by ehistoryadmin on January 9, 2015

The Sovereign of Kildare, Dan Donnelly and Waterloo Kelly

James Durney

Thomas Kelly, born around 1718 held the title of ‘Sovereign of Kildare.’ He married and had a son, Thomas (c.1748) who married Mary Orford, and was also known as the Sovereign of Kildare. They had three daughters and four sons – John, William, Ponsonby and Waldron. The most famous was Captain William Kelly, the great uileann piper, who was born in New Abbey House, Co. Kildare, around 1779. He played before King George VI, then the Prince Regent, when he visited Ireland in 1809 and was presented with a set of ebony, silver-mounted pipes for his endeavours. Some of Kelly’s pupils became famous pipers, among them the renowned ‘Kildare Piper’ Johnny Hicks, whose performances delighted audiences in Britain, the United States and Ireland.

William was known as ‘Sporting’ Captain Kelly because he would literally bet on anything. After army service he for many years kept a racing establishment at Maddenstown House, the Curragh. (The Captain’s eldest brother, John, was a racehorse breeder. Two of his most famous horses were ‘Skylark’ and ‘Birdcatcher.’) Capt. Kelly named several of his horses after parts of the pipes – ‘Chanter,’ ‘Bellows,’ ‘Drone,’ etc. ‘Drone’ was a particularly fine gray horse, and his successes are recorded in the Racing Calendars of the period. However, it was as the boxing trainer of the pugilist Dan Donnelly that Kelly was most venerated in Kildare.

There are many stories of how Kelly came upon Dan Donnelly, the most common while visiting Dublin the Captain witnessed the untrained Donnelly dispose with a single box each of three thugs who had set upon him. The sporting gentleman at once recognized Donnelly’s skills and undertook to develop them. However, the most realistic story is that Kelly had heard of Donnelly’s prowess as a fighter and sought him out. The reason being that in a tavern conversation between boxing followers two English prizefighters had poured scorn on Ireland’s reputation as a fighting nation.  Capt. Kelly was stung by the insult to Ireland and resolved to find an Irishman who would disprove the Englishmen’s charges. He brought Donnelly to his brother’s establishment in Calverstown, near the Curragh, where he learned the rudiments of fighting skill and the proper methods of training from Kelly’s friend, a Scotsman named Robert Barclay Allardice, better known as ‘Captain Barclay.’

Dan Donnelly, while training under Captain Barclay at Calverstown House, earned his keep by working as a cowman. The building in which he trained was later used as a hen run, until it was demolished and replaced by a stables when P. J. McCall bought the premises. Donnelly’s first fight was on 14 September 1814, against Tom Hall, a prominent English pugilist, at a natural amphitheatre on the Curragh, known as ‘Belcher’s Hollow.’ The fight lasted fifteen rounds, but after a controversial punch by Dan, ended with both sides claiming victory. Hall had gone done too often without being struck and Donnelly, his patience finally exhausted, had hit him when he was kneeling once again. The general opinion around the ringside was that the purse should be evenly divided, or that they should fight again. However, there was no doubt in the minds of the spectators that Donnelly had won.

Fourteen months later Dan Donnelly fought the English champion, George Cooper, at Belcher’s Hollow. The Freeman’s Journal, of 14 November 1815, reported:

Cooper is much below Dannelly [sic] in size and weight, but has a very handsome manner of setting to and fighting with both his hands; but Dannelly’s superior strength broke through his guards, and made him yield.

Eleven desperate rounds were fought, until Cooper finally gave in after a Donnelly punch broke his jaw.

Dannelly leaped and jumped about the ring after the fight; he shook hands with his antagonist and his friends. The gentleman who had him in training deserves much praise, as he appeared to be in full health and wind. Cooper was severely punished. 

As Dan strode up the hill towards his carriage, his loyal followers dug out the imprints left by his feet. Known as ‘The steps to strength and fame,’ the footmarks are still to be seen in what is now known as ‘Donnell’s Hollow.’ Dan Donnelly died in Dublin on 15 February 1820, aged thirty-one.

Capt. William Kelly married his first cousin, Catherine Orford, of Rathbride Manor, and they had seven sons and one daughter. After a long and brilliant career as a horse trainer, Capt. Kelly retired to his town house, Clontarf Crescent, and after a few years residence died there about 1858. His Co. Kildare residence, Maddenstown House, was known for some time as ‘Cooper’s ruins,’ as a grim reminder of the battered state of George Cooper after he was beaten by Donnelly in their epic fight on the Curragh.

The fighting as well as the sporting instinct was well developed in the Kelly family. Two brothers of William Kelly served in the British army – Colonel Ponsonby Moore-Kelly, who commanded the 24th Regiment, and Captain Waldron Kelly, who served in the 41st. His first cousin, Edward Kelly, performed heroic service on the field of Waterloo.

