herald

Thursday 14 December 2017

Fighting irishmen descend on croker

FIGHT fans often speculate on who would win between boxers of different eras. Would the Klitschko brothers have been too big for Joe Louis or Jack Dempsey, heavyweight legends of the past?

Or could today's pampered champions, with title bouts limited to 12 rounds, have survived in brutal bare-knuckle fights to the finish, only ending when one man was knocked senseless?

You won't find the answers to these questions at the Fighting Irishmen exhibition, which opens at the GAA Museum in Croke Park on May 18 and runs until August 30.

But, who knows, you just might cop the 190-year-old preserved arm of legendary Dubliner Dan Donnelly stretching out to try on one of Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves.

Donnelly v Ali -- now that would have been some showdown, either with gloves or bare fists.

Dan's arm and Muhammad's glove, along with Ali's shorts from his fight with Al 'Blue' Lewis at Croke Park in July 1972, will be among the items on display at the eagerly awaited exhibition. You'll also find a fur-trimmed coat that belonged to John L Sullivan, the last of the bare-knuckle world heavyweight champions, Gene Tunney's punchball, Jack Dempsey's jacket and Gerry Cooney's dressing gown.

Irish stars like Barry McGuigan, Wayne McCullough, John Duddy and Freddie Gilroy will be represented in a dazzling array of robes, gloves, photographs, programmes and film footage of famous fights.



BRAINCHILD

The Fighting Irishmen exhibition is the brainchild of American businessman Jim Houlihan, who saw his great idea come to fruition when it opened at the Irish Art Center in New York in the autumn of 2006.

After a further successful run in Boston, it was transferred to the Ulster American Folk Museum, near Omagh, in May last year and ran until the end of November. Now it's heading to Dublin.

Undoubtedly, the most curious object on view is Dan Donnelly's arm. Cut off after his body was stolen from the grave at Bully's Acre in Kilmainham in 1820, it is now owned by Josephine Byrne, from Kilcullen, Co Kildare.

"It's probably one of the oldest and most unique pieces of sports memorabilia," said Jim Houlihan.

"People who have a knowledge of boxing have heard about the arm. But, to the uninitiated, they think you are kidding until you explain the story."

Houlihan said he got the idea for the Fighting Irishmen after viewing a similar exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Philadelphia called 'Sting Like a Maccabee' and a friend suggested he do one on the Irish.

"We tried to design it along the lines of Irish storytelling and make it interesting to everyone, not just people who are Irish or who are interested in sport," he explained.

"Everyone can understand the concepts of hard work and perseverance, and reward after toil, and that's the story we tell."

* Pat Myler's book on the life of Dan Donnelly will be published in June.

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