The Sweet Science – a compilation of boxing articles by legendary journalist A.J. Liebling- was described by Sports Illustrated as the best American sports book of all time. There are stories of greats such as Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano, and settings such as Madison Square Gardens and Yankee Stadium. Also taking its place in the seminal work, is a piece entitled Donnybrook Fair. The unobtrusive suburb in Dublin, which once held an infamous fair, and which lends its name to “a scene of uproar and disorder”, had enough intrigue and charm for Liebling to make the journey to write about it in 1955.
Donnybrook Bus Depot is a place I have passed by many times a week for many years. However, until recently, I have never given much of a thought to it and its history. Unless you were a devoted bus enthusiast, it is a place where the 46a and 145 go to get washed and serviced – seems as boring and benign as it gets. The building however, like many other forgotten places of Dublin, has its own unique niche in Irish boxing lore.
The event in question was organised by well known promoter Jack Solomons, and was purposely held in May, to coincide with the An Tóstal festival. Headlining was a bout between Derryman Billy ‘Spider’ Kelly and Ray Famechon, with the Frenchman defending his European Featherweight Title. Kelly looked likely to be declared the winner, but under the low-smokey ceiling, Famechon’s arm was raised. A journalist with the Irish Press described it as “one of the biggest shocks in Franco-Irish history”, and large parts of the crowd of 10,000 were in uproar. They booed for ten minutes, with some breaking their seats in protest, and some looking to assault the Dutch referee.
At 42 Pearse Street, formerly Great Brunswick Street, lies one of the cities’ most picturesque buildings. Once known as the Antient Concert Rooms, it is a place whose rich history ranges from years of classical concerts, to James Joyce, and of course, to boxing.
Joyce’s Ulysses is the setting for more boxing history, where we read about “Dublin’s pet lamb”, Myler Keogh, defeating the “Portobello bruiser”, Sergeant Major Percy Bennett, at Portobello Barracks. While it is a fictional fight, it is based on a real event between M.L. Keogh and Private Garry of the 6th Dragoons, at Earlsfort Terrace Rink, another historic boxing venue that is no longer with us. There you would find bouts with names that seem almost comical now, such as ‘Corporal Arthur’, or ‘Driver Knox’.
One of Irish boxing’s best stories involves the old La Scala Theatre and Opera House, known as Capitol Theatre before being demolished. It was a time when bombings and shootings were a daily occurrence in the city, as the Irish Civil War raged. Nevertheless, a World Light Heavyweight Championship bout between French-Senegalese man Louis Mbarick Fall, better known as Battling Siki, and Clareman ‘Bould’ Mike McTigue was organised.
World Champion Siki was a flamboyant character and was known to parade down the Champs Elysee with his pet lion cub and a string of women on his arm.
The fight was scheduled for St. Patrick’s Day, a huge risk for the outsider Siki. Certain figures in the Catholic Church and IRA did not want the fight to go ahead, out of respect for the executed prisoners, and for the feast day of the country’s patron saint. The government, however, were determined to proceed, and show that they would not bow to outside pressure. Early on in the night tensions were heightened, as a bomb was exploded on nearby Moore Lane, audible from inside the LaScala. The fighting inside the Theatre also raged on as McTigue emerged victorious after a closely fought 20 round battle. To fittingly conclude an already fascinating tale, a small gunfight broke out on Sackville Street around the time crowds were leaving the venue.
Other notable theatres include the Theatre Royal, which in 1908 played host to a World Heavyweight Title match between Wexford man Jem Roche, and the famed Canadian champion, Tommy Burns – Roche was to be Ko’ed in the first round.
The stadiums of Dublin also had a role to play, and they provided some of the most compelling occasions in Irish boxing. In 1943, Dalymount Park served as the venue for Jack Doyle’s final two bouts. Doyle, known as the “Gorgeous Gael”, had been a celebrity of the time. At 19, he had fought in front of 85,000, for the British Heavyweight title, at White City Stadium in London. His tenor voice had filled the London Palladium, and he had leading roles in Hollywood films. At the time of the fight he was married to Movita Castaneda, the future wife of Marlon Brando, and the couple had been touring the music halls and opera houses of the UK and Ireland, to huge success.
23,000 spectators filled into Dalymount Park to watch an inebriated Doyle take on a part-time farmer from Mullingar, Chris Cole, a huge underdog. The fight was described in the Irish Times, “[he was] knocked silly in the first round. The fight lasted just a minute and a half, and for about half that time Doyle was lying on the ropes or being pummelled with smashing lefts and rights.” A few months later he had his last fight. Albeit with far less fanfare, Doyle managed to KO Butcher Howell, and finish his boxing career victorious.
Eight years later, Doyle would return to face Tony “Two Ton” Galento in an exhibition wrestling match, in Tolka Park Stadium. The fight mirrored Doyle’s career at the time – a mockery – as both fighters ended up falling through the ropes. Galento could not continue, and Doyle emerged the victor, in what was a shallow win when compared to the turmoil of his life outside the ring.
The speedway stadium in Chapelizod and the aforementioned Earlsfort Terrace Rink, are other venues largely unknown and forgotten. Long gone, but like many of the places I have mentioned, they live on through sport. In this case it is boxing, which acts as the elixir for these nooks, a sport which has an extraordinary habit of producing stories full of charm, humour, and historical significance.