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Kildare Folk Tales
By Steve Lally
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Steve Lally
All rights reserved.
Dan Donnelly, The King Of the Curragh
I wish to dedicate this story to Seamus McCormick, Owen Murphy and the Sacred Heart Boxing Club, Newry. For they taught me to stand tall and face my fears with courage and dignity.
The Ballad of Dan Donnelly
Come all you true-born Irishmen wherever ye be,
I pray you give attention; and listen unto me;
It's of as true a story as ever you did hear,
About Donnelly and Cooper that fought at Kildare.
'Twas on the third of June, my boys the challenge was sent o'er,
From Britannia to old Granua to raise her sons once more,
To renew their satisfaction, and their credit to recall;
So they were in distraction since bold Donnelly conquered all.
When Granua read the challenge, and received it with a smile,
You had better haste into Kildare, my well-beloved child,
It's there you will reign victorious, as you have always done before,
And your deeds will shine most glorious all around Hibernia's shore.
The challenge was accepted, and those noble lads did prepare,
To meet with Captain Kelly on the Curragh of Kildare.
The Englishmen bet ten to one that day against poor Dan,
But such odds as these would never dismay the blood of Irishman.
When these two bully champions they stripped in the ring,
They faced each other manfully, and to work they did begin,
From six till nine they sparred on, till Danny knocked him down,
Well done, my child, Granua smiled, this is ten thousand pounds.
The second round that Cooper fought he knocked down Donnelly,
But Dan had steel likewise true game, and rose most manfully,
Right active then was Cooper and knocked Donnelly down once more
The English they all cried out, the battle you may give o'er.
The cheering of those English peers did make the valleys sound,
While their English champion kept prancing on the ground.
Full ten to one they freely bet, on the ground whereon they stand,
That their brave hero would soon deceive their boasting Irishman.
Long life to Miss Kelly, she recorded on the plain,
She boldly stepped into the ring, saying, Dan, what do you mean?
Saying, Dan, my boy, what do you mean, Hibernia's son, says she,
My whole estate I've bet on you, brave Donnelly.
When Donnelly received the fall after the second round,
He spoke to Captain Kelly, as he lay on the ground,
Saying, do not fear, for I'm not beat, although I got two falls,
I'll let them know, before I go, I'll make them pay for all.
I'm not afraid, brave Donnelly, Miss Kelly she did say,
For I have bet my coach and four that you may gain the day;
You are a true born Irishman, the gentry well do know,
And on the plains of sweet Kildare this day their valour show.
Donnelly rose up again, and meeting with great might,
For to surprise the nobles all he continued for to fight,
Cooper stood on his own defence, exertion proved in vain,
He then received a temple blow that reeled him on the plain.
Ye sons of proud Britannia, your boasting now give o'er,
Since by our hero Donnelly, your hero is no more;
In eleven rounds he got nine knocks down, besides broke his jawbone
Shake hands, says she, brave Donnelly, the battle is our own.
Growing up in Kildare I had heard enigmatic tales about the great boxer Dan Donnelly from the old-timers. I was always fascinated and when I heard that his arm was kept somewhere in the Curragh, this drove my curiosity even further. People talked about him like one would speak of a fictional superhero or a brave character from some film epic.
Who was this Dan Donnelly and why was and is he so revered both in Kildare and boxing folklore? Like Mohammed Ali, 'Sir Dan' was not only a champion of sport but a champion of the people. This is his story.
Dan Donnelly (March 1788–18 February 1820) was a pioneering pugilist and was Ireland's first home-grown boxing heavyweight champion. In 2008 Donnelly's name was entered into the 'International Boxing Hall of Fame' under the category of 'Boxing Pioneers'.
He was born into a poor Dublin family who lived in the city's violent and deprived docklands. His father was a carpenter and found it very hard to make ends meet due to the fact he had seventeen children and suffered from very poor health. It is speculated that he suffered from bronchitis, so the breathing in of sawdust combined with the extreme physical labour meant that he was often incapable of holding down the job.
With little or no income, the Donnelly family were always just one step away from the workhouse. Poverty pervaded Dublin at the end of the eighteenth century and Dan, like may other children of his day, went to work in his father's trade as soon as he was old enough.
Little did Dan know that the shadow of political revolution would come looking for him. In 1803, a group of Irish nationalists, including Robert Emmet, Thomas Russell and James Hope, made an attempt to secure Ireland's independence from the United Kingdom. The revolt failed and, despite going into hiding, Emmet was captured, tried and executed in Dublin by hanging and beheading for the crime of high treason on 20 September 1803.
Donnelly, like Mohammed Ali, realised he lived in a country that had no one to represent its people and that they were regarded as second-class citizens. The country was in desperate need for someone to come along and give the British a black eye. Dan was very proud of Ireland and its people; he wanted to give the Irish a sense of pride and self-respect at a time when it was badly needed. He hated nothing more than unfairness and to see advantage being taken of the weak and vulnerable. He was a proud man with high morals and principles and no lion could display more fury than Dan Donnelly when he witnessed what he considered to be blatant bullying.
