Dardis the Wrestler

Originally published in the Dundalk Democrat, 18 Nov. 1905

Many a time in my boyhood days have I eagerly listened to the tale of Dardis the wrestler, which I purpose telling now to readers of the “Democrat”. Dardis was over 6 feet and remarkable for strength of body, also his wonderful feats of agility. He had no compare on the hurling field, in weight-throwing he could beat his rivals by feet, in a long jump cover the same distance, and in wrestling he was always victorious until one night he was coming home late through Rocksavage and espied in a field before him about 30 little chaps all dressed in greenish jersey and red caps playing football. One red-haired chap cried out, “Dardis on my side.” This was unanimous, and Dardis being a lover of the game readily consented.

However, he was not long playing when this little fellow sent him twice to the ground very heavily. This nettled Dardis, who seized the little fellow by the collar and elbow to wrestle. The ball was called up and a ring was made, when Dardis was grassed twice in quick succession. “Well,” said Dardis, “I must confess you are the first that ever had the honour of tossing me.”

“Yes,” replied the red-haired fellow, “and I will be the last. For your pluck and courage tonight I’ll give you a gift – no human person shall ever toss you.”

Dardis thanked him and went home not much the worse after his game. The following harvest he went up County Louth and, hearing of the champion Cassidy, challenged him, who better known by “Broguey Cassidy”, of Mullacrew. He vanquished Cassidy easy, the latter remarking, “You must be the devil else Dardis the wrestler,” a name which clung to Dardis ever after.

The fame of Dardis spread all over Ireland, and good men came far and near to try conclusions with Dardis, but all met the same fate. A good piece is told of Dardis where a butler sought the fair hand of a colleen who secretly hated the butler. She told the butler (who was a Sourface) if he was able to go up to the football field on Sunday she would marry him. “If not, I will give my heart to Dardis,” said she. This was concocted by Dardis and his fiancee, as all the young fellows said he wanted to get a good kicking at Saxon that he spoke like a goose. It is too true Dardis gave him an unmerciful kicking.

The butler was not to be denied, and watched his chance to swear poor Dardis’ life away, which he almost done. A man was accidentally killed in Inisheen; this man swore he witnessed Dardis hit him, hence Dardis was transported for life to Van Diemen’s Land.

In them days it was the laws of those southern spheres if a pugilist visited the town and a man not therein found to box him a certain number of rounds the town was obliged to give him so much, the same if a champion wrestler came. One wrestler came to town on the occasion of poor Dardis being chained there. He was built like a giant, and Dardis said he would undertake to toss him if he got his liberty and free passage to Ireland. The proper authorities were consulted, and that day week was appointed for the contest, but the odds were 100 to one against the Irishman. A warder made a sneer at Dardis the eve before the contest in regard to his liberty.

“Well,” said Dardis, “if I had my liberty for only two minutes now I’d make you eat your words, and were I possessed of means I’d take your 100 to one.”

However, when Dardis the next day met his opponent he seemed to have been carefully trained; his muscles were like whip cord. Two falls out of three were to give Dardis his liberty. Dardis knew his gift from the red-haired lad in Ireland would stand him in good stead now.

The two got into holds. Both parried for an opening (or, as the old fellows say, a sweet let round). Dardis let his antagonist’s foot round, and like a flash hit him with his other foot and put him head first to the ground. This he repeated, when a tremendous cheer was given for Dardis, who got his liberty and set sail for ould Ireland.

Dwyer the Wrestler; Or, an Account of a 19th-Century Collar and Elbow Bout in Phoenix Park

Originally published in “Carlow Past and Present: A Brochure Containing Short Historical Notes and Miscellaneous Gleanings of the Town and County of Carlow” by Michael Brophy (1888)

It was in that by-gone time when all sorts of manly exercises and pastimes enjoyed their most flourishing palmy days; when Lord Byron donned the gloves as well as the Prince Regent; when poets and litterateurs did not deem it vulgar to have a bout at Tom Cribbs’, that Dwyer the wrestler was in his youthful prime. In those days collar-and-elbow wrestling arrived at a pitch that was never known before nor since. Wrestling was all the vogue throughout Ireland; but the Phoenix Park was its headquarters. The Marquis of —— was a great lover of this manly sport – far more manly than the so-called “manly art of self-defence” – and he organised national matches on a large scale, open to competitors from all counties, and giving valuable prizes to winners. On one occasion his lordship announced a great match in which the championship of Ireland would be decided and a silver cup awarded to the victor.

