Grisly tale of the boxer's arm that left local pub and went walkabout
Published 28/05/2006 | 00:11
LARISSA NOLAN IT WAS the most macabre tourist attraction in Ireland. And when the preserved arm of legendary 1800s boxer Dan Donnelly went missing from its traditional home, it only added to its eerie fascination.
But today the Sunday Independent can reveal the secret location of the world-famous appendage - and how it will soon be travelling to the US, to be the star attraction in an exhibition on Irish boxing.
The 186-year-old mummified arm had been on display in a glass box for almost 50 years in the Hideout pub in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, location of Donnelly's first big fight.
But it disappeared overnight when the pub changed owners in 1997 and, ever since, mystery has surrounded its whereabouts.
Visitors who travelled to the pub to view the arm were disappointed to be told it was no longer there.
Speculation intensified recently when an American descendant launched a nationwide search for the arm.
In fact, Dan Donnelly's arm has remained much closer to home than gossip would suggest. The three-foot-long arm is still in Kilcullen and is in the possession of the Byrne family, the original owners of the Hideout, and owners of the arm since 1949.
The man who procured it, Des Byrne, sadly died some months ago, but it has been passed on to his widow Josephine, who keeps it locked away from burglars in a safe.
Josephine told the Sunday Independent that when the Byrnes sold the Hideout in 1995, they agreed to leave it temporarily in the care of the new owners.
"The new owners sold up after just two years - so the arm was taken from the pub and returned to us," she said. "We have no intention of putting it back up in the Hideout again, the pub keeps being re-sold and we want to make sure it is protected. It will remain in the possession of our family."
She says she will never sell it. "I couldn't put a price on it," she said. "The sentimental value is too high. This is something that has been in the family for 57 years and to us it is priceless."
Its absence was immediately noticed by visitors who travelled from all over the world for a gruesome glimpse of the sinewy spectacle.
Nine years since it last graced the wall, people still come to the pub to ask to see the arm.
The current lease-holders of the Hideout are desperate to have the arm back on the premises.
"The Hideout is famous for Dan Donnelly's arm. Up to 10 people a day come in looking to see it. But it is not here anymore," said an employee.
One of those was Tom Donnelly from Wisconsin, who wanted to view the arm of the 19th century boxer he believes could be an ancestor.
Tom Donnelly first became interested in the arm when he read about it in international magazine Sports Illustrated.
He decided to travel to Ireland to find it - a plan that turned out to be far more difficult that he had envisioned.
Mr Donnelly explained: "I thought it would be as simple as travelling to the pub. But when I got to Kilcullen, I was told it had been sold on. So I went to tourist offices and historical associations and eventually travelled around bars, hoping someone would be able to solve the riddle.
"Everyone thought they knew where it was, but when it came down to it, they didn't." He was finally put in contact with Josephine Byrne - and will soon return to Ireland for a viewing.
As it is in private possession, the owners do not usually encourage visitors to come and see it, but have made an exception for Tom.
For an arm, it has been on some adventures - and it is not hanging up its glove yet.
In September, it will feature in an exhibition of Irish boxing in the Irish Arts Centre in, Manhattan, New York, which will be officially opened by actor Liam Neeson.
It was originally removed by a surgeon who had bought the body from grave-robbers to study Dan Donnelly's unique muscle structure.
The surgeon, Dr Hall, reburied the rest of the body, before taking the arm to a medical college in Scotland.
It was then sold onto a travelling circus and became part of a peep show.
Donnelly's arm later came into the possession of Hugh McAlevey, who kept it until his death, when it was passed down to wine merchant Tom Donnelly, who was no relation to the great boxer.
But the wine merchant felt the rightful home of Dan Donnelly's arm was back in the place where his career began, in Kilcullen, Co Kildare.
He gave it to Des Byrne.