The worn boxing gloves and yellowed punching bags tell only part of the story.
For the men who used them — many of them superstars in their day — their real-life stories were every bit as dramatic as the bouts they fought in the ring.
Both sides of that life are explored in “The Fighting Irishmen: Celebrating Celtic Prizefighters 1820-Present,” an exhibition on display at the McClelland Irish Library in Phoenix.
“At the time boxing was developing as a sport in this country, it was also a great period of Irish immigration to America,” explains head librarian Chas Moore. “(Boxing) became an opportunity for Irish immigrants who were leaving Ireland when social conditions were very rough. It became an opportunity to make a living.”
The sport was uniquely accessible to immigrants, and it spoke to them, says curator and founder of the exhibit, Jim Houlihan, a New York City real estate developer and philanthropist.
“Immigrants were downcast. They had to literally fight their way out of the ghettos. So, these early (boxing) stars were larger than life figures, particularly to the kids. They gave a people a sense of hope and encouragement, a sense that, ‘Hey, if he can do it, I can do it, too.’” says Houlihan.
Among the famous fighters featured are heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey and John L. Sullivan, who fought the last heavyweight title bout — a 75-round fight — under bareknuckle rules, according to a 1918 obituary in the Rome New York Daily Sentinel. Gene Tunney, Barry McGuigan, Freddy Gilroy, Billy Graham and Frank Moran are also spotlighted.
The show touches on Dan Donnelly’s arm, which, along with the rest of his body, was stolen from his grave when he died in 1820. The first Irish-born heavyweight champ, Donnelly’s arm was longer than most people’s, giving him an advantage as a fighter. Now kept safe, in a mummified state, in Ireland, the arm was used for years after Donnelly’s death to teach medical students, according to Houlihan.
Fighters who have been featured in movies, including James Braddock, the inspiration for 2005’s “Cinderella Man,” starring Russell Crowe, are also in the exhibition.
“The history of boxing is really the history of Irish America. They seem to go hand in hand, and it goes back to the Celtic spirit of a love of sport and competition,” says Moore. “There’s this stereotype of the Fighting Irish, and it’s the mascot of the University of Notre Dame, but that’s not strictly meant in a literal sense, in the sense of physical fighting or being argumentative. It’s about the spirit of the people, this propensity they have of overcoming adversity, never giving up, overcoming life’s challenges.”
“The Fighting Irishmen” has previously been exhibited in New York, Boston and Ireland. In each place, “people come out of the woodwork and say, ‘My father, my grandfather, my uncle was a boxer, and I’d like to contribute something to the exhibit,’” says Houlihan.
In Arizona, the show has developed a greater focus on Muhammad Ali, who lives in Paradise Valley.
“His great grandfather came from Ennis, Ireland, and that is Phoenix’s Sister City,” says Moore.
Another section unique to the Grand Canyon State highlights boxer Zora Folley.
“He’s from Chandler. He was pretty well known in the ’60s, and he actually got into a major fight in Madison Square Garden with Cassius Clay, who was none other than Muhammad Ali,” says Moore.
“The daughter of his manager, Al Fenn — who’s known as ‘Mr. Boxing’ in Arizona because he was a manager and a trainer, and he was a major boxing promoter in Arizona for decades — brought down this incredible box of materials.”
Houlihan, who grew up in the Bronx across the street from his native Irish grandparents, says the exhibition isn’t only for sports fans or Irish history buffs.
“America is a country of immigrants. Even if we’ve been here a couple generations, most of us come here from somewhere else on down the line. Immigrants start on the bottom rung, in the most dangerous jobs and the worst conditions, and they work their way up. People understand someone going through adversity and being persistent and being successful in the end. That’s what it’s about. We tried to make it not so much about sports statistics but about the human experiences of these fighters,” says Houlihan.
If you go
What: “The Fighting Irishmen: Celebrating Celtic Prizefighters 1820-Present” features more than 1,000 items belonging to boxers with Irish heritage.
When: On display 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays, and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. the first Friday of every month through May 31
Where: McClelland Irish Library, 1106 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
Cost: $10 for adults, $5 for seniors, students and children younger than 16
Information: (602) 864-2351 or AZIrishLibrary.org
Phoenix St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Irish Faire
Bagpipers, a green horse, step dancers and a slew of other revelers will march together in what organizers say is the third largest parade in Arizona on March 16. The Phoenix St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which turns 30 this year, begins at 10 a.m. at Third and Sheridan streets and moves south to McDowell Road.
An Irish Faire — a family event with live music, dancers, food, crafters and a kids’ area — also begins at 10 a.m. at Margaret T. Hance Park, adjacent to the Irish Cultural Center at 1106 N. Central Ave. The parade is free to watch. Fair admission is $10 for adults 13 and older, $8 for seniors and military personnel, and free for children 12 and younger.
For information, call (602) 280-9221 or visit PHXIrish.org