15 Aug 2022

Reaching out to a famous family connection

Nineteenth-century boxer Dan Donnelly was said to have arms that reached down to his knees. Now, one of his descendents has reached out all the way from California to make a connection to the legendary boxer, thanks in part to a stop in Kilkenny.

Nineteenth-century boxer Dan Donnelly was said to have arms that reached down to his knees. Now, one of his descendents has reached out all the way from California to make a connection to the legendary boxer, thanks in part to a stop in Kilkenny.

Dan Donnelly’s great-great-grandson Donald Donnelly spent three days in Kilkenny last week along with his wife Mary and their friends Sue and Rob.

They were staying in Celtic House B&B on Michael Street in Kilkenny, having become friends with proprietors Angela and John Byrne during the latter couple’s annual trip to San Diego, which the Byrnes have visited each March for the past six years to represent Ireland in the city’s St Patrick’s Day parade.

“We became friends and they wanted to come to Ireland, so we said, ‘Why don’t you come for a few days in Kilkenny?’” Angela recalled.

The visitors arrived in Kilkenny on September 30 in time to support the Cats in the All-Ireland senior hurling final replay, and the following day they travelled to Kilcullen for a personal victory of their own – a private viewing of Dan Donnelly’s preserved arm.

If that sounds strange, rewind back to 1788 when Dan Donnelly was born in the Dublin docks. Having developed into a fearless boxer, he went on to win several notable fights, among them a bout in September 1814 in a natural amphitheatre known as Belcher’s Hollow in The Curragh. Following a fight that was reportedly watched by 20,000 spectators, such was Donnelly’s renown that the setting was renamed Donnelly’s Hollow.

When the boxer eventually died, in 1820, his buried body fell victim to grave robbers seeking to sell his body to science for a healthy sum. Upon delivering his body to a surgeon, however, the surgeon recognised Donnelly and ordered that his body be reburied – but not before taking and preserving the boxer’s right arm in lead paint.

Over the years, the arm was then used for study in a Scottish medical college, and later for exhibition in a Victorian travelling circus, before making its way to Kilcullen in the 1950s. At that time, publican Jim Byrne gave the arm a new home in his pub, The Hideout, where it was on display for 43 years. His widow, Josephine, now has possession of the arm, along with artefacts and articles relating to Dan Donnelly.

62 years later

Around the time that the arm made its way back to Ireland, in early 1950 Donald Donnelly’s father told him the story of his forefather’s arm.

“He had got that story from his grandfather,” Donald recalled. “I was a young man at the time and I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah...’ And right after that, the Korean War broke out and I got called into the army and I forgot about it.”

Fast-forward to the early 1990s, when Donald read an article about the arm in Sports Illustrated magazine. “That got me going again, so I started to do some research on it,” he said. “So here I am, 62 years later.”

He and Mary came over to Ireland in 1995 and attempted to find some information about his great-great-grandfather but didn’t have enough information to start with and didn’t have enough time during the visit to trawl through the historical information.

He knows, for example, that Dan was born in 1788 in Dublin, but he doesn’t know in which parish. He also knows that Dan was married and that his own grandfather – Dan’s grandson – was born in the US city of St Louis, Missouri. “I have a lot more research to do,” he said.

On this visit they were able to see Donnelly’s Hollow and – more important – to see the arm itself.

“I got to hold the arm in my own hands,” he said.

Even though they had seen the arm in an exhibition titled “Fighting Irishmen: A Celebration of the Celtic Warrior” in New York back in 2005, this was a far more personal experience.

“I was shaking when I held it. I was afraid I was going to drop it. It was quite a thrill,” he said. “I choked up a little bit when I saw it. I felt a connection – I don’t know if it was spiritual or what.”

After their time in Kilkenny, they travelled to Killarney and the Ring of Kerry, up to Galway, Mayo, Donegal and Belfast before returning to Dublin, and while in Dublin they were hoping to meet up with Patrick Mylar, who has written a book detailing where all of the Donnellys landed in the US.

Donald’s time here has certainly given him a stronger sense of connection to his great-great-grandfather, although it seems the boxing gene hasn’t been passed down to him.

“I competed in college in boxing. I was in one fight, and we wore helmets at the time. I was boxing against a friend and he was left-handed. He hit me so hard that my helmet spun around and I couldn’t see anything – and that was the end of my boxing career,” he said.

“I competed in athletics after that. It was safer that way.”

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