Jack B. Yeats R.H.A. (Irish, 1871-1957) Donnelly's Hollow 61 x 91.5 cm. (24 x 36 in.) (Painted in 1936)
Body and soul

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 55, Summer 2018

Page 55

In one corner, a pugilist with unusually long arms. In the other, Ireland's greatest painter. Maev Kennedy tells the story of an epochal boxing match and an exceptional work of art

On some road-weary evening, driving back from a journalistic outing to the south-west and before hurling my little yellow Citroën Dyane into Dublin rush-hour traffic, I would often stop for a coffee at a pub on the edge of the Curragh. It was a nondescript pub in a nondescript crossroads village, and the coffee was dreadful – we are talking Ireland in the 1980s – but there would often be a scatter of tourist cars or even a tour bus parked outside, because the Hideout in Kilcullen held one of the most extraordinary objects of any pub in Ireland.

The artist Jack B Yeats probably sat many times just where I rested with my mug of instant coffee. He may even have come to see the glass case on the wall holding something resembling a walking stick, as dark and gnarled as a piece of bog oak. The regulars paid it no attention, but every day strangers came asking to see the right arm of the Georgian boxer 'Sir' Dan Donnelly, an arm so long he was said to have tied his shoe laces without bending down – unlikely, since he was all of six feet tall. The arm was mummified with its fist half clenched, one finger crooked as if in perpetual challenge.

The relic went when the pub was sold 20 years ago, but tourists still come looking for it. The arm was there from around 1949 and Yeats lived until 1957 – although, with his lifelong love of circuses, sideshows and boxing, he may well have encountered it years earlier, as it travelled far further than its original owner. It travels still, resurfacing in New York a few years ago in an exhibition provocatively titled Fighting Irishmen: A Celebration of the Celtic Warrior.

Yeats certainly knew the pub, the village and, within walking distance, the scene of Donnelly's triumph. He recorded in drawings and paintings the natural turf amphitheatre that would be known forever after the match as Donnelly's Hollow, the site of the brutal bare knuckle slugging contest that ended in a broken jaw for his English challenger, and a purse of sovereigns for Donnelly.
The 1936 painting offered at Bonhams in the Modern British and Irish Art sale in June shows the scene, but not the encounter. Like many of Yeats' later works, it has the atmosphere of eavesdropping on a moment in the telling of some not quite audible story. The livid green grass suggests it has been pouring rain, a very plausible suggestion in the Irish midlands, while the ominous pink glow of the sky intimates more to come and probably thunder with it. Two tall figures gaze down the turf slope: one probably the skinny figure of Yeats himself, and the other perhaps Donnelly, looking down on the monument behind its iron railings, erected more than half a century after Donnelly drank himself to death in 1820, aged just 32.

Further away a group of women hurries down the slope, possibly coming to persuade the artist to abandon his reverie and seek shelter. The painting doesn't show it, but they are walking in another of the haunted features of the real scene: the giant footprints scarring the slope.

The painter John Butler Yeats had four arty children. And if you were a betting man in the 19th century, you'd have put your money on Jack to be rich and famous. The two sisters would become renowned in the craft world, but the eldest son, Willie, was a dozy sort, yearning over unobtainable women and a sucker for any passing mystic. It was Jack who threw himself into steady work as a commercial illustrator, then an increasingly successful painter – he was the first Irish artist to sell for more than £1m, though far too long after his death to do him any good. He was also a novelist, playwright and poet. John once boasted: "One day I will be remembered as the father of great poet – and that poet is Jack."

While his brother sighed over drawing room sirens, Jack relished the gaudy fringes of society: travellers, singers of street ballads, hucksters, jockeys, circus performers – and the boxers who abound in his sketchbooks. He would not, of course, be remembered as his family's great poet – his brother Willy, better known to the world as W.B. Yeats, carried off that accolade. However, by the time Jack painted himself contemplating Donnelly's triumph, he had become the first man in Ireland to win an Olympic medal – taking silver in 1924 for his painting The Liffey Swim in the days when art could be an Olympic sport.

It's no wonder that Yeats was drawn to Donnelly's own epic sporting triumph. Back in 1815, farm carts and gentry carriages had choked every road from Dublin to Kildare to see the fight, while thousands made their way on foot towards the hollow. In the late 19th-century, Irish newspapers recorded the death of one very old man, noteworthy only as the last living witness to Donnelly's most famous exploit.

Donnelly had been born in Dublin in 1788, ninth of 17 children of a poor labourer. A handy man in a pub brawl or backroom fight, he was taken up by Captain Kelly, a horse trainer and amateur boxer, who saw serious money might be made promoting the young man with the long arms. He organised the 1814 fight against Tom Hall, a boxer from the Isle of Wight. It was messy and inconclusive, with Donnelly awarded victory despite striking his opponent on the ground: the referee thought that Hall had dived rather than being knocked down.

The following year's match against George Cooper, a far better-known boxer, made Donnelly's fame: 20,000 spectators are said to have gathered. Cooper was more skilled, but Donnelly had his height, weight, and the famous long reach, and was awarded the purse after a blow in the 11th round broke Cooper's jaw.

Donnelly fought one more famous match in England, beating Tom Oliver in a gruesome 34 rounds. Greeted afterwards by the future George IV as "the best man in Ireland", Donnelly is said to have replied, "I'm not, but I'm the best man in England." Prinny, delighted with the joke tapped him on the shoulder and dubbed him 'Knight of the Fives'. Donnelly would style himself 'Sir Daniel' for the rest of his short life.

He was the best customer of his own Dublin pub, and died reputedly after downing 47 glasses of punch. Half of Dublin followed his funeral, but he would not rest in peace. At the height of the grave-robbing Resurrection Men era, medical students dug up Donnelly and sold his body to a surgeon called Hall. A deeply implausible legend says Hall recognised and "respectfully reburied" him, keeping only the arm as a souvenir. It is far more likely that whatever remained after dissection was dumped. Either way, the arm was used by Hall in anatomy lessons for years, before being sold to a travelling circus. In the 20th century, it passed, appropriately, through a bookmaker and a wine merchant before coming to the Byrne family of Kilcullen, owners of the Hideout.

Donnelly's withered arm, a relic for pilgrims through the generations, served – for a while – to preserve the memory of the greatest fight in Irish history, but it was Jack Butler Yeats' painting that immortalised the scene.

Maev Kennedy is the arts correspondent for The Guardian.

Sale: Modern British & Irish Art
Wednesday 13 June at 3pm
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