Dan Donnelly

He cut a figure fit for a hero of any of the great Celtic legends - though he was not born on a high mythological mountain top of an impossibly beautiful mother and a warrior father. Dan Donnelly was born a stone’s throw from Rosie Hackett Bridge, to a mother who reared seventeen children in a tenement on Townsend Street and a long forgotten father. Standing just six feet tall, he was broad shouldered, long armed, incredibly strong and brim full of daring do, recklessness and hot tempered gusto.

At first armed with blackthorn sticks and shillelaghs, and later with his bare fists, Dan fought his way out of the back streets. He threw his hat into the ring at Donnybrook Fair, taking on all comers and in his spare time worked as a carpenter and did as any great hero is obliged to do - he rescued a damsel in distress, a victim of ruffian soldiers, who threw her into the Liffey, from where the brave Dan plucked her. His philosophy was simple: ‘sure there is no point in a man’s learning to fight, unless nature gave him a bit of a taste for it’. Stories of his boxing prowess fell on the ears of one Captain Kelly who spirited Dan away to the plains of Kildare, introduced Dan to a pair of boxing gloves, trained him in the science of the sport and counselled him to hold his temper.

Twenty thousand crowded into Belcher’s Hollow in September 1814, to witness Dan and Englishman Tom Hall generously toast each other before they tied their colours to the stake and entered the ring. A mere twenty minutes later Dan’s colours flew victorious. Bonfires blazed along the Liffey and beyond for Dan was no longer just a boxer, he was now a rare source of national pride. England offered rich pickings and he set off for a series of exhibition fights even sparring with George lV, who, legend has it, rewarded him with a knighthood. They had much in common, Dan and George - a taste for good food, fine wines and the company of women.

Sir Dan, however, had not the benefit of the royal coffers and the threat of the debtor’s prison encouraged him to return home where Dubliners put him on a white horse and paraded him through the streets. He boxed again, he even had his own exhibition tent at Donnybrook Fair in August 1819, but was mighty fond of the company of his customers in his tavern, The Shining Daisy, and he died there in February 1820 at a mere 32 years of age. Over 80,000 followed Dan’s last journey across the Liffey to Bully’s Acre in Kilmainham. They came in carriages, on horseback and on bare feet to bid farewell to Dan Donnelly, their very real Celtic hero.

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 10th July 2014