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The Irish and Boxing

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All sports contain the potential to transcend simply being about athletics to becoming a figure of the conflicts, mood and culture of a country it takes place in. One such sport is the sport of boxing, especially during the mid-nineteenth century; the sport contains no equipment, little to no rules and has a basis that is easily to follow and understand. Boxing is simply two men pitted against one another with only their fists and the hunger for fame that follows victory. Upon migrating to America, the Irish were left impoverished and viewed as the scum of the earth by the native born Americans.

The large population of Irish immigrants in America were able to affirm their membership into the American community through the sport of boxing because of their low financial opportunities, desirable masculine attributes, and the entertainment they provided the country through the media.

Boxing was viewed as a violent and rugged sport and those who participated, pugilists, were viewed to have a strong sense of masculinity. And, by this time, the Irish had permeated American culture “Irish-born adults outnumbered native-born adults in fifteen of the city’s twenty-two wards in 1860,” (Anbinder, 149). Their increasing numbers gave native, middle class Americans a bad taste in their mouths and the Irish were viewed as cultural cast-offs and immigrant “others. ” The Irish came to America in horrible financial conditions– no job and no money– with the Irish fleeing the famine being the most impoverished. With no occupational training they had to take the lowest paying and most back breaking jobs (Anbinder, 158). But these exhausting conditions would lead to a brighter future. The long hours of manual labor produced Irish workers who were extremely fit and with a high sense of masculinity. “A life of manual labor had prepared Irish Athletes for grueling physical competition… when sports began to gain traction in American culture, the Irish, as a class, were more physically prepared than Anglo Americans,” (Dowd, 46).

Because of their fit bodies, low financial opportunity and ethnic stereotypes (i. e. violent, dirty and uncivilized) the Irish capitalized on this and used it to help them excel in their boxing careers. Bill Poole and John Morrison are examples of such Irishmen using boxing to earn money. These pugilists “rough and tumbled” it out on Amos street for $100 while “shoulder-hitters and roughs of all kinds” watched (Sporting Intelligence, “Fight between Bill Poole and John Morrison- Poole the Victor). Though this fight was not the boxing we see in entertainment today, it was the start of something the Irish could use to gain social popularity. The newspaper article from the summer of 1854 speaks of this fight with excitement in its tone as it gives the contestants personalities and a small stand of fame. Poole can be seen in newspapers once again a year later, in 1855, when he is killed in a shooting on a street called Broadway.

Again, this newspaper highlights the thrill Americans found through pugilists. The article starts by saying, “Broadway, in the vicinity of Prince and Houston-streets, was the scene of an exciting shooting affair,” following this the article notes that these shootings between pugilists was not uncommon, “. . . but a repetition of a similar occurrence that transpired a few weeks ago… between Tom Hyer, Lewis Baker, Jim Turner and several other noted pugilists” (“Terrible Shooting Affray in Broadway, Bill Poole Fatally Wounded”). This article not only shows that violence and rough behavior is not uncommon around pugilists but it is also conveyed in a continued excited tone, showing the thrill and entertainment the American public, middle-class Anglo-Americans especially, found in the Irish. This thrill is continued as a famous, native-Irish boxer commits suicide and a newspaper titled “Yankee Sullivan No More” reports it in a style modeling an obituary, noting he still was yet in the “vigor of life”. The boxer, the prizefighting Champion Yankee Sullivan the article speaks of, was so common on headlines that he could be considered a local character to New York. The article title calls him a “Yankee” which is a term that means “American”, a term the Irish sought to be called while residing in the States.

The obituary noted his many rises and falls as he continued in his boxing career until he found himself to be an unhappy man due to a threat of deportation and a tragic loss in the ring with The Commodore. The article is seen to possess two tones, beginning with happy nostalgia and sad conclusion, modeling the life of Yankee Sullivan. The Irish came to America desperate and poor, but through this tragedy came an ending filled with financial and social advancement that was found through the sport of boxing and newspaper entertainment. The simplicity of the sport (i. e. no equipment and few rules) made it easy for newspapers to document and Americans to follow, creating a form of entertainment the middle-class Anglo Americans could not get enough of. The Irish were able to find their social success in boxing because of their impoverished states, strong and masculine physique, and the help of newspapers documenting their violent matches.

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