4 All-Irish Fights from Boxing History Fit for Donnybrook Fair

Irish fighters have earned a reputation within the boxing realm as wild brawlers and bleeders. Both may be stereotypes, but Irish fighters are important to the history of boxing, as historian Patrick Connor affirms.

As time accumulates, the Irish around the globe seem to accept that St. Patrick’s Day has morphed into a kind of every man’s drinking holiday. Far be it from the Irish to complain about a drop or two, but at its Celtic heart St. Patrick’s Day is an Irish holiday, the celebration thereof apparently important enough to maintain for over 1,000 years.

When Irish warrior traditions gave way to pugilistic fancy, the transition was an easy one — especially in a boxing world where, at the start, just about anything was more or less acceptable in the ring. The list of all-time great Irish fighters seems unusually long for an island that, in the grand scheme, isn’t particularly large. More difficult to compile was this list of all-Irish bouts that had a bit more on the line than a post-fight pint.

The following four battles involved nothing but Óglaigh na hÉireann — the warriors of Ireland.


Tom Sharkey D7 Peter Maher I, 1897

“Sailor” Tom Sharkey, a brick-sized brawler from Dundalk, County Louth, came close to snagging the heavyweight title more than once, and he fought a who’s who of heavyweight competitors in his day.

“Sailor” Tom Sharkey had the look of a pure fighter

In 1895, Pedlar Palmer claimed the bantamweight title — then at 112 lbs. — by disqualification in 10 rounds over Billy Plimmer, and held it until being flattened by Terry McGovern in less than three minutes a few years later. It was the first time a world title changed hands by DQ. Sharkey’s DQ victory over heavyweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons the following year, handed over by referee Wyatt Earp, would have marked the second time a title changed hands by disqualification. Public reaction forced the decision to be reversed, however, and Fitzsimmons remained champion.

Sharkey also managed a DQ win over former champion “Gentleman” Jim Corbett before losing an epic title bid to James Jeffries on points. He wasn’t refined and he wasn’t smooth; Tom Sharkey was a rough, gruff character whose liberal use of his elbows, head and tussling tactics was well recognized. When Sharkey stepped through ropes, makeshift or otherwise, chaos tended to follow.

Kilbannon, County Galway spat out its own old-timey boxing stereotype in Peter Maher, complete with funny combover haircut, curly mustache and skyscraper-high trunks. From Peter Jackson, to Fitzsimmons, to Joe Choynski, Maher tangled with his share of names as well, even managing to knock out Steve O’Donnell in one round for what was briefly considered the heavyweight title in the wake of Corbett’s retirement.

Peter Maher, living, breathing old-timey boxing stereotype

It was considered a natural that Sharkey and Maher would meet at some point, and their first bout was attended by John L. Sullivan, Corbett and “Kid” McCoy, as well as about 10,000 others at the Palace Athletic Club in New York City.

According to reports, the bout was a relatively tame one through the 7th round, the end of which saw Maher clock Sharkey to the floor with a left-right combination. Up and frisky as ever, Sharkey forced a clinch, which is where things got crazy.

According to the Columbia State, “In this clinch Maher kept working his right to the body, and when the gong sounded neither heeded the warning of the timekeeper, but kept on hitting each other. One of Maher’s seconds rushed over and grabbed Maher. While he was trying to pull the big fellow away Sharkey swung a right on the second’s face, dazing him. By this time the house was in an uproar and there were cries of ‘foul’ from the partisans of both men. The din was terrific, but was increased tenfold when Inspector McLaughlin ordered the police to arrest all those concerned in the fight. Policemen in uniforms swarmed into the ring and a number of detectives also climbed through the ropes. The principals were the first to be placed under arrest and then the seconds and referee were told to accompany the officers. While all this was going on the thousands of spectators were clamoring for a decision from the referee who was busily engaged arguing with the officers who surrounded him. Finally it was made known that Referee Colville had decided to call the bout a ‘draw.’ This did not seem to please a good many, but according to the conditions agreed to by both men, the judgment of the referee was right and proper.”


Freddie Gilroy TKO9 Johnny Caldwell, 1962

Amateur boxing in particular is known for its crosstown rivalries. Sometimes the grudges are borne of bad blood, and at others they’re simply selling points. In the case of Gilroy and Caldwell, both from Belfast, Northern Ireland, the hype watered down the reality that the men were good friends who were on the same 1956 Olympic team. Both men went home with bronze medals, and there was no ill will between the two despite rumors hinting at the opposite during the promotion.

Freddie Gilroy, who would become a hero in Belfast

Gilroy racked up a 21-1 record before failing to capture the bantamweight title against Alphonse Halimi in 1960. He would later say of that fight, “I had out boxed Halimi in the fight and I was sure that I had won. The two of us were in my corner shaking hands when the referee came over to raise the winner’s arm and I’m sure in the confusion that he lifted Halimi’s by mistake, but by that stage it was too late to change the decision.” He fought only seven more times before taking on old pal Caldwell in what would be his final bout.

A member of the Immaculata Youth Club Gym in Belfast, John Caldwell was remembered fondly by Vinty McGurk, who helped run the Immaculata program when the former passed away in 2009. In an interview with Thomas Hawkins, McGurk said, “Right away we knew [Caldwell] was extra special. Everything about the skills of boxing seemed so easy for him. I’ve seen very few better than John Caldwell in displaying the art of boxing. I think everybody in Irish boxing at the time felt the heartbreak and disappointment John had to go through when he boxed Eder Jofre in Brazil.”