Colonel Ponsonby Moore-Kelly, commanded the 24th Regiment (2nd Warwickshires). He served in Egypt and the Peninsula and was wounded at Echelar on 2 August 1813. He died on 24 October 1835, aged forty-seven and was buried at St. Multose’s Townplots, Church Street, Kinsale, Co. Cork.

Waldron Kelly married Anne Ludovia de Aquilar of Portugal, in April 1813, by whom he had five children and later married (without divorce) Jane Owens in Liverpool in 1831 and had a further three children. Capt. Waldron Kelly became Barrack Master at Lucea and Montego Bay in 1834, where he died two years later.

The Captain’s first cousin Edward Kelly, was born in 1771, in Portarlington, Co. Laois. In the ground-breaking Waterloo Archives series, Gareth Glover unearthed a treasure trove of previously unpublished letters, many of which were written to family members back in Britain as events in Europe unfolded. Captain Edward Kelly, 1st Life Guards, wrote to his wife, Maria Moore, on 3 May 1815, from Ostend, that he had ‘the pleasure to inform you that I have arrived here after a voyage of three days from Ramsgate’. He wrote some two weeks later that Belgium was ‘a most delightful country and one can live better upon one fourth of the money you can in England’ and that the best French wines were available at 1s. 8d. a bottle; provisions were cheaper than at home, with the added advantage of being untaxed. Capt. Kelly disliked his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ferrior, and wrote a note to the Duke of Wellington, offering his services for the staff, but his offer was politely refused, leaving him to face the wrath of Ferrior. Kelly had been a captain for some time and hoped to advance his career with a promotion.

On the afternoon of 15 June 1815 when Wellington was moving to the position intended to be occupied on the field of Waterloo, the British rear were hard-pressed by the light cavalry of Marshal Ney. The 1st Life Guards brought up the rear, and Capt. Kelly was the rear of his troop. Lord Uxbridge and his 7th Hussars were skirmishing on the flanks in the rear when they were attacked by a superior force of enemy lancers. Capt. Kelly brought his troop of Life Guards to Uxbridge’s aid and charged down on the advancing lancers with such force that they broke the French attack.

Capt. Kelly fought and killed the Polish colonel of the 1st Regiment of Cuirassiers and removed his epaulettes as a prize. He was warmly thanked by Lord Uxbridge for his timely aid and again resumed his place at the rear of the still retiring army. In this encounter Kelly had a narrow escape from death. He was attacked by a lancer, whose lance he shattered with a powerful blow, but the lancer, quickly drew his sword and as both were passing each other, the Pole, with a backward sweep struck Kelly on the back, cutting his heavy silver cartridge case in two. Capt. Kelly was unscathed. His cartridge box, which he had borrowed from a smaller fellow officer, instead of being in the right place was near his shoulder-blade and fortunately in a position that saved his life.

Kelly wrote, ‘… I left my squadron and went to the one next the enemy and charged the Lancers of the Guard twenty yards in front of my own men and although there were two of them at me at a time I had the good fortune to kill their colonel myself and one of the privates when our corporal major came up just in time to save my life. Our charge was successful and we drove them under their own guns back into the village of Genappe. On our return Lord Uxbridge thanked the regiment in face of the whole cavalry of the army and said ‘Captain Kelly I have marked your conduct and shall mention you particularly to the Duke of Wellington’, this Lord Uxbridge did the same night. The enemy were so completely cowed that he did not advance to the charge again that night, but cannonaded us until dark during our retreat to Waterloo.’

Capt. Kelly was severely wounded in the leg by cannon fire. He wrote, ‘… the slaughter amongst us from cannon shot and shell was immense and a more bloody and dreadful field of battle was never seen’. He spent several weeks quartered in a Brussels house and wrote regularly to his wife and also to her brother, Henry Moore, a lieutenant in the Surrey Militia. It was 9 July before he received a reply and by then his wound had got worse and he was in great pain mentioning that ‘no amount of opium could procure sleep’. He was sent back to England to recover. Kelly received excess pay for his battle wound and was awarded the Russian Order of St. Anne, but from his letters it is clear that he believed that he was not appropriately recognized or rewarded. He expected to be promoted to lieutenant colonel and was dissatisfied of the offer of brevet or major in the infantry.

The Captain had so distinguished himself on the battlefield that he was afterwards known as ‘Waterloo’ Kelly. He accompanied the Right Honourable the Viscount Combermere, GCB Commander-in-Chief, to India, as lieutenant-colonel, 23rd Light Dragoons, and was present at the capture of Bhurtpore, and subsequently served in Ava. There he contracted a disease which proved fatal and Edward ‘Waterloo’ Kelly passed away on 6 August 1828.


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