This great match in prospective was bruited throughout Ireland fairly well considering the times, and wrestlers from all counties put in an appearance to compete, and, if possible, each to return with the bays and take the position of a demigod among the peasantry of his native district. The Marquis himself was sanguine of the success of his own champion, a County Dublin man, and had him backed to win a large stake. This wrestler was not only of herculean build, but also of enormous strength and dexterity, and much money was staked on him, his success being a foregone conclusion.

The day arrived and the match commenced, and true to the forecast the redoubtable champion of the Marquis threw man after man until the long list of competitors for wrestling fame was exhausted. There stood the champion in the ring with arms folded on his broad and burly chest, waiting for each challenger only to quickly dispose of him by laying him quietly with his mother earth. At length he had given the coup de grace to the last man on the list, and the Marquis called out if there was any other challenger who would contest for the championship? There was a pause while the Marquis held up the cup for a long time as if in invitation to ambitious aspirants after fame. It was also evident that his lordship wanted more sport, and felt a triumph in witnessing the masterly manner that his wrestler disposed of all comers.

At length a gentleman on horseback at the outskirts of the ring said, as the Marquis was about closing the match :—

“Hold, Marquis; stay yet; there’s one more who will try a fall with your man.”

“I’m glad to hear it, sir,” responded the Marquis, “send him in.”

An open was made in the ring, and there strode carelessly in a tall, lathy, wiry-looking, squarely-built young man.

It was Dwyer the wrestler, and the gentleman on horseback was his landlord. There was a laugh at the marked contrast in physique this last challenger presented to his burly opponent, standing grim and triumphant in the ring and grinning a grin of terrible import at the new challenger. But, alas, for human vanity; he grinned with the wrong side of his mouth ‘ere he had done with the new-comer.

“I’d wish to back my man, Marquis,” said Dwyer’s landlord to his lordship.

“I shall accommodate you, sir, responded the Marquis, and a large stake was credited to Captain W on the success of Dwyer.

“Come along, young man!” exclaimed the champion to Dwyer, who was taking it very easy, having on, still, his cotamore,“let’s have done with it.”

“Maybe soon enough, mee hearty,” said Dwyer in an undertone, as he observed his landlord completing his bets, and then whipping off his cotamore and other superfluous clothing, Dwyer confronted his burly antagonist. Dwyer seemed guarded and cautious at first as if to measure himself with the champion, who, on his part, seemed to be only playing with Dwyer ‘ere he would give him the fate of all who went their earthy way before. Having sufficiently felt his antagonist’s calibre, Dwyer, like lightning, “made a demonstration in force,” – to use a military phrase – and the champion was whipped off his legs, and before he could realise what had happened him, lay with his mother earth, the first fall he received during the progress of the match.

There was a great shout, and alarm pervaded the champion’s backers, and the Marquis looked less triumphant.

“I was taken unawares,” said the champion rising, “I was off my guard.”

“Well, be on your guard now,” remarked Dwyer, as they commenced again, the champion more cautious, manifestly feeling he had caught a tartar in the last challenger. Putting forth all his strength and tripping tactics the champion made a determined effort to throw his opponent, but it only gave Dwyer an open to give his formidable adversary a heavier fall than the first. There was another great shout, and the Marquis seemed disposed to close the match, but his wrestler refused to desist, as disgrace awaited him if he was defeated. Again they wrestled, Dwyer each time throwing his man easily, who, seeing himself defeated, lost his temper and kicked Dwyer in the shins viciously.

