‘BATTLING BRANNIGAN’: THE STORY OF GERALD HURLEY

In 1901 by Lake Michigan, Gerald Hurley was born in Chicago, Illinois. His grandfather was John Hurley who had taught at Dunhill National School and later Banagher in Co. Offaly before emigrating to the United States and settling in Denver, Colorado where he died aged 83. Gerald’s uncle was also a teacher working at a school that was attached to St. Patrick’s Hospital in Waterford. Gerald Hurley was a step-brother of Mrs. F. Matthews of Marian Park, Waterford. Gerald would move to the city where he had such strong connections when he was three years old. 

The young Hurley lived with his grandmother Bridget at 26 Castle Street. He was most associated with living in adulthood at Grange Terrace in Waterford. Growing up in the southeast of Ireland, Hurley loved singing, handball and in his late teens became the softball champion of Waterford. One of his favourite haunts was a handball alley and boxing club at Spring Garden Alley which was popular with athletes on Sunday mornings. 

     BOXING CAREER: 1919 – 1929 

Though the incident which began his journey in professional pugilism occurred in 1919 in a ball alley in Waterford. The owner of the alley, Thomas Neary decided to settle an argument between Hurley and a local boxing hero named Jackson by giving the pair boxing gloves, and in the ensuing scrap, the youth knocked Jackson out cold. 

Neary was an All-Ireland handball champion who had trained a young John L. Sullivan and after returning to Ireland saw that Hurley had some potential that he could harness. Hurley fought under the name of ‘Battling Brannigan’ and began his boxing career aged 18 as a lightweight. The adoption of the alias was due to him fighting against the wishes of his parents. For the purposes of exploring his professional boxing career this piece while referring to Gerald Hurley as ‘Battling Brannigan’ up to his retirement from the ring in 1929. 

Brannigan’s first bout in the ring came against Warrington lightweight Ted Hughes at the old Liverpool Stadium which he lost after six rounds on points. It was the first of nearly 100 fights though the Waterford boxer noted to the Sunday Independent in 1977 that he couldn’t remember the exact record but admitted ‘to having lost more of the bouts he engaged in across the water’ than he won. His most notable victory in Britain was a seventh-round knockout of the Tommy Burns protégé Hyman Gordon at Newcastle. Gordon had never been floored till his fight against Brannigan. 

Even with such a successful career developing, it still did not prevent the young Waterford man from witnessing great tragedy. During the siege of Waterford in July 1922 while watching the hostilities with his companions John Long and Paddy Moloney, their group was caught in the cross-fire. When a hail of bullets from Hall’s Store sprayed them, it ended with Moloney wounded by a piece of shrapnel to the back and Long shot dead. Another death which took place during the siege was of Joe Dwan at Olaf Street whom Hurley/Brannigan worked with when putting up the wooden polls for when the first electric lights were introduced to Waterford. 

During the 1920s, professional boxing shows were regular attractions in Ireland too with bouts taking place in Belfast, Dublin and Waterford. Brannigan had three fights with the Belfast Irish lightweight champion Billy Gilmour finishing with one win, one draw and one loss. Though Brannigan went on to become an Irish champion at that grade. In addition to this title Brannigan added the welterweight championship (in 1927) and as the Munster Express noted in a 1972 interview with him that ‘his name had already become a household word, with packed “houses” turning out to see him fight in cities, towns and villages all over Ireland.’ 

Brannigan graced the surrounds of Croke Park in 1926 when he faced the B Special and then reigning Irish lightweight champion Ken Webb in a 10 round contest on the bill of the Tom Heeney and Bartley Madden fight card. Hurley came out as the winner of the bout having been considered the underdog prior to the contest. 

One of Brannigan’s most cherished memories was fighting Sam Minto at the Theatre Royal in Waterford on 12th October 1928. Minto was an adept operate in the ring who had lost narrowly to the European champion featherweight Charles Ledoux. Brannigan defeated the Bahamian-born Minto on points after 15 rounds of brawling. The Cork Examiner’s report of proceedings recorded:   

The big fight was expected to prove thrilling, and it did. Brannigan fought to the last nine rounds with one hand, having badly sprained his right wrist in the sixth round. Thereafter, to those who knew, it was a marvel his “k.o.” did not come at any moment…

…Brannigan seemed to anticipate every move of his opponent. For one second he dare not lose his concentration. The strain for 15 rounds was heavy, and though there were many who disagreed with the referee’s decision, those who followed the contest intelligently will agree Mr. Jim Roche gave an honest verdict. 

