight in Dublin in which Donnelly came to the defence of two ‘damsels in distress’. Kelly was a member of a group known as ‘The Fancy’, a group of Anglo-Irish aristocrats which sponsored and took great interest in bare-knuckle boxing matches. Some time before that Kelly had been drinking in a tavern in England and overheard two English prizefighters ridicule Irelands reputation for producing courageous men. Stung by these comments, he resolved to prove them wrong. In this type of boxing, there were few rules. Rounds were open-ended and ended when an opponent was either on the ground and would be given a 30 second pause to get up or knelt on one knee to gain a 30 second rest before the next round started. Eye-gouging, head-butting, wrestling another fighter to the ground, knocking an opponent’s head of a corner post and hair-pulling were all permitted.

Captain Kelly became Donnelly’s sponsor and he engaged the services of Scottish trainer Robert Barclay to perfect his raw fighting skills. In September 1814, a fight with English boxer Tom Hall was arranged at Belchers Hollow, the Curragh. During the fight, Hall, who was clearly outclassed, repeatedly bent to one knee in order to recover his strength and frustrate Donnelly, who was clearly winning the fight. Eventually, Halls gamesmanship frustrated Donnelly, who lashed out as Hall was on one knee, causing Hall’s ear to bleed. The English man protested that Donnelly had broken the rules and should be disqualified but the fight was declared a tie. However, this did not stop Donnelly’s fans celebrating it as a victory and his fame in Ireland grew and Belchers Hollow was renamed Donnelly’s Hollow afterwards.

Following his defeat of Hall, Captain Kelly arranged a second fight for Donnelly, this time with George Cooper, a bargeman of gypsy blood, for November 13th 1815.  This proved to be a much tougher match for Donnelly, who survived a second round knockdown by Cooper. Legend has it that he was on the brink of defeat but a kiss from his manager’s sister, who told him that she had wagered her brother’s entire estate on Donnelly and then slipped a lump of sugar cane into his mouth, revived him and a reinvigorated Donnelly defeated his opponent, breaking Cooper’s jaw in the 11th round, claiming the 60 pound purse. Donnelly’s fans followed him as he strode back to his waiting carriage, digging out his footprints as they did so and Donnelly’s role as a conquering national hero was established.

In  1888 a memorial stone obelisk to Donnelly was erected at Donnelly’s Hollow in the Curragh to commemorate his victory over George Cooper. However, the monument is inscribed incorrectly, putting the date of the fight on December 15th 1815 while the actual fight had taken place one month earlier. The footprints which were dug out after the fight with Cooper are still kept tidy and trim to this day.

Aside from a number of sparring exhibitions in Ireland and England, Donnelly fought in another prize fight against English man, Tom Oliver, On July 21 1819, going 34 rounds this time on English turf at Crawley Down in Sussex. Braving a hostile home crowd, the Irishman was victorious there too and he claimed the 210 pounds prize money.

Donnelly’s tragic early death

Tragically however, on February 18th 1820  at the age of only 31, and probably as a result of his excessive drinking, Donnelly died. He had inspired a nation and restored a sense of pride in the Irish at a time when it was needed most. The political and cultural reasons for Donnelly’s rise to the status of national hero, his self-destructive love of alcohol and the story of what happened to his right arm after it had been removed  from his disinterred body will be the subjects of my next article.



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