Thursday 25 April 2019

Review: Dan Donnelly 1788 - 1820 by Patrick Myler

(Lilliput Press, €12)
A punchy tribute to dan the man Pugilist, Publican Playboy

The story of Dan Donnelly's short life, and his career as a bare-knuckle prizefighter, could probably be written as a brief footnote to history, or summarised on a dust cover, but such is Pat Myler's fascination with Dublin's fighting folk hero that he has produced a book that is rich in detail and captures not only the character of the man, but the spirit of the times in which he lived.

Dan Donnelly's exploits, both inside and outside the ring, made him an early-19th Century celebrity, adored in the poverty-ridden Dublin that spawned him and feted by English aristocrats with a taste for the sporting life and an eye for a likely wager.

His victories over highly regarded English opponents proved him a force to be reckoned with in the illegal but hugely popular bare-knuckle game and a monument celebrating his triumph against one George Cooper from Staffordshire on the Curragh of Kildare in 1815 stands in Donnelly's Hollow, a place of pilgrimage for visiting worshippers of the ignoble art.

Pat Myler's description of the build-up to that legendary fight gives some idea of the popularity of the primitive sport and of its leading Irish exponent at the time.

It also illustrates the former newspaperman's crisp and colourful writing style: "From early morning on the day of the fight, every road leading to the Curragh was thronged, despite the rain that fell steadily until daybreak. No one had to ask the way, as they were all headed for the same place, Donnelly's Hollow. As for the fight with Tom Hall the previous year, it seemed as if every horse-drawn vehicle to be found was used to convey eager fans to the battle scene. Many others made their way on foot from Dublin and other distant locations. By 10 o'clock, some 20,000 spectators occupied every inch of Donnelly's Hollow and surrounding high-vantage points."

The book teems with stories, many of them clearly apocryphal, and ballads about Donnelly. The author makes it clear that he has done his best to separate fact from fiction, but that where there is no proof for or against a story, he presents the accounts as he found them. Or, in newspaper terms, never spike a good story.

There is rich detail here about bare-knuckle prizefighting and the environments in which it thrived. A British member of parliament who toured Ireland in 1800 is quoted: "Poverty, disease and wretchedness exist in every large town, but in Dublin the misery is indescribable."

That was the Dublin of 'sack-em-ups', or body snatchers and of Bram Stoker, who may already have been dreaming of vampires.

For the rich, though, it was an attractive, comfortable city with a glittering social life.

His fierce fighting skills took Donnelly from the back streets of Dublin to the upper reaches of London society but, like many a sporting hero before and since, he ended up with little to show for it. Drink was a factor.

Prizefighting was popular at all levels of the social scale, as were other bloody distractions such as cock fighting, bull baiting and dog fights. Fights commonly resulted in fractured noses, broken ribs and concussion. One of Donnelly's fights in England lasted 34 rounds.

Despite an intense interest, even affection, for his subject, Pat Myler -- who knows a thing or two about boxing -- is not blinded by nostalgia. He acknowledges that the men of the bare-knuckle era would not stand a chance against modern boxers. Dan Donnelly would not have laid a glove -- or a bare fist -- on Muhammad Ali, he says.

Donnelly's death, at just 32, "following a brief illness", as they say, sparked what Myler describes as astonishing scenes of national mourning. On the day of his funeral, shops and other businesses stayed closed as a mark of respect. Theatres suspended performances. In the Phoenix Park, guns were fired in salute. Crowds estimated at 80,000 strong lined the streets as the flower-decked coffin made its way through Dublin.

Strange to think that such a popular and famous national figure might have been forgotten in his own country by all but the most devoted students of boxing history had it not been for a newspaperman's nose for a story and a growing fascination with his subject. It has given us a unique record of social history, a remarkable insight in to the Dublin of two centuries ago.

Myler tells how he came across the mummified right arm of Dan Donnelly on display in The Hideout pub in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, (it's a long arm, and a long story, too) and learned enough about the once-celebrated prizefighter to write an article for one of the American boxing magazines to which he contributed at the time.

Enthusiastic reader response to the article whetted the young journalist's appetite for more detail and prompted the extensive research that resulted in this book, now updated, and which would surely have earned the author a PhD if he had so wished.

But like most newspapermen of the old school, Myler would probably choose a good story, well told, before an academic scroll any day.

Buy 'Dan Donnelly 1788 - 1820' from Eason

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