Barrettstown House, Co. Kildare history, Dan Donnelly, Irish bare-fisted boxing, Irish boxers, Irish pugilist, Jack Hammersley, Kilcullen, Leprechaun, Morristown Lattin, Naas, Newbridge, St. Patricks Well Barrettstown, Strange tales from Ireland, the curragh, The Hideout, the pride of ireland
One summer I decided to take my eleven year old daughter Laura to visit the Emerald Isle where I grew up.
We hired a car in Dublin and drove to County Kildare on a beautiful sunny day; along leafy country lanes by hedgerows where once the members of the Kildare Hunt jumped their horses in pursuit of sad foxes and joyful baying hounds.
The family cemetery is on the road to the house and I wanted to stop there in remembrance and so we could make a wish in St. Patrick’s Well. But I drove on because I wanted to show Laura the house where I grew up in first.
We stopped at the main entrance and the wrought-iron gates were closed and locked with a chain. The little gatehouse itself looked empty and rather sad. I pressed the bell on one of the gateposts several times, but no-one answered, and I said to Laura “There’s no-one there Sweetie, so let’s go to the cemetery.” and she replied “Well alright but I hope we see the Leprechaun.”
She said that because I had always told her stories about the little old man in the green jacket with gold buttons and a slanted green hat who had lived there for hundreds of years. The local people had seen him many times over the centuries.
The river Liffey runs along the boundary of the cemetery on one side. I used to fish for trout there when I was a boy; a sparkling rush of water with its pools and eddies, and I knew every inch of the banks and places where the silver-flashing fish would try to hide.
The Leprechaun was always at my side then – he liked fishing too.
One afternoon when I was fishing at the cemetery when I was fourteen years old the sky suddenly turned black and there was a tremendous storm; huge claps of thunder and lightning strikes like carpet-bombing from the wars in patches around the cemetery and across the river.
I was scared and began to shiver, so I ran for my life to get home to shelter along the gravel paths past the old graves. The gale-force wind and pouring rain made it even worse as I ran.
And then I realised there was someone running next to me like a shadow which could not be. It was a little figure who passed straight through the old oak trees and bushes as we tried to get away from the storm.
We ran side by side together, and we understood each other. There was no need to explain.
If you ever want to go there to fish you will have good company with the Leprechaun.
You will not see him but you will feel him next to you. Don’t say my name, he will already know. Just say the one who skipped and laughed with him; the boy whose tears once stained the golden buttons on his green velvet tunic – the one who cared.
But to the story I am trying to tell which is about Dan Donnelly’s arm.
The following day I took Laura to lunch at a favourite pub where I used to go when I was a teenager. and later in my early twenties when I worked as a trainee thoroughbred race-horse trainer on the Curragh. It is in the little country town of Kilcullen, not far from Naas and is named The Hideout.
The pub had been there many decades. When you entered it was another world; a series of little cosy rooms with roaring fireplaces and oak beamed low ceilings. On the walls were prints and paintings of local history; the Kildare Hunt and old photos of times gone by, and ancient handguns, swords and farming implements.
It was a convivial place where the locals laughed and sang and danced to Gaelic bands. A place where Tim Finnegan in his day would have gone for a jar or two I am sure.
And just beside the main fireplace there was a glass cabinet – and in that case there was a man’s whole arm.
It was the mummified right arm of the famous 19th century Irish bare-fisted boxer, Dan Donnelly.
I had wanted for years to go back to The Hideout to see it again. It fascinated and horrified me at the same time. I mean where on else in the world would people keep someone’s arm in a case for all to see? Which of course adds to my argument that the Irish are completely mad.
So I took Laura there to see the arm but when we arrived and went inside everything had changed. Thirty years or more had passed for me by then.
The pub had been all opened up and made into big rooms; no more cosy corners and the fireplaces were no longer there. Plastic columns now supported the once low beamed ceilings.