Dan was not an easy man to get a rise out of and he would do whatever it took to bring peace and harmony to an otherwise potentially violent situation. On the rough Dublin streets he was constantly goaded to fight due to his great athletic stature, but when pushed too far he would make short work of his tormentors. After a while Dan got a name as a fine street fighter and defender of those weaker and more vulnerable than most. In fact, he became a bit of a celebrity amongst the people in his locality.
On one occasion, upon hearing the screams of a young woman down at the dockside area where he lived, Dan went to investigate and found two sailors attacking a girl. He witnessed them throw the poor girl into the River Liffey, so he dived in after her and pulled her out, saving her life. Unluckily for the exhausted Dan the thugs were waiting for him when he climbed out. They grabbed him, attacked him with stones and kicked him. His arm was so badly damaged that one would have thought it impossible that he should become Ireland's greatest boxer of his time. Fortunately for Dan, he was found by some good people and taken to Dr Steeven's Hospital (which still stands to this day beside St James' Gate, where Guinness is produced and opposite Heuston railway station). He was treated by the renowned surgeon Dr Abraham Colles, best known for his 'Treatise on Surgical Anatomy' (1811).
Colles was well known for his compassion towards the city's poor and when he heard about the great act of selfless courage that the young Donnelly had performed he promised to do what he could to save the arm.
On first seeing the injury Dr Colles was sure that he would have to amputate it; but he decided to try to save the limb and with artistic precision and delicate dexterity he mended Donnelly's arm. When he was done, he affectionately put his arm around Dan and said he was nothing short of a 'Pocket Hercules'. Dan Donnelly was to be another one of Dublin's poor to thank the great Kilkenny-born doctor for his skill and kindness. I am sure Donnelly would have been knocked out again if he knew the magnitude of the man who had saved his arm. For Abraham Colles came from a long line of surgeons and he was twice president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. Widely acclaimed as a medical researcher and graphic lecturer, one of his papers on the fracture of a forearm bone was so highly acclaimed that the term Colles Fracture is still used to this day all over the world. But then one could argue that Colles would have passed out himself if he knew he had saved the arm of the future heavyweight boxing champion and legend of the sport.
Dan was to become the people's champion and a hero to those who could not fight for themselves. There are many stories in regard to this fact and one that stands out involves an old neighbour of his in Dublin, who had died in terrible impoverished conditions.
This neighbour was an elderly lady who lived on Townsend Street and, like sweet Molly Malone, she died of a fever and no one could save her. Because everybody was so terrified of being infected by the contagious disease, not a single soul would come forward to claim or remove the body of the deceased. When the bold Dan heard about this he was disgusted at the inhumanity of it all, especially knowing that the old woman in question was a kind and giving soul who would have gone out of her way to help any of her neighbours. So he took it upon himself to go to the woman's house and lift the remains. He wrapped her body in a blanket and put her over one of his broad shoulders. With that, he proceeded to take her corpse to a local churchyard. When he got there, he found some gravediggers in the process of digging a fresh grave. Dan announced that wished to put the woman's body into the new grave. The gravediggers were not at all pleased with this and dismissed him as a madman.
He looked at them firmly and told them if they did not step aside, they would be occupying the grave and went on to say that this was a land of equality and that this woman had as much right to buried in this grave as anyone. The gravediggers stood back as Donnelly grabbed a shovel from one of them and proceeded to bury the woman.
Donnelly was nearly six feet tall, and with a powerful, physical build. He weighed almost fourteen stone and had the heart of a lion. Fearless, strong and brave, Dan knew he had the makings of a great fighter. Ironically he was not comfortable with this, as it went against his principles and his disregard for violence. His strongest trait was his outgoing, friendly and sociable personality, and his strong sense of right and wrong. He had many friends and was very popular with all those who knew him. But, human nature being what it is, others around him saw this as a threat and a challenge and felt he should be taken down a peg or two.
There was an incident that took place when Dan was in his early twenties, while having a drink with his sick father, Joseph Donnelly, by the docks. Joseph took a fit of coughing. A brutish sailor who had just come off a boat saw this and began to mimic and berate the poor man. Dan begged the sailor to show some respect and leave his father be. According to the writer Patrick Myler in his book Dan Donnelly 1788-1820 Pugilist, Publican, Playboy the sailor replied by saying, 'Any cheek from you, me young bucko, and I'll teach you a lesson in respect'. Dan replied, 'I have no desire to fight you, but if it's what you want, then I'll not back down'. The sailor ran at Donnelly with a terrible roar, but Dan did not budge. He met the madman with a powerful right-hand punch. He broke the sailor's nose but, with blood streaming down his face, the sailor got to his feet and came at young Dan again. A terrible fight took place, lasting for over fifteen minutes, until the sailor could take no more and muttered the word 'enough' through bloody, swollen lips.
