Ah, cruel Death, why were you so unkind? To take Sir Dan and leave such trash behind
—Eulogy to Dan Donnelly, 1820
I am sitting at a bar in the green heart of Ireland, holding the champion's hand. For a boxing fan who has crossed the Atlantic to be here, it is an unforgettable moment—particularly since the champ whose hand I am holding has been dead for 174 years.
It is Saturday noon in County Kildare, and the Hideout Olde World Pub is filling with local families coming from the market and a brace of habited, elderly nuns drinking, I pray, straight tea. Outside, the April sun is shining, and the village of Kilcullen, on the River Liffey, 25 miles southwest of Dublin, basks contentedly, secure in the fame and commerce that flow here, thanks to my desiccated friend.
"Let me take a picture of you," my wife, Linda, says, brandishing her little camera. Obeying her (as always), I hold up the morbid relic, which is not only the hand but the entire petrified right arm and shoulder blade of a 19th-century Irish sporting hero named Dan Donnelly, and manage a wan smile. The photo session done, I give Donnelly's Arm back to the publican and return to my Murphy's stout and my cod Mornay.
The Hideout, which has displayed the famous appendage since 1953, is a comprehensive museum of macabre Hibernian playfulness. Above my head is a knob-jawed Indian crocodile, 12 feet long with teeth like fence posts, and on adjacent shelves are the propeller of the first aeroplane to cross the Irish Sea (it crashed on Irish soil), a harp carved from the shoulder blade of an ox, one Bengal tiger skin complete with head, a quiver of bona fide Congolese poison arrows and a fine example of a Celtic cross painstakingly crafted from matchsticks and toothbrush handles. The dining tables rest on antique treadle sewing machines. But all of this pales, of course, beside the singularity of Donnelly's Arm.
Who was Dan Donnelly and why did his disciples think to save a hunk of him for Ireland to honor? Why did it take more than a century for his right arm to make its way to a display case in this exuberant rural restaurant? The answers lie enmeshed in the proud, painful histories of Donnelly's sport and of his country. And the search for them leads a traveler to obscure corners of this old and eloquent land.
A couple of miles north of the Hideout pub, on the rolling plain of close-clipped pasture known as the Curragh, a weathered gray obelisk rests plumply inside an iron fence. Squat clumps of yellow-blooming gorse bedot the hillside beyond the monument, and a father kicks a soccer ball to a pair of squealing daughters clad in jumpsuits of astonishing pink. There is no one else around. The inscription on the monument says:
ON THIS SPOT
13TH DEC 1815
It was not boxing as we would recognize it. The rules, codified in 1743 in the sport's first British flowering, were rudimentary: "...no person is to seize his Adversary by the ham or the breeches...." A bout could last a minute, or an afternoon. There was as much wrestling as punching. A round ended when a man was knocked down, or simply knelt for a rest. Matches concluded in unconsciousness, death, dispute or mass arrests. Shambling "champions" toured the countryside, taking on all comers. The entire enterprise—sparring, fighting, betting—was illegal almost everywhere. It was insanely popular.
The core of combat, then as now, was personal and national conceit. George Cooper was English, a bargeman from Staffordshire. Dan Donnelly was a son of the Dublin docks, the ninth child of his mother's 17, his native Ireland a restive fief of the old, mad George III. Britain had never been stronger, or Erin weaker. It was six months after Wellington's epochal victory at Waterloo, 17 years since Catholic Ireland's first abortive Rising. Twelve decades later Joe Louis and Max Schmeling would reprise the roles at Yankee Stadium, surrogates for freedom and the Reich.