Steven Galvin chats to Des Kilbane, director of Croí Trodach (A Fighting Heart), the epic story of Johnny Kilbane (1889–1957), the longest reigning World Featherweight Boxing Champion of all time. The film screens this weekend as part of Ireland on Sunday, the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film.
When Johnny Kilbane, the Cleveland-born son of Irish emigrants from Achill, became the World Featherweight Champion on 22nd February 1912, defeating the six-year reigning champion Abe Attell in a 20-round bout in Vernon, California, he entered the realms of legends. He returned to Cleveland on St. Patrick’s day to the largest gathering in the history of the city with a turnout of around 200,000 people. According to his biography: Newspapers canonized him. Children idolized him. Parents even named their new born sons “Johnny Kilbane”. Kilbane would go on to beat Attell’s record and become the longest reigning World Featherweight Boxing Champion of all time holding the title for a staggering 11 years from 1912 to 1923. Kilbane fought more than 140 fights in his career losing only 4 times – a sporting feat that has lead to him being considered one of the top 5 Featherweights of all time.
Croí Trodach (A Fighting Heart) tells the epic story of Kilbane’s life, a story that stretches from Achill Island to Cleveland, Ohio, taking in so much along the way.
Irish director Des Kilbane, himself a distant relation of Johnny, tells me how the genesis of the film dates back to when his own father used to talk about Johnny Kilbane visiting Achill in the early 1920s when Johnny was still the champion of the world. In the mid-1980s, Des picked up a copy of The Book of Lists, where celebrities select their favorites in their chosen fields, and read that Mike Tyson, heavyweight champion of the world at the time, had picked Johnny at Number 7. “I was amazed, ” says Des. “So the idea was always there but the wherewithal wasn’t. When I completed my film studies in 2009 the idea arose again to make a film on Johnny’s life. I found Kevin OToole’s website on Johnny (Kevin’s great grandfather) and it all took off from there.”
It’s a surprise to learn how in fact Johnny’s path into boxing was by chance. Des explains how Johnny always wanted to be a star of the vaudeville stage. “He was a great dancer, he played the violin and he could hold a tune. But having to survive working on the docks as a 10 year old honed his fighting skills. His nemesis as a boy was his neighbor Tommy Kilbane and they fought on the street regularly. A friend suggested he contact Jimmy Dunn a local boxing trainer. They met up and the rest is history.”
Croí Trodach (A Fighting Heart) charts Kilbane’s sporting career but also extends well beyond it relating a rags-to-riches story that begins on Achill Island, from where his ancestors originated and his father emigrated, and finishes in Cleveland, Ohio, where Kilbane grew up. “Johnny had a very tragic childhood,” Des tells me, “losing his mother when he was 3 years old and his father becoming blind when he was 7. So he had to leave school to earn money to keep the family going.” He went on to fight his first professional fight in 1907, became a lieutenant in the US Army during the First World War and would serve his community after his impressive boxing career. “After he retired from boxing, he made a lot of money but lost it all in the crash of 1929,” explains Des. “He had to re invent himself as a boxing promoter and then as a politician, which he became very successful at.”
The film also works as a particular story of Irish Emigration and the building of the Erie Canal, the US’s first major transportation system, linking the waters of Lake Erie in the west to the Hudson River in the east. As Des says, Achill Islanders had been emigrating to Ohio from 1820s onwards to work on the Erie Canal, which was one of the great American engineering constructions of the 19th century. “From those beginnings other emigrants from the West of Ireland followed, particularly during and after the Famine and a large Irish community was established in Cleveland which still exists today.”
There is some wonderful archive footage throughout Croí Trodach, including rare footage of Kilbane’s World Title fight that has never been seen before, which “was discovered by Kevin O’Toole (Johnny’s great grandson) in his Grandmother’s attic when she died in 1995,” says Des. “This very volatile nitrate film, over 100 years old, is very expensive to convert but with the help of Frank Stallone, Sylvester Stallone’s brother, Kevin managed to convert the last 4 rounds of the Kilbane vs Attell fight, which has never been seen before and is shown in the film, for the first time. We also found some very rare footage of Johnny at home with his family and Johnny on the election trail as a candidate.”
The film features a specially commissioned original soundtrack by Portland musician and award-winning writer Willy Vlautin, founder of the band Richmond Fontaine.
Initially Des self-funded the project, travelling to the States for research purposes. Midas Productions then came on board as co-producers, and in late 2011, TG4 signed up as broadcaster. In 2012 the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland approved funding which allowed Des to finish the film.
The finished documentary is a fascinating and insightful account of the life and times of one of sports greats.
Croí Trodach (A Fighting Heart) screens on Sunday, 15th December 2013 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.
The film will be followed by a Q&A with Des Kilbane.
Tickets for Croí Trodach (A Fighting Heart) are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie