A 200-year-old promise was fulfilled in Mervue yesterday Wednesday as the final resting place of freed slave and champion bare-knuckle boxer Tom Molineaux was commemorated with a headstone, unveiled by undisputed world boxing champion Katie Taylor.
The ceremony took place in St James’s Cemetery, Mervue, yesterday Wednesday to unveil the headstone on the grave of Molineaux who lived a remarkable life before spending his last days in Galway.
Molineaux was born into slavery in the State of Virginia in the USA in 1784 before securing his freedom by winning a fight against a fellow slave from a rival plantation. His talents eventually took him across the Atlantic in 1810 where he challenged the English champion, Tom Cribb, in what was considered the first ever world title fight.
After a controversial loss to Cribb the two rematched in 1811 with the same result. Molineaux went on to tour Scotland and Ireland where he fought off challengers, gave public displays of his skill and taught the ‘sweet science of bruising’. However a fondness for alcohol, age and suspected tuberculosis saw his talents wane and in 1818 he was discovered sick and destitute on the streets of Galway.
Still only 34, the ailing prize fighter was given shelter in the band room of the Shambles Barracks in Galway by three drummers from the 77th (East Middlesex ) Regiment.
On August 4, 1818 Molineaux passed away and the regiment buried him in St James Cemetery and promised to erect a headstone on his grave. That promise never materialised at the time but was finally realised yesterday thanks to boxing manager, Brian Peters and Brendan McGowan of Galway City Museum.
In the summer of 2018, to mark the 200th anniversary of his death the Museum opened an exhibition entitled ‘Tom Molineaux (1784-1818 ): The slave who fought his way to freedom’. The museum with the Galway Civic Trust also unveiled a plaque at the city centre site where he died.
After visiting the exhibition, Peters was struck by the fact that the promise to erect the headstone had never been fulfilled and offered to fund the project. Peters worked with Galway City Museum, Galway Civic Trust and local sculptors to complete the memorial stone which tells the remarkable story of Molineaux’s life in pictures and text, in both Irish and English.
“I thought it was a shame that Tom’s final resting place wasn’t marked and after the life he had lived and I felt that it was the least he deserved,” said Peters. “It’s a remarkable story and who better to unveil the headstone 200 years on than another pioneer of the sport of boxing in Katie Taylor.”
“Tom Molineaux was a sporting giant – the Joe Frazier of his day. The memory of his final resting place has been kept alive in Galway for two centuries. Finally, the time has come to mark the location for future generations,” said Brendan McGowan.
Molineaux’s achievement saw him inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997 while his great-grand nephew, John Henry Lewis (1914-1974 ) held the World Light Heavyweight boxing title from 1935 to 1938. His daughter is Joan Tarika Lewis, visual artist, musician and political activist, who at 16 became the first female member of the Black Panther Party.
The US rapper LL Cool J is also a relative of Molineaux, while former World Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson has spoken about how inspired he was by Molineaux’s story describing him as “the first black champion who earned his freedom through fighting”.