“Kickin’ is not wrestling,” Dwyer remonstrated, “Don’t kick. I never do it; but I’ll tell ye what I’ll do; I’ll brake[sic] any man’s leg that’ll kick me.”

“Oh, it’ll only rise your dandher, man,” said the now defeated champion as he gave Dwyer a severe kick in the shin.

“Ye may talk of risin’ dandher in others; but, id’s not dandher but the divil ye‘ll rise in me, and there he is as you’ve ruz ’im,” said Dwyer, as he suddenly put on what was called his “break-leg crook,” when snap ! there was heard a sound like a pistol shot, and the champion lay unable to rise.

There were scowling looks given at Dwyer, and mutterings of sinister import, and curses “not loud but deep” from foiled backers of the favourite —“ We’ll make a corpse of him;” “never lave[sic] the park alive;” “knock the legs from under ’im,” etc., etc.

Captain W, now seeing danger to Dwyer ahead, hurried him out of the ring, and forcing him up on the horse said—

“Ride for your life, Dwyer; take the Knockmaroon gate and wait for me in Lucan.”

The foiled backers of the champion having now ascertained the nature of the disaster that fell on him, a rush was made for Dwyer just to catch sight of him as he galloped off, when they gave chase, but gave it up seeing its futility, and Dwyer escaped unscathed, got safely to Lucan, where he was joined shortly afterwards by his landlord, and, so ended this episode in his life.

The wrestler is not many years dead. His great physical frame was in keeping with his tenacity of life, for he lived ten years beyond the allotted four-score, and he passed away in the house that sprung up in one night, “ beating hollow,” as he said himself, “the blessed turf.”

Reflecting on this man’s great physical frame, it must be remarked how in racial descent it often happens that a repetition of the great physical attributes of a remote ancestor will be manifested in some one of his descendants. The Irish genealogists tell us that the O‘Dwyers (Hibernice, O’Dhubdhaire) deduce their descent from Cormac Cas, second son of Oliol Ollum, King of Munster, by his wife Sabh or Sabina, daughter of Con of the Hundred Battles. This Cormac Cas is set down by Irish historians as “remarkable for strength of body, dexterity, and courage.”

The Three Most Effective Techniques in Historical Collar and Elbow Bouts

Collar and Elbow in general was known for its arsenal of rapid-fire leg attacks. “Footsparring”, as one journalist referred to it.1 “A fist fight with the feet”, proposed another.2 A style of “inside crooks, outside slaps, back heels, and other side swipes”.3 Accounts of bouts frequently describe how wrestlers would begin by testing each other’s balance and reactions with light combinations of toe-taps, much in the same way that boxers test each other with jabs and feints.

Here’s one such exchange from an 1879 championship bout between James E. Owens and John McMahon, both from the hotbed of American Collar and Elbow talent that was Vermont.

The wrestlers seized each other anew and repeated the delicate taps up and down each other’s legs with the tips of their shoes. Owens began to try little trips as though to test his adversary’s skill.

The Sun (New York), 7 Aug. 1879

As the opening minutes of the bout passed, and the competitors started to get a feel for each other, the footsparring would often increase in tempo and intensity.

Their rubber-clad feet were pointed hither and tither like lightning to find a striking place. The slaps and counter-slaps of the rubbers on the men’s legs sounded like the explosions of torpedoes.

The Sun (New York), 7 Aug. 1879

The ultimate goal, of course, was not to spar endlessly but to land the grappling equivalent of a “KO punch” that would send their opponent crashing to the mat for a fair back fall. Based on data I’ve gathered from historical accounts of Collar and Elbow bouts, these appear to have been the three most successful methods of attaining that fall.

1. The Foot Block (aka. the Ankle Trip, the Toe Block, or the Cross-Toe)

Wrestler A uses his upper body grips to pull/twist wrestler B forwards. As wrestler B extends his leg in order to catch his balance, wrestler A uses his foot to block B’s foot, and continues pulling/twisting with the upper body to send B toppling over.

Here’s James E. Owens getting caught with that move against another notable champion of the day, Henry Moses Dufur.