Battling Brannigan’s last fight came in 1929 when he fought Louis Sloan in Belfast’s Ulster Hall. Sloan was being hailed as a future champion with Brannigan tipped as a rank outsider with odds of 50/1 given by local bookmakers. The Waterford boxer managed to knock Sloan out in six rounds. Neither fighter would compete in the ring again after that bout. 

     A BATTLER AND A SINGER: HURLEY, THE EX BOXER & PRO SINGER 

 After retiring from the ring in 1929, Brannigan/Hurley worked as a P.T. instructor and boxing tutor for 42 years in several schools in Dublin such as St. Columba’s College and retired from that career in 1970. Hurley was also a trainer and coach in the early years of the Waterford City Boxing Club in the 1930s. Furthermore, he could note positions as athletic coach in Trinity College, Dublin and a Physical Education Instructor at the Garda Depot in the Phoenix Park. For a time he worked as a representative of the Lucan Dairy Co. Though during his time as a physical instructor with University College, Dublin in 1938 Hurley spoke:

He expressed the view [on amateur boxers in Waterford] that in most cases they needed training on scientific lines…they did not develop the “manly art of self-defence” as much as they did their fighting prowess…[he] would have stood no chance in the ring because of his rather light build but for his superior ring craft against heavier and stronger opponents. 

For a time he lived in Parnell Street in Waterford and later settled with his wife in Rathgar, Dublin. Described by the Munster as ‘an expert and highly polished exponent of the fistic art, in the fulfillment of which, incidentally, he did not have the benefit of a manager: he was also much sought-after as a professional classical singer’ appearing in concerts all over Ireland. 

Reverting to his birth name, Hurley was trained as an alto for the Westminster Cathedral choir by Professor Murray of Newtown, Waterford, who was the organist at St. John’s Church. Known as ‘the boy with the phenomenal voice’, he sang with St. John’s and later the Dominican Church on Bridge Street. He continued to sing during his boxing career. Venues that he performed at included the Ancient Concert Rooms in Westland Row, the old Queen’s Theatre, and the Tivoli on Burgh Quay. While in Dublin he was a part of the church choir at Harrington Street. 

Hurley also sang at a club run by Delia Larkin at Langrishe Place, Summerhill and became acquainted with her brother Jim. The socialist and trade union leader Jim Larkin use to frequent the club known as the Irish Workers’ Club where his sister organised meetings and performances there with the help of Sean O’Casey. Jim became a friend of Hurley and wanted him to go to America to pursue his boxing career with Benny Leonard. Hurley noted that ‘I never did but I was privileged to box for Jim and also sing at concerts he ran.’ Though in an interview with the Sunday Independent Hurley stated  that ‘one of the great regrets of my life [was] that I didn’t seriously pursue my singing career’. Even in Dublin he maintained strong-connections with Waterford, his brother Tim lived on Barrack Street and his nephew Michael Butler was a hairdresser on Manor Street. 

The man born Gerald Hurley who came to national renown as ‘Battling Brannigan’ died in Dublin in late November 1985 and was buried in Skerries. Perhaps the words of Tom Cryan sum up the importance of Hurley/Brannigan in the story of Irish boxing, ‘a sort of trail-blazer for Cork’s enigma Jack Doyle. Years before the “Gorgeous Gael” made and lost a fortune combining a certain boxing expertise with a fine singing voice, silver haired Gerald was doing the same.’ 

Jonny Stapleton

Irish-boxing.com contributor for 15 years and editor for the past decade. Have been covering boxing for over 16 years and writing about sport for a living for 19 years. Former Assistant Sports editor for the Gazette News Paper Group and former Tallaght Voice Sports Editor. Have had work published in publications around the world when working as a freelance journalist. Also co-founder of Junior Sports Media and Leinster Rugby PRO of the Year winner. email: editoririshboxing@gmail.com