It was not long before word got out about Dan and how he dealt with the bully. The violent gangs and hard men of Dublin were intrigued by this new scrapper in town. They were also interested to hear that he was doing what the local constabulary could not do in regard to keeping the streets safe from their kind.
There was one particular character who was considered to be the best boxer in the city and had yet to be beaten. He was not to happy with all the great praise that Dan was getting. It seemed that in every bar and tavern he frequented he heard tall tales about Donnelly's exploits. So he decided that he would have to put him in his place. He toured through the city streets and went to all the haunts where he knew Dan frequented, announcing that he was demanding to face Dan in a fight. When Dan got word of this he declined, as he did not see himself as a man who would fight for the entertainment and sport of others. When the other man heard of Dan's reply he scoffed and deemed him a yellow-bellied coward with no guts. This was said in front of Dan's family and friends. Dan was furious and agreed to fight the man in order to save his honour. It was then announced that a fight would take place along the banks of the Grand Canal in Dublin. The people of the city were full of great excitement at the news of this epic event.
When the two combatants met by the canal, Dan tried his best to talk his opponent out of this foolish display of aggression. However, the other was not interested in such cowardly talk and threw the first punch. At first Dan did not engage, dancing around the ring, avoiding punches and throwing none himself. This caused the audience to become frustrated and hurl abuse at him. What the audience did not realise that this was a brilliant tactic, as Donnelly was tiring out his opponent and he made a fast, powerful attack in the sixteenth round. He knocked his opponent to the ground, after which he was unable to get to his feet. Donnelly was declared the new Champion of the City. After that there were no more challenges and Donnelly was more than happy with this.
Meanwhile in an English tavern a wealthy Irish nobleman called Captain William Kelly, overheard English pugilists talking with affiliates of what was known as 'The Fancy' (affluent dandies who supported and sponsored boxing during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Kelly was horrified to hear them poking fun at Mother Ireland and her brave children, stating there was not a courageous man amongst them. They also said that they had gone to Ireland and issued open challenges to the best pugilists there, but no one accepted. What would one expect from a nation of conquered cowards?
Furious at the slander of his native land, Kelly was determined to find a fighting Irishman to take up the challenge. His search eventually took him to Dublin and to Dan Donnelly. Kelly went with his friend Robert Barclay Allardice, a Scotsman, who had heard of this fine young fighter. Allardice was better known as Captain Barclay. He was a renowned long-distance walker and trained many great pugilists. They were told that their man would not come easy as he was very much against the idea of fighting. When they arrived in Dublin they did not have much trouble finding their quarry at the carpenter's yard. But as expected, Dan Donnelly was not interested in fighting. He apologised to the two men for wasting their time and explained that he was a man of peace. But Kelly did not wish to return to England without a fighter who would prove those English dandies wrong. He tried to win Donnelly over by telling him how he would follow in the footsteps of Ireland's great warriors and mythical heroes such as Cuchulainn and Finn McCool. He told him of the epic battles and conquests that ancient Ireland was so famous for and now through Dan they could bring back this sense of pride and deference that had been lost by the Irish people after so many years of oppression. Kelly told Dan that he would bring fire back into the bellies of the Irish people and there was also a fair few bob to be made out it too. Dan was silent and then told Kelly he would think about it for a while.
He came back with: 'Gentlemen, I shall first return to you my sincere thanks for the great dependence you have on my country. The honour you have bestowed on me shall ever be cherished in my bosom. To appear before a multitude of spectators on a plain is wholly against my will, yet my country claims my support.' Dan then clenched his fists and raised his right arm, quivering with the passion of a man about to go into battle and he made this oath: 'I owe no spleen to Great Britain, but the man of any nation who presumes to offer insult to my country, this arm, while my life blood flows, shall defy.'
Kelly and Captain Barclay were impressed with the fine and noble answer that Donnelly gave them. They promised to train him and give him the best advice and expertise at their disposal. While training under Barclay, Donnelly earned his keep by looking after the cows at Calverstown Demense in Kildare. (Donnelly's initials were supposed to have been carved on the rafters at Calverstown House, but there is no sign of them now.)
Excerpted from Kildare Folk Tales by Steve Lally. Copyright © 2014 Steve Lally. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Dan Donnelly, the King of the Curragh,
2 The Wizard Earl of Kildare,
3 The Pooka Horse,
4 The Race of the Black Pig,
5 Saint Brigid,
6 The Devil at Castletown House,
7 The Kildare Lurikeen,
8 The Gubbawn Seer,
9 The Bog of Allen,
10 The Ghost Room at Maynooth,
11 The Ghost at Clongowes,
12 The Hungry Hall,
13 The White Lady,
14 Nellie Clifden and the Curragh Wrens,
15 Moll Anthony of the Red Hills,
16 Poll the Pishogue,
17 The Trinity Well,
18 Queen Buan,
19 Lanigan's Ball,
20 The Death Coach,
21 Kildare Fairy Tales,
22 Coonan's Field,