As a young cadet on the Curragh of Kildare, I first learned of the bare knuckle boxer Dan Donnelly. There was a stone memorial to him at the lowest point of a natural amphitheatre in a place called Donnelly’s Hollow on the Athgarvan side of the Curragh. He had defeated the English boxing champion Cooper at this very spot in the year of the Waterloo Battle 1815.
On a recent Saturday morning educational ramble from the water-trough on the Parade our local group ventured to Johnswell and the local countryside. I had read of Donnelly’s long arm having been replicated on the pier of a gate entrance nearby. Alas we were told it had long been removed.
The property originally belonged to a Miss Kelly. Her brother, a horse trainer had hosted Donnelly’s training at Calverstown and was the first to spot his talent. They appear to have bet heavily on Donnelly defeating Cooper in the marathon fight. He had already beaten Tom Oliver over 34 rounds at Crawley Common London.
At a vital stage in the Curragh battle Donnelly was knocked down by Cooper and things did not look good for the Irish champion. Dan was quite a ladysman and Miss Kelly is said to have revived him with a kiss. He went on to win the most celebrated fight in Irish history up to then. A massive crowd had cheered him to the echo. Such was the crowd’s enthusiasm that they marked the footprints made by Dan as he climbed the steep side of Belcher’s Hollow. They cut out the shape of his feet afterwards and these famous steps are still visible at the scene. The Hollow was promptly renamed Donnelly’s hollow.
He had a legendary long reach, allegedly able to tie his knee high boots without bending down. Any of you who saw his arm on display in The Hideout in Kilcullen can vouch for this. It has since been sold to America.
Donnelly later lived a life of debauchery. No wonder Patrick Myler named his book on Donnelly- Regency Rogue. He died at the young age of forty two years and was buried in Bully’s Acre Kilmainham in the grave of Murrough O’Brien, son of Brian Boru, both killed in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf. Body snatchers couldn’t resist stealing the hero’s body. In their endeavours the arm came away hence it being displayed up to recent times in Kilcullen close to the scene of his greatest victory. We are not sure if this was the once badly broken arm which famous Kilkenny surgeon Dr Abraham Colles so expertly repaired
Dan was inducted into Boxing’s Hall of Fame for bare fisted fighters. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine carried twenty pages of poetic lamentation at his death. Famous poets like Byron, Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott wrote poems in his honour at his passing. One such offering from Carrick’s Morning Post goes as follows:-
Oh, Erin’s daughter, come and shed your tears
On your Champion’s grave, who loved you many years;
To Erin’s sons this day’s a day of sorrow;
Who have we now who will defend our Curragh?