Nearly two centuries ago in Dublin, a prominent surgeon recognized his newly purchased cadaver—it had just been stolen from a grave—as belonging to Daniel Donnelly, the legendary bare-knuckle fighter. So before having it reburied, he lopped off the lanky right arm, arranged it like Michelangelo’s depiction of Adam—finger extended, accepting life—and mummified it in red lead paint. The arm will resurface August 28, the ghoulish centerpiece of “Fighting Irishmen: A Celebration of the Celtic Warrior,” at the Irish Arts Center on West 51st Street.
Donnelly was born in 1788, the ninth of seventeen children, with four sets of twins. In the winter of 1815, he fought English champion George Cooper. Donnelly was considered an underdog. A gate of 20,000 fans was reported, stoked with anger at their English occupiers; some peasants walked 30 miles. The fight went back and forth, no holds barred. (This was pre–Marquis of Queensberry rules.) The skilled Cooper eluded Donnelly’s crude rushes. But after eleven rounds, it was Donnelly who landed the last crushing blow, which shattered Cooper’s jaw. The triumph turned Donnelly into a fistic deity; as he walked out of the ring, sweaty and bloodied, fans dug up the grass he stepped on and kept the patches as mementos. Donnelly used his fame to open a pub, said to be so crowded the waiters didn’t have time to break for meals. He died at age 32, a drunk. His arm was used for years in anatomy lectures at the University of Edinburgh, then traveled in a carnival sideshow. Eventually it landed at a pub named the Hideout, about two miles from the hollow where Donnelly fought Cooper. It was displayed in a glass case. The owner of the pub, Des Byrne, died last winter, and his family agreed to loan the arm to the show.