Black Resin Head – 10″ x 8″
Black Resin Arm – 25″ x 7″
Mummification has been used in the preservation of the body for religious and spiritual reasons for thousands of years. From the Egyptians and their elaborate practices of removing internal organs and preserving them separately, to the ancient Chinese wet mummies.
Mummification has also been used in the preservation of ideas like those embodied by Dan Donnelly. A much loved and renowned reluctant Irish boxer born in 1788, who is seen as a symbol of Irish pride due to his many victories, especially those over English opponents.
His talents in the ring aside, Donnelly was described as ‘a courageous man’ to whom a number of heroic anecdotes are also attributed to. From the saving of a young woman who was being attacked by two sailors. To another tale of him carrying the body of an old lady who had died of a highly contagious fever to a local graveyard. Where he then buried the body himself in a grave that had been “reserved for a person of distinction”.
As his career in boxing came to a close he became a publican with a reputation as a gambler, a womanizer and drunk. It was in his own pub named The Donnelly where he died at age 32.
After being laid to rest grave robbers exhumed his body and sold it to an eminent surgeon for study. Donnelly’s admirers tracked the surgeon down and threatened him with death if he did not release Donnelly’s body. He agreed to give back the body under the condition that he could keep the right arm for study. The same arm that had slew a number of challengers and won his fame.
The arm was preserved with red lead paint, and travelled to a medical college in Scotland. Eventually finding it way into a Victorian traveling circus, and then finally back to Ireland in 1904 where it was bought by a Belfast bookmaker named Hugh McAlevey to be displayed in his pub. Many years later it traveled to New York for display in the Irish Arts Centre, and then to the South Street Seaport, eventually residing at the GAA Museum in Croke Park in Dublin.
At this point Donnelly’s arm and much of his story have become legend similar to those of the ancient Egyptians. Ideas locked in flesh, symbols of our desire to preserve that which we value and hold dear. Our desire to preserve our thoughts and bodies, and in some cases stave off death all together, has become a new preoccupation. Obsessive Exercise, miracle health foods, plastic surgery, cryogenics, genome therapy, artificial intelligence. What are these if not modern attempts to preserve ourselves. What are we really trying to save though, and is it less about saving and more about the fear of letting go?