'Peerless' Jim Driscoll
Here we see Jim and his wife Liza, along with Auntie Emm and Jim's dog (we think)
Surrounded by the famous 'Cork Pipers' outside the Duke of Edinburgh Public House which Jim kept in Ellen Street Newtown Cardiff
Born in Ellen Street, Newtown Cardiff Jim Driscoll was to become world famous, winning, as he did the coveted 'Lonsdale belt' but as this page will reveal Jim never forgot his roots. He was a staunch supporter of his church, remained close to his community and had great affection for the Nazareth House Orphanage for whom he gave up the chance of becoming Featherweight Champion of the World.
The Following is an extract from:
'Immigration and Integration: The Irish in Wales 1798 - 1922'
[Published on behalf of the History and Law Committee of the board of Celtic Studies
Cardiff University of Wales Press 2000]
By any reckoning, it was the biggest funeral Wales has ever seen. On 3 February 1925, an estimated 100,000 people lined the streets of Cardiff in respectful silence as the cortege slowly wound its way from St Paul’s Catholic Church in the Newtown district of the city to Cathays cemetery. Following the obsequies, which had been carried out by Monsignor Irvine, Canon Hannon and Fr Grieshaber, the solemn funeral procession moved on to North Road where the coffin, draped in the Union Jack, was transferred from the bearers’ shoulders to a gun carriage. The band of the 2nd Battalion of the Welch Regiment moved to the head of the procession - now over a mile long - playing the funeral march, while soldiers of the regiment carried their rifles reversed in honour of a dead comrade. Children from Nazareth House, the city’s Catholic orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity, carried striking floral wreaths in honour of their staunchest supporter and patron, while a number of former Welsh boxing champions and representatives of local government and the military were also in attendance. At the conclusion of a brief graveside service in the gathering dusk, the Last Post was sounded: ‘Peerless’ Jim Driscoll, championship boxer and winner of a coveted Lonsdale Belt, philanthropist and people’s champion, feted son of Cardiff’s ‘Little Ireland’, was dead.1
As a member of the pre-1914 generation of Welsh boxing champions, Driscoll had won a devoted following in Wales and garnered uncharacteristic praise across the Atlantic from the otherwise keenly partisan American boxing press. Indeed, it was in the United States that he earned the nickname "Peerless’, and he was dubbed ‘the Prince of Wales’ on his return. 2 As the latter epithet suggests, Driscoll was an emblematic figure who succeeded in transcending his ethnic origins, without ever fully leaving them behind. He was the son of Irish parents and the product of a distinctive working-class culture in which many of the Welsh-born offspring of Irish immigrants considered them-selves to be Irish. Driscoll was a staunch supporter of his community’s institutions, especially the church, and he possessed a particular affection for Nazareth House orphanage. Yet, press reports of Driscoll’s funeral strongly evoke the suppressed grief of an entire city, not only its Irish inhabitants. With the participation of the military, a procession through the main thoroughfares of the city — where businesses stopped trading temporarily as a mark of respect - and the involvement of representative figures from Welsh public and sporting life, the events of that day closely resemble the ritual of a state funeral. As well as demonstrating the depth of public esteem for a highly-respected sportsman, the response to Driscoll’s death illuminates the degree of Irish integration at both civic and national levels of Welsh life.
It was not always so. For centuries the mere mention of ‘the Irish’ evoked images of wildness, danger and an inability to assimilate to the norms of Welsh society. They were renowned for their drunkenness, vagrancy and ‘papism’, while their native land was most familiar to outsiders as the site of bloody rebellion. When the Irish intruded into Wales it was believed that they exerted a baneful influence on the native people. A graphic illustration of attitudes in the host society is that, between 1826 and 1 882, there were twenty anti-Irish riots in Wales, most of which occurred in the industrial south-east but with some erupting in parts of the north where railway construction provided employment for Irish navvies. As John Davies has commented - in a judgement pregnant with understatement -‘ambiguity has characterised the relationship between Wales and Ireland from the earliest times.’3
The stereotype of the indigent, drink-sodden Irish navvy is well known and, like all caricatures, it does not stand up to close scrutiny. An accurate version of the historical experience must acknowledge the existence of a more heterogeneous immigrant community than the stock images would suggest. This entails recognizing the plurality of Irish identities, rather than relying on depictions of the incomers as a homogeneous outcast group. While the majority of the Irish unquestionably belonged to the working class, an understanding of the dynamics of change within immigrant communities must also take account of the presence of doctors and businessmen as well as navvies, of respectable Irish friendly societies as well as the semi-legal drinking dens, of those indifferent to organized religion as well as the Catholic faithful, and of those who left Ireland in search of greater opportunities for advancement as well as those unfortunates exiled by famine. Perhaps most fundamentally, it must recognize that a large minority of Irish immigrants were women.
1This paragraph is based on accounts in South Wales Echo, 3 February 1925; South Wales Daily News, 4 February 1925; and Western Mail, 4 February 1925.
