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Monday 24 November 2014

The legendary charm of Ireland's playboy pugilist

THEY'RE overpaid, over-indulged, and over the top in their reactions to the slightest reprimand -- and most of us have had quite enough of today's pampered sports stars.

How different it was back in the days when champions and contenders often went through hell to earn their status as sporting idols. But, once achieved, their popularity rarely dimmed.

One such star, possibly the biggest, was Dan Donnelly -- a brawny Dubliner whose victories in the bare-knuckle prize ring was made him a national hero 200 years ago and whose fame is still being celebrated.

Take a trip to the Curragh in Kildare and you can literally walk in the footsteps of the Irish champion. The imprints of his feet were carved out by his fanatical supporters as he left the ring following his triumph over Englishmen George Cooper on June 18, 1815.

The place is known to this day as Donnelly's Hollow and an 8ft obelisk marks the site of the fight, which was watched by an estimated 20,000 spectators, some of whom had walked all the way from Dublin.



Arm

Or if you have the stomach for it, you can view Dan's preserved right arm, cut off by body snatchers after his grave was raided in the Bully's Acre at Kilmainham, currently on display at the GAA Museum in Croke Park.

So who was Dan Donnelly and why has his name stayed fresh for two centuries? Born in Townsend Street in 1788, he gave up his job as a carpenter when he discovered he had the ability to do well at boxing.

His victories over Englishmen Tom Hall, George Cooper and Tom Oliver were symbolised as strikes against the country's rule from Westminster, all of Ireland then being part of the United Kingdom.

His achievements even captured the admiration of the aristocracy. If legend is to be believed, he so impressed the Prince Regent, later King George IV, that he was awarded a knighthood.

In my new biography of Donnelly, I relate Dan's account of how the honour was bestowed on him. Invited to the Regent's private London residence, Carlton House, the Dubliner willingly joined in a whiskey drinking session with the prince, and was shocked to be invited to spar with his host.

Afraid he might do irreparable damage to the royal countenance, he was consoled at the end of the sparring session when the Regent took up his sword and asked Donnelly to kneel before him. "You went down on your knees as plain Dan Donnelly, and you will rise as Sir Daniel," said the Prince.

Donnelly might have had a longer boxing career -- and a longer life -- if he took more care of himself.

Unfortunately, he had an over-fondness for alcohol, as well as a roving eye.

While training for one of his big fights in England, he was said to have never gone to bed without a bottle of whiskey to keep him company.

For someone as "fond of a drop" as he, becoming a publican was probably the last occupation he should have considered.

The four Dublin pubs he ran all suffered from his over generosity with free drinks and his habit of swallowing much of his own profits.

Donnelly was just 32 when he died and his funeral attracted 80,000 people onto the streets.

Dan Donnelly (1788-1820), Pugilist, Publican, Playboy, by Herald boxing columnist Patrick Myler, is published by The Lilliput Press, €12.

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