Pet lambs in Dublin

U 10.1134-6: Myler Keogh, Dublin’s pet lamb, will meet sergeantmajor Bennett, the Portobello bruiser, for a purse of fifty sovereigns.

Myler Keogh, sometime champion of all Ireland, was one of Dublin’s middleweight boxing heroes during the 1890s. Many of his fights were staged at Dublin’s Antient Concert Rooms on Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street), well known to Joyce and his father. As Keogh fought before the modern era, he is all but forgotten - though his memory lives on in Ulysses, where he is referred to as "Dublin's pet lamb".1

Sport (1899), 21 January

Boxing lambs

Boxers’ ring-names sometimes include the epithet “Lamb” (used ironically with reference to their aggression), but apparently ring-names do not extend to “pet lamb”. Perhaps Myler Keogh was considered a sacrificial lamb at the altar of A. Percy Bennett, British Consul General (and parodied here as “the Portobello bruiser”), with whom Joyce clashed in Zurich.

For “Lamb”, the principal association is perhaps with the old-time prize-fighter William Thompson. Thompson was Nottinghamshire-born, and fought under the name of “Bendigo”. His local support came from a band of roughs known as the “Nottingham Lambs”, and he himself was sometimes referred to as “The Lamb”. His most famous fight was against Ben Caunt, whom he defeated in 22 rounds on 21 July 1835. Soon there were other fights:

Both of these fights were for £25 aside, but in the following June it became evident that the Nottingham "Lamb" was growing in importance.

West Australia Sunday Times (1898), 10 July

Legendary status led to the nickname being re-used by “Dick Donovan” (English journalist J. E. Preston Mullock) in his detective story “The Taking of Bill the Bruiser” in Link by Link (1893: p. 96):

A fellow named Bob Turner, who was known to the "Fancy" as the "Nottingham Lamb", had long enjoyed the reputation […] of being the champion of the Midlands.

John S. Farmer and W. E. Henley’s Slang and its Analogues (1896-1904) includes entries for lamb and Nottingham lamb in the sense “rough, bruiser”.

Boxing pets

But the history of the word pet suggests that there is more to it than this.

Pet is one of the few high-profile words in English to derive from Gaelic. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its borrowing in the early sixteenth century from Scottish Gaelic peata “tame animal”, noting that the same use occurs in Early Irish petta and modern Irish peata.2 The Gaelic word can be used adjectivally before the name of an animal, parallel to English pet lamb (OED instances Early Irish petta eoin a pet bird, lit. ‘a pet of a bird’). The primary sense in which the word pet was borrowed into English in the sixteenth century was as “pet lamb”.

These linguistic details stand as a background to the more significant link to “Dublin’s pet lamb”, from the world of boxing. From the 1820s, pet was commonly used in pugilistic circles to mean “a favourite boxer” (OED, sense 2e). It was well known in the longer expression the Pet of the Fancy (“the Fancy” being boxing enthusiasts). The epithet “The Pet of the Fancy” seems to have been first attached to the boxer Dick Curtis:

There was a second fight, between the Pet of the Fancy (Dick Curtis) and Peter Warren.

Edinburgh Advertiser (1825) 26 July p. 467

Any boxer worth his salt – and many other boxers too – had a ring-name or nickname. On 30 December 1828 The Pet of the Fancy Dick Curtis, resplendent in bright orange, faced his challenger Jack Perkins, fighting in crimson. Perkins’s boxing name was “The Oxford Pet”:

[Round one] The round lasted seven minutes, and the fighting on both sides was excellent, and acknowledged by the most sceptical to be better than was expected on the part of the Oxford Pet.

Morning Chronicle (1828) 31 December

The meeting was memorable because the Oxford Pet, Jack Perkins, inflicted Dick Curtis’s only defeat – by a knockout in the eleventh round.

Perkins also fought as The Chorister and The Oxford Jewel.3 He was not unusual in being nicknamed after his home town. The Dublin Observer for 25 May 1833 reports on a “fight between Jones (the Welch Champion) and Young Brag (the Yorkshire Pet).

Myler Keogh’s opponent, the Portobello bruiser, also totes a nickname in the tradition of the sport. On Derby Day 1859 the London Evening Mail for 3 June described the booths around the racetrack:

Outside lounge the smaller luminaries – the men who constantly challenge all the world (including the Clerkenwell Chicken and the Bermondsey Bruiser).

In 1905 Barnet Fair welcomed the Battersea Bruiser, who fought all-comers and in this instance a Mr Dubbs:

Dubbs and me then went into the boxing show to see the “Battersea Bruiser” knock spots off the 'Holloway Pet'; but when we got inside, the showman asked who would like a round with the gloves, and in the end the people found they had paid twopence to see three rounds between Dubbs, the 'Red Lion Hill Terror' – as the showman put it – and Scroggins, the 'Freehold Fright'. And Dubbs, besides paying 2d, got a licking.

Barnet Press (1905), 9 September

Dick Curtis and the Oxford Pet

Myler Keogh was a local favourite – a “pet” in the boxing parlance of the time. Joyce associates him with his home town (he lived in Donnybrook, Dublin), and extends the word “pet” to “pet lamb” to indicate cosy familiarity or perhaps sacrifice. The strange description is not out of place at all.

But as with the Nottingham Lambs, their traditional docility can be deceptive. Pet lambs, like Myler Keogh, could also turn and defeat the odds. There is a strand of newspaper stories from the period instancing this. In “The Minister and the Pet Lamb”, the Dumfries and Galloway Standard of 11 August, 1858 retells the tale of how a minister of religion visited a local farmhouse, only to be confronted:

in pugilistic fashion by what was once a pet lamb, but had now grown bold and pugnacious.

The Southern Reporter of 4 October, 1906 observes another pet lamb with pugilistic intentions:

Mr Pet turned on him and threw him down. It boxed him and ran back, but whenever the man tried to rise, it at once returned to the attack. At length he cried out for help, and asked to be rescued, remarking, 'He is a bad yin.'

John Simpson


1 For further information on Myler Keogh (born Myles Keogh) see John Simpson, “Myler Keogh: Dublin’s pet lamb”, in James Joyce Broadsheet No. 88 (February 2011), p. 1, and “Myler Keogh and James Keogh: the story of a boxing family”, in Dublin Historical Record (Spring 2011; vol. 64, No. 1, pp. 2-12). See also Keogh’s entry in Vivian Igoe, The Real People of Joyce’s Ulysses (2016), p. 164.

2 "pet, n.2 and adj." OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2018. Web. 18 June 2018.

3 Sporting Magazine (1832), February p. 315.

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