In a breath both again stood upright, but scarcely had Owens regained his feet, and was evidently not expecting another attack, when Dufur’s right foot shot out, pinning Owens’ left foot down, and bringing the full force of his massive shoulders to bear. Owens was laid out with as handsome a ‘cross-toe’ as ever was seen.

The Boston Globe, 12 June 1879

Owens obviously learned his lesson well, as he used that same move against McMahon two months later.

The men resumed their original positions, when, quicker than lightning, Owens thrust his left foot out and caught McMahon on the right ankle, at the same time twitching the other’s shoulders to the left. McMahon feel flat on both shoulders and hips, while the spectators cheered. The time of the first fall was 20 minutes.

The Sun (New York), 7 Aug. 1879
The same foot block mechanic in other wrestling styles. Top row, L to R: La Zancadilla (Lucha Canaria), Taol Biz Troad (Gouren), Fußstich (Schwingen). Bottom row, L to R: Sasae Tsurikomi Ashi (Judo), Trippett (Norfolk Wrestling), Leggjarbragð (Glíma)

The Hip Lock (aka. the Buttock or the Fore-Hip)

Wrestler A pulls wrestler B forward, turns and loads B on his hip (usually the right hip), and continues rotating with his upper body to throw B to the ground. Wrestler A would often set up the hip lock by first feinting a trip in order to distract his opponent.

Dufur with a turn, a stoop, and a lift combined in a movement as quick as a flash, had McLaughlin on his hip and then on the floor for a fall in much less time than it takes to read about it. ‘First fall for Mr. Dufur! Time, seven minutes.’, shouted referee Gillman.

Detroit Free Press, 20 Jan. 1884.

For one hour and a half they continued the struggle, giving a splendid exhibition of footsparring, tripping and blocking. Then Larkin feinted with his right foot, and, quick as a flash, threw in his left, and getting Carey on his hip, threw him with great force, winning the fall and the match.

The Leinster Leader (Kildare), 16 Mar. 1907

Artful trips and blocks brought down many a man, but against opponents who could nimbly twist in mid-air to keep their feet (Henry Moses Dufur being the classic example), it often took something sudden and forceful like a hip lock to decisively slam them to the mat for the fall.

3. The Grapevine (aka. the Crook, the Hank, or the Inside Lock)

Wrestler A turns slightly sidewards and weaves his leg (usually the right) snake-like around wrestler B’s leg (usually the left). With his leg locked tightly in place, A would then attempt to wrench B off balance either forwards or backwards. The grapevine acquired a reputation for injuring or outright breaking legs, but it nonetheless remained by far one of the most commonly used techniques in bouts, for a simple reason – it worked.

According to Collar and Elbow rules, each contestant took hold of his opponent’s collar with his right hand, the left hand clutching the elbow. Tripping with the feet was the chief method of attack and the inside grapevine was the deadliest hold known.

The Pittsburgh Press, 6 Jan. 1918

The fourth fall was in the Collar and Elbow style, in which Hudson was laid clean on to his back with a clever hank.

Australasian (Melbourne), 4 July 1885

After a desperate struggle, Cox fastened a grapevine on Dufur and threw him on his head.

The Cincinatti Enquirer, 1 June 1878
The grapevine in Cornish and Devonshire wrestling, where it was called the “inside lock”. In Collar and Elbow, wrestlers would be required to keep the collar-and-elbow grips on the upper body while performing the technique.

For an overview of the other techniques that were used in Collar and Elbow, see here.

Disputes Over Jackets

One of the things that distinguished Collar and Elbow from the other popular wrestling styles of the 19th century was that both competitors were required to wear jackets, on which the necessary hold would be taken. In the early days in Ireland there were no written specifications for the jacket. You were just reasonably expected to show up in something suitably sturdy.

Predictably, this sometimes led to pre- or mid-match disputes when one wrestler felt his opponent’s jacket provided him with an unfair advantage due to it being, for example, too long or too flimsy to take a suitable hold on. John Ennis, writing in 1907, recorded two such disputes that took place in bouts several decades previously.