For so many years at lunchtime and at nights it had been filled with locals and laughter and music, now there was no-one there.
But worst of all, Dan’s arm was gone . . .
In shock I asked the barman what on earth had happened to the arm and he replied “The place was sold and then an American found out about it and bought it from the Byrne family I think. He took it to Chicago.” [Note by Ed. How the blazes do you take a man’s arm through Customs?]
Before I explain what happened to his arm let me fill you in on the background. It is a story from my past, but has been written about since many times.
I quote from an article published on February 17, 2011 in the Irish Echo (author unknown but to their credit).
“Born in Dublin in 1788, Donnelly’s prize-fighting career began when he came to the aid of an old man being abused by a bully in the local pub. Soon crowned Irish champion, he assumed mythical status when he challenged and knocked out English champion George Cooper in 11 rounds at a natural amphitheatre on the outskirts of Kilcullen on Dec. 13, 1815.
To this day, visitors retrace the scooped-out steps that he took up the hill to face Cooper at what is now known as Donnelly’s Hollow.
A second victory over another English opponent, Tom Oliver, further burnished his reputation.
Unfortunately, Donnelly would fall ill and die on Feb. 18, 1820, leaving behind a grief-stricken nation. The grief would turn to outrage days later when grave robbers dug up his body.
According to Houlihan, grave robbing was a particularly popular crime amongst Dublin’s criminal element and performed by “Sackmen.”
“At that time it was illegal to work on any cadaver except those of executed criminals. The demand of medical colleges, physicians, and scientists quite simply far exceeded the supply. Stolen bodies brought a good price in the black market,” said Houlihan.
Donnelly’s corpse was traced to the home of a Dublin surgeon named Hall who, after a heated discussion agreed to return the body on one condition: that he keep the right arm that had felled the English champions as a macabre trophy.
Houlihan said after it was dipped in red lead to preserve it, the arm made its way to a medical college in Edinburgh, Scotland, before appearing in a traveling circus in Ireland in the early 20th century.
“It was from this circus owner that Hugh “Texas” McAlevey purchased Dan Donnelly’s arm. Upon Hugh’s death, the arm was procured by Tom Donnelly and then given to Des Byrne’s father to place in the Hideout Pub in Kilcullen.” he said.
The Irish people want Dan’s arm back again where it belongs; with him.
It is not just us; it is Dan himself because it is his limb, the one he fought with and the one he was so proud of. We want it to be buried with the rest of him at Kilmainham Cemetery where he was laid to rest in Dublin so he can come together once again.
Dan Donnelly died penniless at the early age of 32. 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 boxing gloves were carried on a silken cushion and he was laid to rest in Bully’s Acre. Kilmainham, Dublin
It is not right to steal a man’s arm in the first place and then spirit it away to foreign lands where it does not belong. It is ok to borrow it for a while as some did; but never to take it for all time.
Just like the request from Greece to get their Elgin Marbles back, we want Dan’s arm back too. His arm was taken away from him against his will; exhibited in a Circus, and then taken to be shown again as an exhibit in places in America.
No-one knows for sure where Dan’s arm is now, but whoever has it should give it back to him.
He will never rest in peace until then. It is a matter of humanitarianism and of Irish national pride. I hope you will agree.
I rest my case (for now).
Postscript – you have to read this! Click here
Note of by the author dated 10th June, 2014
Please visit this link to an interesting article regarding Dan and his famous arm written by Fergus Byrne (one of the family who owned The Hideout) in October, 2006.
And other more recent news (to be confirmed) is that the arm is back in the Republic of Ireland, but is still resisting worthy attempts by fans to find its exact location!
Says Breda Reid, an old friend and fellow journalist who lives in Co. Kildare “It does seem that it is back in the Emerald Isle and has been on show in different exhibitions around the country. The 200th anniversary of the fight on the Curragh is in 2015 and I have heard that a Curragh based boxing club is organising a memorial fight then.”