In recent months, Irish sports fans on both sides of the Atlantic have watched excitedly as the country’s prized fighters have taken their respective sports by storm, finding success in the profitable American market. In December, massive crowds met Limerick’s Andy Lee upon his return to the city, after having been crowned middleweight champion of the world following a title bout in Las Vegas. With that victory, Lee became the first Irish fighter to secure a world boxing title on American soil since Belfast’s Jimmy ‘Babyface’ McLarnin retained his welterweight belt in 1934. More recently, mixed martial artist Conor McGregor captivated crowds at Boston’s TD Garden Arena; easily defeating Germany’s Dennis Siver in a highly touted ‘Fight Night’ that also saw two other Irish fighters claim victory on the undercards. Prior to the match, Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White commented on McGregor’s potential noting that, given the young Dubliner’s physical ability and charisma, he might be ‘the most marketable fighter of all time’.
The international marketability and ensuing success of Irish fighters is actually nothing new. Seventy-five years before the modern batch of Irish champions began captivating audiences, it was West Cork’s own Danno O’Mahony who created his own transatlantic media frenzy, dominating the headlines of sports pages from Los Angeles to Liverpool in the buildup to his American wrestling debut in the old Boston Garden arena.
Danno was born on September 29, 1912 in Dreenlomane, Ballydehob, the fourth of seven children to Daniel and Susan O’Mahony. From his infancy, he showed signs of the physical strength that would ultimately bring him global renown. One of the many near-mythic tales that came to light during his meteoric rise to the top of the wrestling world relayed that during his baptism, the local priest remarked that the farmer’s young son was the strongest child he had ever come across. As he matured, he would continue to be known for his strength while working on the family farm and competing in local athletics competitions. By the age of 20, the young Ballydehob man captured the Cork county championship in the 56-pound weight throw, in what was the first of many accolades to come. His athletic prowess blossomed after enlisting in the national army in 1933. As part of their military training in the Curragh, Danno and his brother Flor engaged in a number of physical activities ranging from athletics to boxing and wrestling. While both brothers quickly gained a reputation for their strength, it was Danno’s head turning feats that would ultimately draw the eye of Jack McGrath, a wrestling talent scout over from America. Having taken note of the fierce support that boxers, baseball players, and other prominent athletes of Irish heritage received from the sizeable Irish populations of New England and New York, McGrath and his associates concluded that a new Irish wrestler could also prove profitable. McGrath initially approached two-time Olympic gold medal winning hammer thrower Pat O’Callaghan to fill the role. However, O’Callaghan wasn’t interested, as he was in the midst of establishing a successful medical practice. Instead, he recommended the young O’Mahony. The previous year, O’Mahony had beaten the former Olympian and fellow Corkman in a weight-throwing exhibition in Croke Park, during which he tossed a 56-pound weight over a bar set at 14 feet, 6 inches. After watching the young physical specimen work out at the army camp in Kildare, McGrath informed his associates in America that they had found their man. After procuring Danno’s release from the Irish army and a visa from the American consulate in Dublin, McGrath and his prodigy set off for London where he received his first taste of proper wrestling training. It was also during their sojourn in London that Danno had his first professional match in London’s Stadium Club, a draw against former world champion Ed Lewis.
With his London training complete, the two continued on to New York, arriving aboard the steamship Bremen on December 15, 1935. Appropriate for the career that lay ahead of the young star, he indicated on his passport form that his purposes for entry to the country were ‘business and pleasure’. After settling in Boston and meeting legendary promoter Paul Bowser, Danno was signed to a five-year contract worth $100,000, a considerable sum especially within the feeble economic climate of the Great Depression.
On January 4, 1935, the newly arrived Danno made his debut in front of a raucous crowd of 15,000. Billed as Daniel O’Mahoney with the addition of an ‘e’, the young Irishman got off to a slow start against veteran fighter Ernie Dusek, displaying the nerves of inexperience. However, the tide of the match soon began to change. As Dusek ignored the rules and roughed up his opponent, the predominately Irish crowd got behind their young fighter, and inspired a comeback. Utilising his 76-inch reach and the boxing skills acquired during his time in the military, Danno pummeled Dusek around the ring, and finished him with his signature ‘Irish whip’ hold. Following the match, in which Danno won all three falls, chaos ensued as Dusek and his brother attacked the victorious rookie. He responded by knocking out the two brothers and, in the heat of the moment, landing blows on the Boston policemen and a referee who were attempting to reestablish order. As the crowd cheered vehemently, it was evident that McGrath’s inclination had been correct; the ethnically Irish fan base had found their new hero.
Over the next year and a half, Danno wrestled in all of the major cities and venues across the breadth and width of the United States and Canada, including Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, and the Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium. Impressively, O’Mahony won his first seventy contests, beating a wide range of talented opponents, including Henri DeGlane, who had won the Gold Medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1924 Olympics. His crowning achievement came in the summer of 1935 when, in front of a crowd of 60,000 Bostonians, he captured the world heavyweight title in dramatic fashion, defeating Ed Don George.
As McGregor, Lee, and a slew of other Irish fighters continue to find success in an increasingly digital and global age in which their in-ring exploits are easily followed by Irish people around the world, one can’t help but reflect on the accomplishments and international stardom enjoyed by the ‘Ballydehob bone bender’, and think that he helped pave the way.
Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway’s Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column will highlight the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.