When the men entered the ring, quite a wrangle ensued between their backers over the coat worn by Cullen. It was of the fashion known in those days as the “set-to” (a corruption of surtout). Dunne claimed its long skirts would prevent his seeing Cullen’s legs but Cullen refused to use any other, and finally Dunne acquiesced and the contest began.

After a short rest the men came together again and it was evident Cahill was in ugly humour. He tried to use rough tactics, but the referee cautioned him; he then crouched, spread his feet and acted entirely on the defensive. In trying to pull his man towards him Brennan ripped Cahill’s coat up the back, rendering it useless for a hold. Brennan refused to go on unless Cahill got another coat, and this Cahill refused to do.

The Leinster Leader (Kildare), Mar. 16 1907

Once the first written rules emerged in the US, they sought to eliminate this kind of gamesmanship by specifying that jackets needed to be short, so as not to hinder the range of leg attacks the style was known for, and strong enough that they wouldn’t tear mid-bout.

James, Ed. “Manual of Sporting Rules: Comprising the Latest and Best Authenticated Revised Rules“. Ed James (self-pub.), 1873.
Two American Collar and Elbow wrestlers in 1880, after the Ed James rules had become the standard international framework under which bouts would be contested. Note the short jackets not extending below the hips.

But gamesmanship will always find a way, especially in those big national championship bouts where significant cash prizes were at stake. A common tactic – or at least a common complaint – involved jackets that were too loose for an opponent to take a useful hold on.

A brief breathing spell followed, when time was called and holds again taken. This bout was ever fiercer than the first, and the men resorted to numerous inner and outer grapevines, hip-locks, and other movements. Then some little disagreement arose in regards to the looseness of their respective jackets, each claiming that the other had the best of it. It ended in their going at each other savagely, jerking and flinging each other around at a great rate.

Buffalo Morning Express (New York), Oct. 20 1880

For two hours this sort of boy’s play was continued, and it was evident that Owens had met his match in Dufur and his backers, who were determined that under no consideration should the Marlboro unknown go to the ground on his back. The audience at last became angry, and demanded fair play or their money. The claim was then made by Owens that Dufur’s jacket was too large, as it prevented his retaining his hold when once made. Dufur refused to put on his coat, and a disorderly scene ensued from 10:30 until 1 ‘o clock, during which time the wrestlers once dressed themselves and started to leave the hall, but the audience insisted the match should go on and they returned to the platform again.

St. Albans Daily Messenger (Vermont), Mar. 3 1877

In the recent struggle between these rival champions, McMahon’s jacket was not fair, and McLaughlin objected to it, but as McMahon had no other McLaughlin waived his objections rather than break up the match. The jacket was so loose that it pulled over the wearer’s head whenever McLaughlin had him in a tight place. As the articles of agreement specify that each shall wear the same style of jacket, the next struggle may result differently from the last.

The Boston Globe, Dec. 1 1878

This is one of the reasons we are currently working on developing dedicated jackets for future Collar and Elbow bouts. One, to ensure the modern sport has its own visual identity, but also to that everyone is on the same sartorial page. Every wrestler that steps into the ring will have the same grips, cut, and strength of material to work with.

Breaking the Hold

A key aspect of many traditional wrestling styles is the concept of the fixed hold. In contrast to modern styles like BJJ, Judo, and Sambo, in which you’re (mostly) free to take any grip you like, traditionally it was much more common for a style to centre around one set-in-stone grip (or “hold”) that both competitors were required to keep throughout the entire bout. It is quite typical to read accounts of old wrestling challenges in which the challengees’ response amounted to “Sure, what hold will we use?”.