2 Dai Smith, ‘Focal heroes’, in idem, Aneurin Bevan and the World of South Wales (Cardiff, 1993), pp.326-32. 334-5.
3 John Davies, ‘Wales, Ireland and Lloyd George’, Planet, 67 (1998), p.21
An extract from a book being written by John O'Sullivan, to be published shortly
The most famous son of Newtown was the boxer Peerless Jim Driscoll, who gave up the chance of fighting for the featherweight championship of the world to keep a promise to take part in an exhibition bout at the Park Hall in Cardiff, in aid of his favourite charity, the Assault at Arms Committee, which supported Nazareth House, where the Sisters of Nazareth cared for scores of orphans. Peerless Jim worked in the composing room of the old Evening Express which had its offices at the Monument end of St Mary Street, Cardiff. The building was demolished in the 1 990s. He acquired his boxing skills in the fairground booths run by the infamous Jack Scarott. At the age of 17, Jim was earning a sovereign a week from boxing. Scarott added a silver crown to each purse by tying the teenager’s hands behind his back and offering a gold sovereign to anyone who could hit the courageous Driscoll on the nose inside a minute. The money was safe. Driscoll won more than 50 professional fights in Britain before going to the United States where he crowned his achievements in 1909 by out-boxing the world featherweight champion Abe Atell in a no-decision contest in which Atell’s title was not on the line. But the hard-bitten American boxing writers unanimously voted Driscoll as the winner and gave him the accolade of Peerless Jim, a tribute to his skilful left hand. Arrangements were being made for a rematch when the title would have been at stake, but Peerless Jim stunned the boxing world by opting to go home to raise money for the orphans at Nazareth House on the corner of North Road and Column Road, Cardiff.
Wales has rarely given a greater welcome to one of its sporting heroes than that given to Driscoll as he left Cardiff General Station, surrounded by thousands of fans. He was carried shoulder high through the cheering throng to his home in Newtown. The Great War deprived him of a chance of further world champion bouts. He joined the army and belonged to a famous khaki boxing squad that included Bombardier Billy Wells, Pat O’Keefe, Johnny Basham, Dick Smith, Captain Bruce Logan and the Mighty Atom, Jimmy Wilde. After the war, Peerless Jim returned to the ring and although nearly 40, beat Pedlar Palmer and drew with Franci Rossi. The end of his boxing career came at the National Sporting Club in London in October, 1921, when his heartbroken seconds threw in the towel after Jim had been battered for 16 rounds by the Little Assassin Charles Ledous, from France. Five years later, on January 30, 1925, Jim Driscoll died at the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel on the corner of Ellen Street, the street where he was born and raised. The headline in a national boxing magazine proclaimed:
THE KING IS DEAD.
Peerless Jim was a king among boxers and his funeral was fitting for a monarch, with titled men and famous boxers joining the congregation in and around St Paul’s Church in Newtown, where the Requiem Mass was celebrated by Monsignor Irvine, assisted by Canon Hannon and Fr Grieshaber. Canon Alfred Winsborough, who was in his early 90s when he died at Porthcawl in 1982, often talked to me about the moving service at which he led the choir, mostly children from Nazareth House.
One of those children was Nora O’Connor, a parishioner of St Teilo’s, Whitchurch, Cardiff. She was placed in Nazareth House after her father was killed in the Great War and her mother was drowned with more than 600 other passengers when the Germans torpedoed the Irish Mail Boat, the Leinster, on October, 111918, exactly one month before the Armistice was signed to end the war. With other orphans of the Mail Boat tragedy Nora was adopted by the great Irish tenor Count John McCormarch, who provided her pocket money while she was at Nazareth House, in Cardiff. Nora was 12 when the boxer died and she told me how she and other youngsters from Nazareth House were each given a wreath to carry as they walked in front of Peerless Jim’s funeral procession as it left Newtown for Cathays cemetery more than two miles away. Thousands lined the streets to watch the solemn procession. Outside Cardiff Castle the coffin was placed on a gun carriage and an army band played solemn music as members of the Second Battalion of the Welch Regiment paid their tribute. The graveside service was conducted by Fr Grieshaber, wearing vestments paid for by Peerless Jim. The Last Post was sounded by an army bugler and rifle shots were fired over the grave, which is just a few feet away from where the Bishop’s Monument stands and close to the memorial to the Irish Famine victims which was erected in 1999. The headstone on Peerless Jim’s grave was paid for by the Sisters of Nazareth, who on the headstone posthumously gave Peerless Jim the title which he had sacrificed for them.
OF YOUR CHARITY PRAY FOR THE SOUL OF JIM DRISCOLL,
RETIRED FEATHER WEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD:
PEERLESS JIM DIED JANUARY30, 1925, AGED 44.
In 1997 a statue of Peerless Jim was erected near the site of the former Central Boys Club where he used to train. The chairman of the committee which erected the statue was Carlow-born Ricki Ormond, a former Lord Mayor of Cardiff, who was a useful amateur boxer as a young man. Ricki was acclaimed as the People’s Lord Mayor during his year of office when his future wife, Val Singleton was his Lady Mayoress. More than 70 years after his death, Peerless Jim was still raising money for Nazareth House. His nephew, Bernard Rowlands, of St Joseph’s Parish, Penarth, presented Jim’s Welsh Silver Belt and Certificate of Appreciation from the Assault of Arms Committee to the Welsh Hall of Fame, at the Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagans. A pair of boxing gloves, presented to Driscoll by Abe Atell were also included in the presentation. The Hall of Fame committee, chaired by Lord Jack Brooks, presented Nazareth House with a cheque in appreciation of the gifts.
(C) John O’Sullivan
Jim Driscoll Fight Record
FIGHTS 71 WON 54 LOST 3 DRAW (No Decision) 14
Statue in centre of Cardiff
Peerless Jim Driscoll
Lived and died in the Newtown area of Cardiff