Gilroy’s Belfast rival Johnny Caldwell

Upon landing in Brazil to attempt a wrangle of the greatly underrated Jofre in early 1962, Caldwell had rattled off 25 wins, including two victories over Alphonse Halimi. The Jofre bout set an indoor attendance record in South America and it was refereed by former ring great Willie Pep, but Caldwell was outclassed and pummeled in 10 rounds by a truly great fighter. From there, it made sense to match the former British flyweight champion Caldwell against the current British bantamweight champion Gilroy.

Promotion worked overtime for a bout that still gets a fair amount of Irish debate time to this day. According to the Belfast Telegraph, fans crowded the glass roof of the old King’s Hall in Belfast where the bout was held, hoping to see two men scrapping in a manner that the late Jack Magowan compared to “two alley cats.” The 12,000 inside watched as Gilroy rushed Caldwell and prevented him from employing his usually classy style, forcing the brawl Caldwell’s team didn’t want. Gilroy assaulted Caldwell’s body relentlessly before eventually ending the fight by cutting Caldwell over the left eye — a wound that would come back to haunt the former flyweight in more than one subsequent encounter.

Gilroy and Caldwell in action (Credit: Daily Mirror)

Later Gilroy would say of the bout, “The media really built up the clash as at that time there was really nothing else for them to do, and I remember the King’s Hall was heaving that night, and to be truthful I would have loved to have been in the crowd that night to have savored the moment.”


Rinty Monaghan KO4 Bunty Doran, 1945

John “Rinty” Monaghan was known about as much for his voice as his entertaining in-ring style. Win or lose, he’d snatch the ring microphone up and belt out a rendition of “Popeye The Sailor Man” or “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”

Later in life, the jovial and likable man from Belfast would say, “If I was starting all over again, I think I would try to be a top entertainer rather than a fighter.” Except he was already a top entertainer, in every sense of the word.

John “Rinty” Monaghan, singing one of his signature tunes

Before World War II consumed the globe and urged Rinty to serve in the Merchant Navy, he compiled a 34-3-6 ledger. Monaghan somehow found time to fight eight times during the war despite his ship being torpedoed. He later became an ambulance driver and finally landed a gig with the Entertainments National Service Association driving up troop morale by singing and doing celebrity impressions.

When the war concluded, his old school friend, rumored cousin and fellow Belfast native Eddie “Bunty” Doran and his Ulster flyweight belt were waiting for him. Doran was an Ulster Hall staple with a swarming attack that had plenty of experience, having taken out the likes of Tut Whalley and Jimmy Warnock, and later Scotsman Jackie Paterson, who had clipped Rinty Monghan in 5 rounds in 1938.

Eddie “Bunty” Doran, one of Irish boxing’s best

Rinty had been dropped from the The Ring’s ratings in 1939 after the war forced his inactivity, but after the war, Monaghan jumped right back into training after a short stint traveling with a musical and entertainment group called The Three Hillbillies.

Sitting ringside for Monaghan vs. Doran were both the Governor of North Ireland and the Prime Minister. A wild crowd looked on as Rinty attacked his pal, proving too much for Doran through three rounds. In the 4th round, Rinty dodged lumbering referee Andy Smyth and landed a leaping hook on Doran, knocking him clean out.

Following the triumph, the crowd carried Rinty all the way home to Little Corporation Street. While fighters today have post-fight parties at V.I.P. clubs, Rinty’s celebration peaked with him serenading the mob from his window long into the night.


John Morrissey W37 Yankee Sullivan, 1853

According to urban legend, the very first organized bout ever to be held on U.S. soil was a New York fight between Jacob Hyer and Tom Beasley in 1816. Even after almost 40 years had passed, the legality of prizefighting was muddy at best. Setting up bouts in remote fields, at high class estates and even near boat docks where a quicker getaway could be made was not at all uncommon.

Not much is gathered on either fighter before this fight, because according to records, it was Sullivan’s first fight and Morrissey’s second. But for his part Morrissey, a Templemore, County Tipperary native, was still something of a local legend in New York as he traveled with a veritable posse of ne’er-do-wells. Sullivan, hailing from Brandon, County Kerry, rose to prominence following his one-bout knuckle boxing career, though it was as much for his dirty deeds and subsequently taking his own life in prison as anything else.

Scruffy troublemaker John Morrissey

The bout took place at the Boston Four Corners, on the line of the New York and Harlem Railroad. A description courtesy of the Albany Evening Journal is as follows:

“A prize fight at Boston Corner yesterday between James Sullivan and John Morrissey for a wager of $2000 resulted in a broken nose, a bloody face and several severe injuries to one of the combatants, a dispute as to the victory, a fight between the seconds, and a general row among the spectators and stakeholders, by which it is presumed the brutal propensities of the thousands there assembled were amply gratified. A number of New York rowdies aboard the Harlem train assaulted the brakeman and detached the cars from the engine, in order that they might get off to witness it. Fighting, gambling, stopping railway trains, and lot, are all offenses by statute, and certain officers are expressly charged with their prevention and punishment. It was generally known, not only in the Corners, but also here in New York, Troy, &e., that the fight was to have come off, and was a common subject of conversation; but the officers of the law were conveniently deaf and blind. The same thing has happened repeatedly before, as when fights have come off in the neighborhood of New York, and the vigilant police of that city could not fight where it was to be, or who was engaged in it, although casual spectators had no such difficulty. The place selected was nearly on the line between Massachusetts and New York. It has recently been ceded by Massachusetts to this State, and the consent of our Legislature was given last summer, but that of Congress is not yet obtained. It was chosen for this reason: the ingenious ‘sporting gentlemen’ supposing that they could thus evade the authorities of both States, and in the conflict of jurisdiction, escape.”


Originally featured on Queensberry-Rules.com

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