Dan Donnelly was a famous 19th century Irish boxer who was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2008. Regarded as the first Irish heavyweight champion he was the winner of three major fights during his boxing career. One of Donnelly’s arms was preserved and was on display in Ireland and America for many years.
Dan Donnelly was born in Dublin in March 1778. He began working as a carpenter at an early age. He gained a reputation as fighter in taverns around Dublin. Donnelly was persuaded to take up boxing as a career by a horse trainer called Captain William Kelly. He moved to Kilcullen in County Kildare to train as a boxer.
Following a period of training Donnelly’s first fight was held in a place, which was then called Belcher’s Hollow on The Curragh in County Kildare on September 14th 1814. It is reported that a crowd of 20,000 attended the fight, in what is a natural amphitheatre. It is now called Donnelly’s Hollow. Donnelly’s opponent was a well-known English fighter called Tom Hall. The fight ended in victory for Donnelly. He was acclaimed as Ireland’s Champion and the victory was the cause of great celebration.
Donnelly’s second fight was also against an English fighter called George Cooper. The fight took place at Donnelly’s Hollow on 13th December 1815. The attendance was again reported to be 20,000. The crowd witnessed another victory for Donnelly against a man who was described as a first rate fighter. On the 21st of July 1819 Donnelly fought his last fight against English man Tom Oliver. The fight which lasted 34 rounds was fought at Crawley Down in Sussex and ended in victory for Donnelly. It is reported that Donnelly was knighted by the Prince Regent (later King George IV of England). Sir Dan returned in triumph to Dublin.
Just seven months after his victory Donnelly died penniless in Dublin at the age of 32. He was buried at Bully’s Acre, Kilmainham, Dublin. His grave was robbed however, and his body sold to a surgeon called Hall. The theft was discovered and the surgeon was forced to rebury Donnelly’s body. However, he kept his right arm which he preserved in red lead paint. The surgeon took it with him to a medical school in Scotland where it was used for study purposes by medical students for a number of years.
Dan Donnelly’s arm was later used as an exhibition in a Victorian travelling circus, before being brought to Kilcullen in the 1950s. It was put on display in the Hideout Public House until 1996. In 2006 Donnelly’s arm was put on display at Irish Arts Centre in New York City in an exhibition called ‘Fighting Irishmen: A Celebration of the Celtic Warrior’. Donnelly’s arm returned to Ireland in 2009.
Dan Donnelly, Ireland’s first heavyweight boxing champion, died in Dublin in the year 1820 On This Day.
Image from page 80 of “Athletics and manly sport” (1890)