Book Review

23 September 2008 – by Cormac Campbell

The Irish Champion – Peter Maher

Matt Donnellon



The story of Irish boxers crossing the Atlantic to further their careers is nothing new. In fact it is something akin to the flow of footballing talent headed for England and Scotland.

At present prospects such as John Duddy, Andy Lee, James Moore and Henry Coyle are all based stateside. That the US is the land of opportunity for the fighting Irish has never been in question, and the story of Peter Maher is testament to this.

However, although he was top of the food chain in the late 1800s, his legend has diminished greatly from the time when he topped fight cards on both sides of the Atlantic.

This is what author Matt Donnellon, a member of the International Boxing Research Organisation (IBRO) has ably addressed in The Irish Champion.

Over 360 pages Donnellon pieces together Mahers story from a host of crumbling sources. By the end we know much about the man, from his birth in rural Galway in 1869, his time working in Dublins Pheonix Brewery and his rise to fame.

Mahers rise to fame proves that the adage that if you are rich and famous everyone wants a piece of you is true regardless of era.

One passage, a reproduced interview with Maher wonderfully highlights this phenomenon.

When I was 16 I got a job in a brewery. Since I came to America I have met not less than a thousand men who said they used to know me when I worked in Guinness brewery. That is a real curious thing. I have never worked there in my life, and on more than one occasion I have been forced to tell these newfound friends of their mistake I worked in the Phoenix brewery.

On paper, Maher had everything a prizefighter needed to make it to the top. Ability, power, charisma and looks, he was a fan favourite win, lose or draw. This made him a celebrity. As his fame grew so did the iconic nature of his company from presidents Roosevelt and McKinley to Wild West legend Wyatt Earp.

However, he had a major flaw and that was his love of booze. On more than one occasion Donnellon explains how alcohol played a part in Mahers apparent lack of conditioning in contests. But despite this he rose to the top of his sport in November 1895 with a KO1 victory over Steve O’Donnell. His glory was to be short lived when the legendary Bob Fitzsimmons (allegedly but without proof the great-great grandfather of footballer Wayne Rooney) relieved him of the crown early the following year.

What Donnellon has put together in the Irish Champion is thoroughly enjoyable both as a historical reference point and indeed as an account of a remarkable individual who overcame (self-made) hurdles to lift the biggest prize in sport.

The depth of research Donnellon has gone to is both impressive and worthwhile. Included in the book are the complete records of many of the men that Maher fought. No mean feat considering online databases such as boxrec were 100 years away when Maher was thrilling the crowds.

Comes highly recommended.

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