The mummified limb, amputated from Donnelly’s stolen corpse after his death by natural causes at age 32 in 1820, will be one of the many historical items and memorabilia on display at the Irish Arts Center’s “Fighting Irishmen: A Celebration of the Celtic Warrior,” exhibit opening in Manhattan next month.
John L. Sullivan’s beaver-lined fur coat, a sports jacket once owned by Jack Dempsey and a pair of bag gloves passed down from Freddy Gilroy to one-time amateur fighter Liam Neeson will be among the numerous other items on display at the center on Aug. 28 through Nov. 30.
James Houlihan, the center’s curator, hailed the Donnelly exhibit as historic.
“It’s fitting that this grassroots cultural center has brought the legend of Dan Donnelly to life once again for the entire world to view and wonder,” he said Monday.
Houlihan traveled to Kilcullen last month to conclude arrangements for the famous arm to be brought to New York City — finally realizing, albeit posthumously, Josephine’s late husband Des Byrne’s dream of taking the appendage on tour abroad.
“Although Des did not live to see his dream fulfilled, it is through the dedication and generosity of his widow, Josephine, and her wonderful children, Daragh, Colin and her twin daughters, Aine and Elma that Dan Donnelly’s arm makes its way across the Atlantic to New York and the Irish Arts Center,” said Houlihan.
For most of the latter half of the 20th century, the arm was on display at the Hideout Pub in Kilcullen, owned by Byrne.
The brief, stunning life of one of Ireland’s first great Celtic warriors of the ring and how he lost a part of his anatomy in death is a fascinating tale that dates back to one early winter’s day in 1815.
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, living 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.