March 1923. Ireland is in the midst of civil war. Shootings, bombings, and executions are daily occurrences as the Free State government and the IRA bitterly fight out the final months of the civil war. While war raged on the streets, St. Patrick’s Day 1923 was also the occasion of a major international sporting event in Dublin. Flamboyant Senegalese world light heavy weight boxing champion, the Battling Siki, came to Dublin to defend his title against Clare man Mike McTigue. This is the fascinating story of that fight.
Siki, a World War I hero of the French army, became world light heavy weight boxing champion in 1922 when he knocked out French man Georges Carpentier in a fight shrouded in controversy. In the subsequent months attempts to defend his title were frustrated. Having been refused entry to Britain, probably due to racial discrimination, the new Irish Free State was more than willing to assert its independence and acceded to the request for Siki to defend his title against Clare man Mike McTigue.
On 7th February 1923, Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Home Affairs in the Free State government, assured the media that no prohibition of the fight would be issued. With court action pending against it for revoking his boxing licence, the French Boxing Federation reinstated Siki’s licence later that month.
He was now ready to defend his title against an Irishman in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day. It would be a twenty-round fight to take place at La Scala Theatre in Dublin for a purse of £2,000, of which €1,500 would go to the winner. It was further agreed that a share of gate receipts would be donated to the French Laboratories for scientific research.
Siki arrived in Dublin by boat from Cherbourg on 5th March and travelled by train from Dún Laoghaire to Heuston Station (then called Kingsbridge), where he was ‘surrounded by a throng of men, women and children, who sought to shake his hand, clap him on the back, or just catch a glimpse of his face’. One well-wisher presented a large blackthorn stick to Siki who was described by one reporter as being ‘a wonderfully fine athlete, beautifully proportioned, broad of shoulder, deep of chest and powerful of build’.
While Siki received a warm welcome, the situation pertaining in the country was evident when troops boarded their train and searched the passengers for weapons. Asked by reporters if he had to show that he carried no lethal weapons, the fight promoter, Mr. Singleton replied jokingly, ‘they felt Siki’s arm, and so did not bother about searching any of us’! Siki’s party then proceeded to Howth where the Claremont Hotel was made headquarters in preparation for the St. Patrick’s Day bout.
Siki’s arrival in Ireland coincided with some of most brutal and infamous episodes of the Civil War. In mid early almost 20 republican prisoners were killed in the course of a few days in Co. Kerry when they were strapped to mines and blown up by Free State troops.
While Siki was safely tucked away in the relative seclusion of Howth in north county Dublin, he travelled into the city every couple of days to provide public exhibitions in the Rotunda on Parnell Square.
Tensions on the streets of the capital were mounting, heightened by reports of the summary execution of republican prisoners in Kerry. There were numerous shooting and bombing incidents in city in the week running up to the fight.
On 11th March a 19 year old man, an employee at the Dublin United Tramway Company, was shot dead by a police detective on the South Circular Road. Several days later a Free State Intelligence Officer was shot and wounded as he left the Theatre Royal on Hawkins Street (now the site of the Department of Health). Later that evening a bomb was thrown at the telephone exchange in Crown Alley, Temple Bar.
On 14th March two Free State soldiers were shot dead, one at Portobello barracks and the other at Glengarrif Parade off the North Circular Road. The following night an officer was shot dead as he walked along Bride Street, near St. Patrick’s Cathedral. On the day before the big fight the IRA exploded a bomb at the Custom and Excise office on Beresford Place, killing one police detective.
As tensions mounted, the Manchester Guardian’s Dublin correspondent filed a report on 16th March: ‘It was authoritatively announced shortly before midnight that all cinemas, theatres and places of amusement will be open as usual from tomorrow night. The Siki-McTigue will take place as arranged’.
This was the Free State government’s response to republican orders that all places of entertainment be shut in mourning for those killed in Kerry. The scene was set for an explosive encounter, in more ways than one, at the La Scala theatre on St. Patrick’s Day.
Despite the tensions on the street, crowds flocked to La Scala on Princes Street, the side street between the Metropole Hotel (now Penney’s on O’Connell Street) and the GPO. Over 2,000 people packed into the venue and all were searched by Free State soldiers before entering. Among the attendees were several TDs and Senators, one Minister, Joseph McGrath and the Attorney General, Hugh Kennedy. Georges Carpentier, the man Siki had taken the world title from, also attended.
As excitement mounted in the theatre, drama was unfolding on the street. At 7.30pm, during one of the preliminary bouts to the main event, a loud explosion was heard from Henry Place, just a stone’s throw from to La Scala, on the opposite side of the GPO. The IRA had planted a bomb at the rear of the Pillar Picture House, blowing the doors off the cinema and injuring a young boy who was hit in the head by flying glass.
The two fighters entered the ring at 8.15pm and the crowd gave both men a rapturous reception. At twelve stone and five pounds, Siki weighed one stone heavier than McTigue, but the latter had the advantage of several inches in height over Siki. The fight went the full 20 rounds, McTigue, who was on the defensive for most of the fight, was badly cut above the eye in round eleven and broke his thumb in round thirteen. However, he managed to go the full distance, and was declared the winner.
According to the Freeman Journal’s reporter ‘It was Siki who rushed, charged, slammed, bashed and punched for at least fifteen of the twenty rounds….but McTigue proved himself to be in a class above Siki, who he made appear as a novice in many of the rounds’. McTigue, the new light heavy weight world champion was lifted from the ring and paraded shoulder high by a delirious crowd.
The drama did not end there however. The military gave an order that no one was to leave the theatre before 11.30pm. As the crowds finally left gunshots rang out across O’Connell Street where members of the Free State army and the IRA engaged in a short gun battle.
As Siki’s party prepared to leave Ireland, his manager wrote to the papers thanking the press and sports people in Ireland ‘for the magnificent manner in which they were received’. Just two years later, Battling Siki’s life was tragically cut short. On 15th December 1925 the former world champion, who had fallen into a life of heavy drinking, was shot dead in Hell’s Kitchen, New York as he made his way home from a bar in the early hours of the morning. The murder was never solved. Siki was just 28 years of age.
By Stewart Redden