The sepia print of Danno O’Mahony’s arrival on the dock at Cobh in the summer of 1936 is a snapshot of a matinee idol coming home. His hair is immaculately coiffured, a tailored two-piece suit hangs perfectly from his broad frame, and a sheepish grin is breaking across his lantern-jawed face. Men are swarming around him with their hats aloft in triumph, young boys are jostling to get closer to the hero, and the few women present are smiling beatifically. He looks like he’s just stepped off a soundstage in a Hollywood studio.
At this remove, it’s almost impossible to grasp what O’Mahony must have meant to Cork people when he wrestled his way to a world title. The hurlers were in the middle of a ten-year long famine, the footballers hadn’t won an All-Ireland in nearly quarter of a century, and the soccer clubs were struggling on the national stage. The country was fighting an economic war with Britain and the only glint of sporting success to lighten the gloom had been Dr. Pat O’Callaghan’s second hammer gold in 1932. Then, Danno went to America and came home a champion.
At a massive banquet at the Arcadia Ballroom, the Lord Mayor, Alderman Sean French, presented the wrestler with a silver tea-set and gave his wife Esther – an Irish-American from Massachusetts – a Tara Brooch. Although another lavish formal dinner was held in his honour at the Hibernian Hotel in Dublin, the most emotional celebration of the return was, inevitably, in his native Ballydehob. Photographs of the scenes in the West Cork town show flags and bunting draped across the width of the main drag, and locals dressed in their Sunday best thronging the street waiting to gaze at the diamond-encrusted championship belt worth a reputed $10,000.
Imagine their pride. Danno had been born at Dreenlomane, three miles outside the village on September 29th, 2012. At his baptism, Father James O’Donovan supposedly remarked to the proud parents, Big Dan and Susan, that he was one of the strongest babies the curate had ever baptized. Maybe he did say that. Who’s to know? When a boy goes out into the world and reflects glory back on the home place like he did, colourful details are always appended to the birth of the legend.
That he inherited good sporting genes is less in dispute. A farmer by trade, his father was also a noted jumper and weight-thrower at athletic meets, and Danno’s own brothers were all fine athletes. Florence, a national champion several times at the 56lb weight throw, was the best of them.
In the first week of January, 1935, O’Mahony (with an e inserted into his last name by the Americans) climbed through the ropes at the Boston Garden and took his first professional bow. His first fight, his first victory and the first unveiling of the Irish Whip, the trademark move when he would grab an opponent’s arm, hold it straight out at the side, and then rotate it in a full circle before flipping the unfortunate victim over his head. Over the next seven months, he fought and won 54 times at some of the most fabled arenas in American sport as he marched to the world title, finally picked up with a victory over Jim “The Gorgeous Greek” Londos at Fenway Park.
When news of that triumph filtered back to Ballydehob, locals held a torchlight procession through the town and at the bottom of Staball Hill, Father Coffey gave a speech outlining the 23 year old’s achievements. Looking back now, the problem is that they weren’t to know their hero was immersed in a sport riven with controversies, rife with allegations of match-fixing and pockmarked by question marks over all achievements.
Revisionist histories then may force us to re-examine the exact nature of his world title win but what can’t be argued about O’Mahony’s career is this. Plucked from obscurity and catapulted into the highest echelon of a sport that was then one of the biggest entertainment industries in America, he more than held his own. It wasn’t his fault that he signed up (perhaps unknowingly) to a game that was fundamentally corrupt, in a profession where his own destiny was often more than likely out of his own hands.
In his fabulous memoir “Six O’Clock All Over Cork”, Tom McElligot recounted the time O’Mahony headlined a wrestling event staged at Long’s Field in Victoria Cross.
“At one stage of the contest, the latter (Charlie Strack) was seated on Danno’s back, occupied apparently in methodically gouging out his eyes,” wrote McElligot. “Such cruelty, even in wrestling, was thought to be excessive and after the referee had sought in vain to separate them, Danno with a mighty heave displaced Strack, and in the best tradition of a thriller film, was free. He then began to swing Strack round and round before slamming him not once but many times face downwards on the mat.”
The account of a contemporary Cork observer who worked as a steward at the event, it may, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, be the best way to remember him