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Boxers, bars and bodysnatchers: Donnelly's demise

Dan Donnelly was a bare-knuckle fighting star of the 1800s whose premature death left tens of thousands of fans in mourning. Patrick Myler on a grisly end to what might have been a glorious career

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Box clever: Dan Donnelly

Box clever: Dan Donnelly

The mummified right arm of boxer Dan Donnelly which has been on display in several pubs around the country

The mummified right arm of boxer Dan Donnelly which has been on display in several pubs around the country

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Box clever: Dan Donnelly

Two hundred years ago, the sudden death of an Irish sporting icon and symbol of the nation's fight for independence caused widespread grief.

Dubliner Dan Donnelly, a champion of the bare-knuckle prize-ring, had taken ill after consuming a large quantity of ice-cold water while perspiring heavily following a vigorous ball game.

Who could believe that a strong, healthy young man - he was still in his thirties - could succumb to a training ritual he had followed throughout his career?

His death on February 18, 1820 was particularly felt by the poorer classes, who revered him as someone who had stirred their spirits at a time of great hardship and simmering national revolt. Every time he bloodied an English opponent's nose, it was seen as a strike against the might of the British Empire.

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The mummified right arm of boxer Dan Donnelly which has been on display in several pubs around the country

The mummified right arm of boxer Dan Donnelly which has been on display in several pubs around the country

The mummified right arm of boxer Dan Donnelly which has been on display in several pubs around the country

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. When it reached Thomas Street, followers unyoked the horses and proudly pulled the hearse the rest of the way.

The Sporting Magazine (March 1820), acknowledging his great appeal to the underprivileged, 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".

One of the many legends attached to his name was that he received a knighthood from the Prince Regent, who later became King George IV. A nice story that, alas, 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. He followed his father, Joseph, into the carpentry trade.

It was while defending his ailing father during a severe bout of coughing in a local pub that Dan revealed his ability to use his fists. A bully who shouted abuse at the older man then turned to a physical attack that was cut short by a hefty blow from young Dan that left him sprawled on his back.

Word of his brave action quickly got around the neighbourhood and Donnelly was persuaded to try his luck as a professional fighter. Several impressive wins brought him to the attention of Capt William Kelly, a wealthy landowner and racehorse owner, who convinced him of the rewards 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 Co Kildare, on September 14, 1814.

Donnelly quickly proved his superiority over his opponent and 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 to recover.

Dan's patience eventually wore out and he struck Hall on the side of the head while he was down. Hall's seconds demanded Donnelly's disqualification, while the Irish side insisted Hall deserved to lose for repeatedly dropping to the ground to avoid punishment.

Though no official result was announced, Donnelly's supporters wildly celebrated his 'victory'. It was several days before Dan managed to tear himself away from the drinking sessions and return to Dublin. He did not have a penny left from his share of the 100 guineas purse for the fight. Next up was a more severe test against George Cooper, from Stone in Staffordshire, a leading contender for the championship of England. Again, every inch of grass at the spot on the Curragh was covered by excited fight fans.

The fight, on November 13, 1815 was dominated by the bigger, stronger Irishman, whose final blow, a tremendous right-hander, left the distraught loser with a broken 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. Visitors can literally walk in the hero's footsteps, carved out by fanatical followers as he strode up the hill to his carriage. An 8ft obelisk, erected some 60 years after the fight, marks the site of the event.

Donnelly tried to cash in on his fame by taking over the running of four Dublin pubs at different times, but he squandered much of the profits by dispensing free drinks to his cronies and downing a fair few himself.

Realising he was throwing away a good living, he undertook a boxing tour of Britain, earning money by sparring in exhibition bouts while trying to tempt the English champion, Tom Cribb, into a mega international showdown. To eager fight fans' regret, the big 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 to be his last contest, Donnelly won a gruelling encounter lasting one hour and 10 minutes when the much-punished Englishman failed to answer the call of 'time' for the 35th round.

No one could foresee that, in less than a year, Dan Donnelly would be dead. More shocking still was the removal of his corpse from the champion's last resting place.

Body snatchers, aware of its above-average worth, sold the cadaver to a prominent anatomy professor. Fearful of his fate if the evil deed led to his door, he quickly had the body reburied, but not before cutting off the right arm.

In the 200 years since, the macabre relic has been displayed at various locations, including a Belfast oyster seller's shop, a newspaper editor's London office and several Irish pubs, the last being The Hideout in Kilcullen, just three kilometres from the scene of Donnelly's Curragh triumphs.

There it remained for around half a century, a curiosity for visitors to discuss over a pint and a sandwich, if its gruesome sight didn't put them off their snack, until the pub was sold in 2006. Dan's arm is now in private ownership.

Patrick Myler's biography of Dan Donnelly, first published in 1976, was revised and republished in 2010 by The Lilliput Press as 'Dan Donnelly, 1788-1820, Pugilist, Publican, Playboy'

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