In 1815, in the vague December daylight, there were 20,000 hoping, hating patriots here on the Curragh. The railroad had not been invented. They came by cart, by carriage, by towboat, by foot. Noblemen mingled with fishmongers and wheelwrights. The lust for blood leavened them. They called themselves the Fancy.
After hours of negotiations of stakes and side bets, the carnage began. The object was to render the opponent prostrate for half a minute or to otherwise so impair him that his managers surrendered. Donnelly, who had been discovered a couple of years earlier in the Dublin slums gallantly pummeling a neighborhood bully, had as his Don King a prominent fancier of the art named Captain Kelly. Such "seconds" stood in the arena with their fighters and dragged them to their feet when the lights went out.
It was, by surviving accounts, a hell of a fight. In one telling the Dubliner was laid flat in the second round but was revived when Kelly's beauteous daughter kissed him and whispered that she had bet her father's entire estate on his success. An Irish folk song, The Ballad of Donnelly & Cooper, remembers this. It may even be true. Another version of the tale holds that Miss Kelly shoved a stalk of sugarcane into the comatose Donnelly's maw, saying, "Now, me charmer, give 'im a warmer."
Revivified by whatever means, Donnelly rose before 30 seconds had passed and delivered his trademark blow, a cross-buttock hip throw that left him sitting atop the bloodied enemy. And so it went until the 11th round, when Dan Donnelly broke George Cooper's jaw and England was defeated. It had taken 22 minutes.
The Fancy exulted, collecting wagers from backers of the bargeman at odds of 10 to 1. The Irish conqueror was lifted from the field by the throng. And now, near the close of a subsequent century, in the yielding turf of the Curragh, I walk the same path, following a double row of shallow footprints, maintained with loving exactness, that lead from the low, gray monument to the hilltop far beyond.
Flush with celebrity and his £60 purse from the Cooper fight, Dan Donnelly decided to go on tour as Champion of Ireland. Soon after, in England, the prince regent purportedly knighted him one evening at a house of pleasure; probably they both were as drunk as lords. Intoxication was Sir Dan's habitual state of being. It was said that his training regimen involved five draughts of malt for every round of sparring. It was an age when a lighter could make do with as much anesthesia as he could get.
Back in Dublin the champion went into the hospitality trade, running a succession of pubs, pulling pints for the clamoring Fancy and one or two for himself. This would become the familiar path of many an ex-fighter. Jack Dempsey would do the same on Broadway. And the great Louis, his faculties nearly gone, would close his days sadly glad-handing in Las Vegas.
Some of Dan Donnelly's oases still stand. Kitty-corner from St. Patrick's Cathedral—where, like Donnelly's Arm, the skull of Jonathan Swift was kept on display for decades—in the dreary Dublin district called the Coombe, I take lunch at Fallon's Capstan Bar, where Sir Dan held sway in 1818. The fare is plebeian (vegetable soup, Cheddar on toast, Guinness by the ebony pint) and I sit on a worn, tweed-covered bench in the snug by the front window, jotting notes, immersed in Ireland. Behind me is a ceramic Dalmatian missing a foreleg, and on the bare-brick walls are old tobacco advertisements and the smoke-dulled red regalia of the Manchester United football team.
At the Capstan, Dan Donnelly went broke, as he had in Capel Street and Pool-beg. But he did not throw in the towel. He moved on to the Four Courts and another pub on Greek Street. That site is now the Dublin Motor Vehicle Office, the Oifig Cláraithe Gluaisteán, but there is a plaque commemorating the fact that just after midnight on Feb. 18, 1820, Dan Donnelly dropped dead in the Greek Street pub. He was 32. It might have been a sclerotic liver or venereal disease. But the popular opinion was that Sir Dan had drunk too much iced water immediately following a feverish game of racquets. The irony was unmistakable: It was the water, not the whiskey, that killed the Champion of Ireland. Succoring kisses and sugarcane could not avail him now.
The city wept and wailed. At the magnificent National Library in Dublin, in a reading room as still and sanctified as a synagogue, I pore through the newspapers of the day. For me it is an epiphany—the confirmation, in fading ink on a printed page, that there was such a man, in such a city, so long ago. Delighted with this ratification, I copy the account of the funeral from Carrick's Morning Post of Feb. 23, 1820: