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Collar and Elbow Wrestling

Leinster Leader: Supplement 16/03/1907

Famous Kildare Wrestling

Ancient Gaelic Style of Collar and Elbow

How Kildare Exiles Carried the Game Abroad

By John Ennis


"They kept alight St. Brigid’s lamp;

Their stentor voice and measured tramp

Were heard in every rebel camp

Defying Saxon laws". 

Thus has the poet sung of the men of Kildare. Not only were they foremost in defence of their alters and the firesides, but they cherished the old Gaelic sports; they ever excelled in hurling, football, and handball, and their historic old county was the last stronghold of the eminently manly and ancient Gaelic style of wrestling known as "Coilear agus Uille (collar and elbow)". 

Until within the last two decades collar and elbow was cultivated by the youth of Kildare with an enthusiasm and devotion analogous to the American boy’s infatuation for the game of baseball. It was the chief physical sport of the male population from childhood to mature manhood, and every parish had its champion who was kept busy defending his title against would-be usurpers in his own bailiwick, and contending for higher honours in inter-county contests with neighbouring champions. The men of the adjoining counties of Dublin, Meath, Westmeath, King’s, Carlow, and Wicklow ever sought to emulate the prowess of the wrestlers of Kildare. Time and time again the best men from these counties came into Kildare seeking the laurels of victory only to return wiser but sadder. 

The decline of collar and elbow in Ireland is primarily due to the rigorous application of the numerous Coercion Acts during the Fenian times and in the troublesome days of the Land League agitation, when gatherings for any purpose except religious service were strictly prohibited, and later, to the unnatural exodus which has denuded the country of its stalwart manhood, and has left but the infant, the infirm, and the aged.

A Herculean Encounter

A famous collar and elbow contest which was second only in the popular enthusiasm it aroused to the celebrated battle between Donnelly and Cooper, and the details of which the writer has many times heard discussed by old men who had witnessed it, was held on the "commons" of Loughinure, near the town of Clane, County Kildare, in 1826.

The principals were Richard Carey, Mullingar, champion of Westmeath, and James Larkin, Clane, Champion of Kildare. The men were a close match in weight and height, weighing about thirteen stone (182 pounds), and measuring about five feet ten inches. Each had wrestled the best men in his own and neighbouring counties and had never suffered defeat.

On the morning of the Sunday selected for the contest, Carey set out for Clane accompanied by fifty admiring Westmeathians in horseback. This imposing cavalcade was met at Kinnegad, twenty miles from Clane, by two hundred mounted Kildare men and escorted with great prompt to Clane. This cordial reception was not uncommon in those days. Visiting champions were always accorded a degree of hospitality befitting their prowess; and if they failed to achieve victory-which was invariably the case-they returned to their homes with a high opinion of the hospitality, impartiality and fair play of the men of Kildare.

The ring was pitched on a declivity, which formed a vast amphitheatre affording ample room for the great concourse-variously estimated from twenty to thirty thousand-to witness the contest. What was known as "Kildare Rules" governed the match. Under those rules any part of the body above the knee touching the ground, constituted a fall, and dropping on knees, either wilfully or otherwise, three consecutive times, was also counted a fall; best two out of three falls was the invariable custom.

A Three Hours Struggle

As it was the fashion on those days to wrestle in "stocking feet," the men walked to the middle of the ring and there removed their shoes. They then shook hands and what was probably the greatest wrestling match ever held in Kildare had begun. After one hour of skilful wrestling, during which all the trips, hooks and locks peculiar to the sport were used by both, the Westmeath man gained the first fall. Notwithstanding the fact that Larkin was the idol of nine-tenths of the spectator, the hearty, spontaneous cheers that greeted Carey demonstrated the fine spirit of fair play which dominated the men of Kildare. The next fall was won by Larkin in thirty minutes, by an inside hook which Carey was unable to break, although using all the arts known to the wrestler for that purpose. On resuming the bout for the final fall the men showed excessive caution, which bespoke the wholesome dread each man had of the other’s skill. For one hour and a half they continued the struggle, giving a splendid exhibition of footsparring, tripping and blocking. Then Larkin feinted with his right foot, and, quick as a flash, threw in his left, and getting Carey on his hip, threw him with great force, winning the fall and the match. The contest lasted three hours, and, considering the high tension maintained throughout, was a remarkable feat of endurance.

An extraordinary demonstration followed the close of the contest, in which victor and vanquished shared alike in the admiration of the spectators, the men were seized and carried on the shoulders of the crowd into Clane where they were royally entertained.

During the period from 1850-1870, collar and elbow wrestling was in the zenith of its popularity in Kildare. In the early portion of this period Pat Byrne, of Killashee was the leading exponent of the art in Kildare. He met and conquered the best men in Ireland in numerous contests in Phoenix Park, Dublin and ably upheld the old tradition that the collar and elbow championship belonged to his native county.

In the late fifties James Kennedy, of Raheen, was the best wrestler in the county. He was an all-round athlete, and had a good record of forty-two feet for three standing jumps. He was also the victor in many a hard-contested bout in Phoenix Park, where he met some of the best wrestlers in Ireland.

The Marlins Tournament

In 1862 a match which attracted wide attention was held at The Graigues, between Andy Scully, Cock Bridge, and Bill Farrell, Green Hills; Scully was a giant in stature, standing six feet two inches, and weighing sixteen stone (226 pounds). Notwithstanding the great disparity in height and weight, Farrell easily won in less than thirty minutes. One month later Farrell lost to Paddy Dunne, of Donore, at the same place.

Dunne was now considered the best man in Kildare, and the following year he was challenged by Patrick Cullen, of Rathcoole, Co. Dublin. Cullen had wrestled many important bouts in Phoenix Park and was held to be the best man in his county. He stood six feet one inch and weighed thirteen stone (182 pounds). Dunne tipped the scales at fifteen stone (210 pounds) and measured five feet ten inches. The contest was held at Marlins, near Naas, the scene of many a wrestling tournament where champions were made and unmade. When the men entered the ring quite a wrangle ensued between their backers over the coat worn by Cullen. It was of the fashion known in those days as the "set-to" (a corruption of surtout). Dunne claimed its long skirts would prevent his seeing Cullen’s legs but Cullen refused to use any other, and finally Dunne acquiesced and the contest began. After about twenty minutes of clever wresting Dunne secured the first fall by neatly catching one of Cullen’s cross trips. On resuming Cullen became aggressive and forced the work at all points.

Dunne’s excessively fleshy condition began to tell on him; he could not successively combat the hot pace set by his opponent and quickly lost the next two falls and the match. Dunne claiming he was not in condition for such a hard contest asked Cullen for a return match which the latter granted, and set the date for two weeks from that day, and at the same place.

The men again came together on the date met with exactly the same results on the former occasion. Dunne secured the first fall. Cullen easily winning the next two.

In 1864 Andy Scully was matched to wrestle James Rourke, of Clane. Rourke was about the same height and weight as Paddy Dunne and, like the latter, was remarkably active and skilful with his feet. The match was held at Aughpawdeen Bridge, on the Grand Canal. Scully acted on the defensive throughout and the contest resulted in a draw.

Ten Thousand People near Carbury

The following year Rourke was matched with James Gallagher, of Drehid, near the hill of Carbury. Gallagher was a splendid specimen of physical manhood, standing six feet five inches, and weighed about thirteen stone (182 pounds). He was a noted jumper and runner and had wrestled and thrown the best men in the western portion of Kildare. No wrestling contest held in Kildare since the memorable one between Larkin and Carey in 1826, aroused such interest, or attracted such a crown to the ringside, fully ten thousand were present. The match was held in a large field on the farm of Michael Farrell, at Hodgestown near Timahoe. The ring, 200 yards in diameter, was formed in the centre of the field and maintained by five men on horseback.

When the men entered the ring Gallagher rushed across and met Rourke almost before the latter had left his corner, and inside of one minute after taking hold Gallagher gained the first fall.

As Rourke arose he seemed to be in a dazed condition. He was as a child in the grip of his towering adversary, who, seemingly without effort, won the second fall and the match. From 1863 to 1867, when the dread of Fenianism prompted the Government to proscribe gatherings of the people, Kildare had a splendid crop of lightweight wrestlers-men under twelve stone (168 pounds). Among the best of these were John Salmon and Pat Salmon, Starffan, Pat White, Newtown, Matt Cully, Landenstown; James and William Byrne, Killashee, John Fulham, Clongorey; Timothy and James Dempsey, Newtown, and Christy Donahue, Caragh.

During the middle of the nineteenth century and up to the late seventies, collar and elbow was practically the only style of wrestling known in America. It attained a widespread popularity and developed many champions of international fame

Kildare Man in Vermont

The sport was first introduced in New England by a colony of Kildare men that settled in Vermont in 1840. It caught the fancy of the Yankees at once. The young men of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts became adepts in all the pedal artfulness and cunning which the sport develops. It appealed to them as a high class, manly style of wrestling because skill and activity, not brute force, were the chief essentials.

But this once popular and highly scientific style of wrestling was allowed to wane. The "hooks," "trips," "locks," and lightning-like foot work which the sport developed are practically unknown to the present generation, and no more is the pity, for no physical contest requires greater skill, endurance and activity of brain and limb. "Greco-Roman" and "catch-as-catch-can" styles have entirely supplanted it in popular favour.

As a gladiatorial spectacle a wrestling contest under collar and elbow rules is to "Greco-Roman," or "catch-as-catch-can" what a purely scientific boxing match is to a rough and tumble fight. In the former, while strength of grip must be developed in hand and wrist, there is no choking, or strangle holds; the art is confined to the feet which are kept dextrously sparring and feinting for an opening to use the various hooks, trips and locks peculiar to the sport, while in the latter styles-to the uninitiated observer at least-brute strength seems to be the chief requirement, and a contest appears unseemly, unedifying and suggestive of the rough-and-tumble.

Elaborate rules for the government of collar and elbow contests were established in America; under those rules it was necessary for one shoulder, or one hip to touch the ground to constitute a fall. A strong leather harness with handles at the collar and the elbow was devised which was substituted for the unreliable and cumbersome coat formerly worn.

The last contest for the collar and elbow championship of America, and a purse of 2,500 dollars was held in Mc Cormick Hall, Chicago, in October, 1877, between Colonel Mc Laughlin, of Detroit, who then held the championship, and John Mc Mahon, of Vermont, champion of New England. Mc Laughlin was six feet two inches and weighed 230 pounds; Mc Mahon was five feet ten inches and tipped the scale at 185 pounds. Both men being experts, the great disparity of height and weight would have militated against the smaller man under any other rules but those of collar and elbow, but Mc Mahon’s superior skill prevailed and he won by gaining two falls out of three.

Kilcullen Champion in Chicago

A contest which aroused considerable local interest was held at the old Sunnyside race track, Chicago, in February, 1869. The principals were Patrick Brennan, a native of Kilcullen, Co. Kildare and James Cahill, a native of County Westmeath. Neither of the men were professionals. Brennan was a teamster and Cahill worked in the North Side Rolling Mills; both however, were powerfully built men and clever wrestlers. The stakes were 250 dollars a side, and the conditions best two out of three falls, Jack Mc Cann, a blacksmith and athlete of local renown, was chosen referee.

Brennan weighed about 200 pounds, but he was fully 30 pounds lighter than his adversary, who was a physical giant. By agreement the men wore strong sack coats and light, soft shoes. Surplus under garments were dispensed with. From the moment the men took hold it was evident that Brennan was the superior tactician, and after about six minutes of neat foot sparring Brennan feinted with the right foot, Cahill tried to catch him with the left but Brennan doubled with right and caught Cahill on heel, putting him down for the first fall. After a short rest the men came together again and it was evident Cahill was in ugly humour, he tried to use rough tactics, but the referee cautioned him; he then crouched, spread his feet and acted entirely on the defensive. In trying to pull his man towards him Brennan ripped Cahill’s coat up the back, rendering it useless for a hold. Brennan refused to go on unless Cahill got another coat, and this Cahill refused to do. A wrangle ensued among the backers of the men and Mc Cann being unable to give a decision, it was finally agreed to refer the matter to Frank Mc Queen, who was at that time editor of the "New York Clipper" and the acknowledged sporting authority of America. The principals also agreed to meet at the same place two weeks from that date and be governed by Frank Mc Queen’s decision.

Promptly on the date set the men were on hand ready to continue the contest. Mc Cann read Mc Queen’s decision which was that Brennan’s fall was to stand good, the same coat should be used and ripped part securely stitched.

On resuming the contest Cahill began his old defensive tactics, refusing to give Brennan an opening. In an effort to pull Cahill into a position where he could throw an "inside hook," Brennan again ripped the coat and the contest was declared off. If Cahill’s coat was sufficiently strong, or if the men wrestled in the regulation collar and elbow harness, Brennan would have undoubtedly been the victor.

A Staplestown Victor

A match which drew public attention and aroused lovers of the sport to a high pitch of excitement was held in West Twelfth Street, Turner Hall, Chicago, in November 1878. The principals were Wm. Ryan, a native of Staplestown, County Kildare, and Horace Brink, a New England professional. Ryan who was a Chicago policeman at the time, is still an active member of the force. As a wrestler he was an unknown quantity in Chicago, never before having performed in public, while Brink had a national reputation as a collar and elbow wrestler, and had a number of hard-fought victories to his credit. Ryan stood six feet two inches and weighed two hundred pounds. Both men were well trained and were splendid specimens of physical manhood. The stakes were five hundred dollars a side, and the conditions were best two in three falls. Brink was the favourite with odds at 2 to 1; and thousands of dollars changed hands. After the first few minutes of foot sparring and manoeuvring it became evident that the amateur, Ryan, was the professional’s master at the game. He easily baffled all of Brink’s attempts at hooks and locks, and inside of thirty minutes of clever wrestling he gained the two falls and the match.

It is to be hoped that this eminently scientific and picturesque style of wrestling will be again revived and popularised. The Gaelic Athletic Association should include it in its list of ancient Gaelic sports, which it is so commendably and successfully reviving in Ireland.

It is indubitably the duty of Kildare men, wheresoever their lots may be cast, to take the initiative in resuscitating and cultivating this incomparable style of wrestling.

The writer would suggest that clubs for this purpose be organised in our large towns and competent instructors engaged. If this be done it will be but a few years until we shall again be holding tournaments which will develop champions of the types which in former years were the pride of Kildare.-"The Gaelic American."

Report from Leinster Leader 16 March 1907 on the forgotten sport of collar and elbow wrestling in 19th century Kildare.

[The subject of Collar and Elbow wrestling was first brought to my attention by Eileen McGregor who was researching the topic in 2004 and 2005. I was able to locate this article from the Leinster Leader by searching the Leinster Leader Index and it remains one of the definitive sources on the sport in Co. Kildare. I would like to thank Eileen for sharing her research with me.]

[Compiled by Mario Corrigan; typed and edited by Niamh Mc Cabe; final edit Dee O' Brien ]

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