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fighting irish get acclaim at croker

CHAMPIONS and contenders. Old-timers bearing the marks of their brutal business and fresh-faced kids with dreams of glory. Dedicated fight fans and casual observers. And not a fist raised in anger.

They all came together for the official opening of the Fighting Irishmen exhibition in Croke Park's GAA Museum, and all expressed delight at the wide array of memorabilia celebrating 200 years of Irish and Irish-American involvement in the sport.

After successful runs in New York, Boston and the Ulster American Folk Museum in Omagh, Co Tyrone, it is certain to draw lots of observers to its Dublin venue, where it runs until the end of August.

"This exhibition isn't just for the aficionados, it's for everyone to enjoy," said Barry McGuigan, a true Irish boxing legend, who was one of the guest speakers at the opening.

"It's also a reminder of the way boxing served to uplift Irish emigrants back in the days when they came up against landlords' notices saying 'No blacks, no Jews, no Irish, no dogs'.

"Boxing gave them pride. Great champions with Irish blood, like Jack Dempsey, were the most famous men in America. Even Jewish fighters took Irish names to try and help their careers."

The most celebrated fighter in history, Muhammad Ali, had ancestry from Clare, and there's a signed glove and his shorts from his 1972 bout with Al 'Blue' Lewis at Croke Park among the items on show.

Gloves, robes, punchbags, photos, programmes, posters, paintings and film footage are among the other reminders of greats of the past like John L Sullivan, Gene Tunney, Tom Sharkey and Billy Conn.

And, down to the moderns, you'll find Bernard Dunne's world championship belt and Jim Rock's Irish title belt alongside Kenny Egan's Olympic silver medal and Katie Taylor's world and European gold medals.

"Any young kids involved in sport, not just boxing, should come and see this exhibition," said Michael Carruth, whose gold medal from the Barcelona Olympics is included. "When they see the amount of champions we have produced, it can only inspire them."

The Fighting Irishmen exhibition is the brainchild of New York businessman Jim Houlihan, who aims to move it on to London in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, and possibly some other UK venues.

"First, I would like to take it back to the States and stage it in places like Philadelphia or Chicago," he said, "but right now it's for the Irish to enjoy. I'm very excited about the buzz it has created here."

The display item certain to attract special attention is Dan Donnelly's mummified right arm. It was cut off after the Irish bare-knuckle champion's grave in Bully's Acre, Kilmainham, was raided in 1820.

My biography of Donnelly will be launched at the GAA Museum next month, and Jay Tunney, son of Gene, is coming over in August to talk about his book on his father's close friendship with George Bernard Shaw.

Access to the Fighting Irishmen exhibition, which is situated in the Cusack Stand, is via St Joseph's Avenue. For further information phone 01-8192300 or check it out at www.crokepark.ie/gaa-museum.