- Cashel Byron’s Profession:A Catalyst to Friendship—Life Imitates Art
Only think what a man he is: champion of the world and a gentleman as well! The two things have never happened before, and never will again. . . . What more could a lady desire? Where will you find his equal in health, strength, good looks, or good manners? As to his character, I can tell you about that!—Bernard Shaw, Cashel Byron's Profession1
Bernard Shaw and my father, Gene Tunney, shared a history years before they actually met; it revolved around a fictional Irish boxer named Cashel Byron, about whom Shaw wrote a novel in the late 1800s. When he came on the boxing scene half a century later, my father found that he was taken as the living flesh and blood of Shaw's boxing hero.
Cashel Byron's Profession, the fictional story of the Irish boxer who became world champion, had its origins in Bernard Shaw's own development as a young man and his early experiences as an amateur boxer. Today, boxing is not normally a sport one associates with mentality and cultural status, but in England over a century ago there were many who found boxing alluring because of its association with ancient Greece. Lord Byron called boxing the "noble art," a sport in which competitors fought artfully and scientifically and displayed the early Olympian qualities of mind, body, and spirit.
During the Victorian period in London, there were young men in gyms trained in the art of "scientific boxing," a term given to a stylistic method of boxing versus uncontrolled brawling in the ring. Shaw was introduced to one of these gyms by a poet friend, Pakenham (Paquito) Beatty. The gym was Ned Donnelly's London Athletic Club. The period—the early 1880s.2 [End Page 52]
Shaw soon found himself sparring with Donnelly, learning the rudiments of the self-defense style: feinting, jabbing, blocking, and fast footwork. He also enjoyed sparring with Paquito, who, Shaw felt, got the worst of it because Shaw had a long left-handed reach and he could pop his fist into Beatty's face at will, or at least this is how the story went as Shaw related it to my father during their get-acquainted luncheon at Shaw's 4 Whitehall Court residence in December 1928.
Besides reading about boxing from Ned Donnelly's classic Self Defense and Pierce Egan's Boxiana, the available fight literature of the day, Shaw participated in the sport by hitting the punching bags, skipping rope, and pressing dumbbells, and as time went by the callow young man experienced a new meaning of individuality. Years later, Shaw wrote: "There are no sports which bring out the difference in character more dramatically than boxing, wrestling and fencing. I acquired a taste for them that I retain to this day, and that enabled me to add a few articles on boxing to my more becoming and expected achievements in criticism, and to write the novel [Cashel Byron's Profession]."3 Half a century after Shaw's Cashel Byron's Profession was published, the novel and its author were to play a very important part in my father's development as an Irish-American boxer who became world champion.
There are a number of fascinating likenesses between the fictional Cashel Byron and Gene Tunney. Both were Irish, both articulate, both world boxing champions, both retired undefeated after short reigns as champion, and both had successful careers following the ring. In many respects, Cashel Byron's Profession is a parable. It's the story of a young outsider who begins with nothing and, although shunned because of society's hypocritical standards and people's selfishness, nonetheless survives through perseverance and adherence to principle.
My father was such an outsider, a clean-living gentleman who, like the fictional Cashel, maintained his principles while participating in a dirty business. In fact, the "moral" of Shaw's novel is a reflection of Shaw's ethics—and my father's. That is to say, while money and fame were not unimportant to either man, truth, integrity, and character were more important. They both believed that these...