Daniel Donnelly was born in Townsend Street, Dublin, in 1788. The Ireland into which he was born was a land characterized by colonial oppression, acute agrarian poverty, and burning patriotism. Just a decade later an ill-armed, Irish force, fuelled by a desperate nationalistic pride, and a vitriolic sense of idealism, rose in revolt under the assuasion of Theobald Wolf Tone. The 1798 Rebellion enjoyed a fleeting glimpse of success, before being brutally suppressed by the crown. The subsequent death of Wolf Tone left the Irish people leaderless and broken in sprit; in desperate need of a re-affirmation of identity and a re-kindling of patriotism.
Little is known of Donnelly's early other than the fact that he was a carpenter and that he frequented taverns in which he could reputedly hold his own at hard drinking or hard hitting. He was eventually discovered by a Captain Kelly, A horse trainer from Maddenstown, who saw Donnelly demolishing friends and enemies with belligerent ease during a coffee shop brawl. Kelly, recognizing Donnelly's potential, persuaded him to take up boxing as a career and brought him to train at his brother's residence in Claverstown, near Kilcullen. Donnelly's first recorder fight took place at the Curragh on September 14th, 1814.
The purse amounted to one hundred sovereigns and his opponent was the much vaunted Tom Hall. Extraordinary interest was aroused by this encounter, which, it is recorded, was witnessed by "not less than twenty thousand spectators". Little can be said about the fight itself. Donnelly won it in twenty minutes and duly spent the next five days celebrating his victory in a tavern in Kilcullen.
Donnelly's second and
most famous fight took place at the spot now known as
Donnelly's Hollow, a naturally perfect amphitheater at
the Athgarvan end of the Curragh. His opponent was
the mighty George Cooper, who just two years previously
had fought the formidable Tom Oliver. In the minds
of the populace Donnelly had come to epitomise the
national struggle, championing their seemingly hopeless
cause against the intransigent representatives of the
Crown. Every coach, post-chaise, and brougham in
Dublin crowded the roads to the Curragh, to witness this
The fight, which lasted eleven rounds, began shortly after 10am. Jack Coady attended Donnelly, whiles Copper had Ned Painter in his corner. Donnelly's entry into the ring sparked rounds of generous applause, and his fine physique drew many comments from the appreciative. The preliminaries having been dealt with, the contest began amidst a cacophony of noise.
The first three rounds were dominated by Donnelly whose sledge-hammer blows thrice floored the Englishman, to the accompaniment of thunderous applause from his delighted countryman. The following three rounds however were most definitely Cooper's. His scientific methods allowed him to dodge Donnelly's bull-like rushes and counter with some solid head blows. The 7th and 8th rounds witnessed a show of colossal strength from Donnelly as he pursued his opponent around the ring connecting fearfully with blows to the head and temple. By the 11th round it was evident that Copper, despite his indomitable spirit, could not win. Donnelly finally put an end to the hostilities by knocking Copper senseless to the ground with two bludgeoning punches, the second of which caught Cooper on the mouth and broke his jaw-bone. Donnelly's emphatic victory was greeted by explosive roars of jubilation, as his follower's invaded the ring to congratulate their conquering hero.
For all Donnelly's
exuberance, prowess, and courage, he remained reckless in
his style of living. Between 1815 and 1819 he was
renowned more for his riotous living and extravagance
than his pugilistic endeavor. Indeed, it was only
under the greatest duress that he could be induced to
settle down and train for his fight with Tom Oliver
(which he won after 34 rounds). He was introduced
to the Prince Regent (later George IV) who, on meeting
Donnelly remarked. "I am glad
to meet the best man in Ireland"
to which Donnelly replied, "I'm
not, your Royal Highness, but I'm the best in
This meeting led to a strong friendship, and Dan
was later Knighted, the last man so honoured during the
Sir Dan returned to Dublin and balladeers have described the wild scenes of enthusiasm and adulation that greeted him as he was chaired through the streets of Dublin. Though alert and wily inside the ring these traits deserted Donnelly outside it, where he was an easy and gullible target for tricksters. He died penniless at the early age of 32 on February 18th 1820. His funeral cortege was enormous, thousands of his grief-stricken admirers lined the route, and carriages and carts loaded with flowers forlornly followed the hearse. His gloves were carried on a silken cushion, and he was laid to rest in Bully's Acre, Kilmainham, Dublin.
The Fate of Donnelly's Arm
Dan Donnelly's body,
having been laid to rest in Bully's acre, was not
destined to remain undisturbed, It was stolen by medical
students - an act which instigated riots - despite which
the students were successful. The body was purchased from
them by the eminent Dublin surgeon, Hall, who having
removed the right arm for the purpose of studying the
muscle structure, respectfully re-buried the body.
Surgeon Hall transported the arm to Scotland where it
remained undisturbed for many years before being
purchased by a roving circus man who exhibited it
throughout the country in a 'peep show'.