by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, November 2014) On September 28th at W. 74th and Fr. Frascati Drive in Battery Park, the Irish American Archives Society celebrated the unveiling of a sculpture and plaza dedicated to the memory of Cleveland’s own Johnny Kilbane – featherweight boxing champion of the world from 1912 to 1923.
The sculpture, Johnny Kilbane: Fighting Heart by Dublin based Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie, shows Kilbane in three stages of his life.
First we see Kilbane as a young boy growing up in “The Angle” neighborhood by St. Malachi’s. Kilbane’s mother died when he was very young, his father lost his eyesight, and the young Kilbane dropped out of school in the sixth grade to begin working to help sustain his family.
The second part of the sculpture shows Kilbane, the boxer, living on Herman Avenue near W. 74th in what is now the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. Perhaps the best know Clevelander of his time, Kilbane won the World Featherweight Title in 1912. Upon his return to Cleveland on St. Patrick’s Day, Kilbane was greeted by a crowd of 200,000 people who marched with him from downtown Cleveland to his neighborhood in what was then dubbed “Kilbane Town.” Kilbane held his boxing title for eleven consecutive years, longer than any world champion in the history of the sport.
The third part of the sculpture is Kilbane as a statesman. Kilbane served both in the Ohio Senate and in the Ohio House. He also was elected to the position of Cleveland Clerk of Courts where he served until his death in 1957.
Members and friends of the Irish American Archives Society of Cleveland joined with Detroit Shoreway residents and stakeholders to celebrate the unveiling of the sculpture and dedication of the plaza. Also in attendance were members of the International Mayo Society, in Cleveland for a convention.
The ceremony included a call to order with playing of the bagpipes. The singing of the Irish and American national anthems by Irish singer James Kilbane and an invocation by retired St. Malachi priest Fr. James O’ Donnell. Having spent 42 years at St. Malachi Parish in the Angle, Fr. O’Donnell knew Johnny Kilbane and called him “an inspiration to many, especially those who have lost hope.” Fr. O’Donnell talked about The Angle as a tough neighborhood. He told how boxer Jimmy Dunn, who opened a boxing camp in Vermillion, had taken the young Johnny Kilbane under his wing to help nurture and hone his skills as a boxer. Fr. O’Donnell says he recently was looking at an old photo taken at 50th anniversary of St. Malachi Church and Johnny Kilbane was right there in the crowd.
Ward 15 Councilman Matt Zone told of neighborhood historian Judge Ray Pianka falling in love with the story of “who Johnny Kilbane was” and spearheading an effort to have Kilbane’s house on Herman designated as a Landmark in 2012, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Kilbane’s title win.
Margaret Lynch, Executive Director of the Irish American Archives Society, described the process of raising $300,000 for the sculpture and the plaza and the selection of artist Rowan Gillespie to take on the task of creating a sculpture that would be able to meet the criterion of capturing the essence of Johnny Kilbane. Lynch thanked the many donors who helped to fund the project and the Marous Brothers who donated the space for the plaza on the grounds of Battery Park development.
Kevin O’ Toole, the great-grandson of Johnny Kilbane, thanked those involved in honoring his great grandfather. He especially commended Margaret Lynch and the Irish American Archives Society for their dedication to the creation of the sculpture and artist Rowan Gillespie for his wonderful work. Twenty-two members of the O’Toole family – descents of Johnny Kilbane – then gathered with artist Gillespie for the unveiling of the sculpture.