The Northern Pacific Farmer, Jan. 27 1881

An over-under “hug” clinch is still a common hold (Scottish Backhold, Cumberland and Westmorland, Sardinian S’istrumpa), as is a belt grip (Icelandic Glima, Central Asian Alysh) or a trouser grip (Lucha Leonesa). Collar and Elbow’s was exactly as it the style’s name suggests – right hand on the collar of the jacket, left hand on the sleeve just above the elbow. And once you had it, you could not let go. You could use your arms to push, pull, twist, and generally off-balance your opponent while you worked to trip or throw them, but if you released your grips either by design or by accident you conceded a fall. So wrestlers couldn’t “accidentally” catch their balance mid throw, then just say “Whoops, let’s start again”. You had to work within the rules of the game.

James, Ed. “Manual of Sporting Rules: Comprising the Latest and Best Authenticated Revised Rules“. Ed James (self-pub.), 1873.

Here are some examples of that particular rule in action:

At Indianapolis, December 16, the Turkish wrestler Hali Adali nearly met with a reverse. Duncan C. Ross, who was in Australia some years ago, pulled the Eastern champion over in the Collar and Elbow bout, and, not understanding the style, Adali broke holds. Ross got the fall.

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), Feb. 11 1899

The wrestling up to this point had been in the Cumberland style, but the remaining two falls were in the Collar and Elbow style, sack jackets being put on by the competitors. The excitement now became intense, each effort of the wrestlers being heartily applauded. The Maori was very determined throughout, and after five minutes’ play threw his opponent very cleverly. The remaining fall lasted more than an hour. The Maori got a fall, but he let go his hold, and the fall was given against him.

Marlborough Daily Times (New Zealand), Mar. 19 1886

After the men had wrestled for two hours and thirty-five minutes, the tall man caught a right inside lock on the Vermonter, which the latter neatly broke, and in a twinkling twitched his adversary so nearly on to his back that he broke his hold to save himself and lost the fall as a consequence.

Boston Post, June 28 1878

Modern Collar and Elbow bouts include this crucial rule too. Take your grips, work your trips and throws, but your hands have to stay in place!

19th-Century Anti-Stalling Rules for Collar and Elbow Bouts

Modern combat sports like Judo and Sambo have fairly strict rules in place to prevent stalling in matches. Rules that forbid, for example, overly defensive grips or taking an excessive number of steps backwards without engaging. Collar and Elbow was no different. The grips were set in stone (right hand on collar, left on elbow), and the first written rules for the style specifically included a point intended to tackle the two most common methods of stalling – namely, stiff-arming an opponent away, and bending forwards with your upper body in order to keep your legs away from his attacks.

James, Ed. “Manual of Sporting Rules: Comprising the Latest and Best Authenticated Revised Rules“. Ed James (self-pub.), 1873.

Predictably, competitors still attempted to pull the odd bit of gamesmanship when things weren’t going their way, but all in all the rules and the referees enforcing them seemed to do the trick.

Cox clung to defensive tactics throughout, and it [wasn’t] long before Dufur became very aggressive. The sagging back of the former was very much complained of by the partisans of the Marlboro man, but it was not clear that he had transgressed any rule of the sport; still the referee frequently reminded him to ‘straighten up’.

Boston Post, June 28 1878

Another short breathing time was taken, during which McLaughlin called the referee’s attention to the fact that Martin persisted in keeping his arms stiff, when the rules expressly provide that in Collar and Elbow wrestling the men shall stand breast to breast and give their arms free play. The referee acknowledged the justice of the complaint, and instructed Martin to keep within the rule.

St. Louis Globe, Mar. 27 1876

Canvas jackets were again worn, each man taking hold at his opponent’s collar and elbow. Dinnie at once went on the defensive, standing well out, and lowering his head so to watch the other’s legs that he lost inches of his height. In a little while Cannon complained of this. ‘Stand up to your work, man,’ said he, but without avail. He then appealed to the referee, who, in reply, remarked, ‘Stand up, Donald, and let us see some wrestling.’ Dinnie quietly smiled and obeyed orders.

Sportsman (Melbourne), Mar. 9 1887

Essentially, as tempting as it might have been for a wrestler in a tight spot to stiff-arm and run down the clock, anyone attempting such a strategy (as the gentleman on the left here appears to be doing) would ultimately do nothing more than put themselves at risk of a caution or outright disqualification.