Kilbane held the world featherweight title for eleven years.Wikimedia Commons

The Irish American Archives Society in Ohio has commissioned world-renowned Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie to create a collection of three life-size bronze figures honoring Cleveland boxing legend Johnny Kilbane.

Kilbane was born in Cleveland, Ohio to Irish parents – his father was raised in a parish on Achill Island in County Mayo.

After Kilbane became the World Featherweight Champion by defeating Abe Attell in a 20 round bout in California in February 1912, he was welcomed home on Saint Patrick’s Day to a crowd of 200,000 people – the largest gathering in the city’s history.

Kilbane would hold the world featherweight title for eleven years (until 1923) – longer than any other boxer in any class.

“Johnny Kilbane: Fighting Heart” consists of three figures that represent Kilbane at three stages of his life – as a boy, a champion, and a public servant. They were cast in bronze in Dublin and are placed on limestone pedestals quarried from Ireland’s west coast. Altogether the sculpture weighs 2,700 lbs.

The Irish American Archives Society is a not-for-profit organization that supports the preservation of the legacy of Irish and Irish American achievement in northeast Ohio, sponsoring talks, displays, heritage events and a newsletter.

The $330,000 project includes the sculpture design, execution, installation and landscaping, as well as vintage fight film restoration, a schedule of informative outreach events and a commemorative book. There will also be a screening of “A Fighting Heart” – a documentary by Galway-based filmmaker Des Kilbane, who has also been directing the documentation of Rowan Gillespie’s creative process.

Gillespie, a Dublin native, is renowned for his often haunting sculptures and bronze casting methods – his significant commissions throughout Ireland and from members of the Irish diaspora have made him recognized internationally as a leading interpreter of the Irish immigrant experience.

Notable works include Famine (1997), which stands in Dublin city in remembrance of the Great Hunger, and a continuation in Toronto called Migrants (2006).

He was commissioned to portray Kilbane in a way that is specific to Kilbane’s achievements, as well as emblematic of the families who emigrated from Ireland to Cleveland and persevered despite the odds.

In a press release Gillespie said he was eager to focus on Kilbane as an optimistic story of success in the ‘new world.’

The dedication will take place at noon on September 28 in the Battery Park Townhouse Development within the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, a few streets away from Kilbane’s home at the time of his 1912 win.

A full schedule of events surrounds the dedication, including live music, food, a bagpiping ceremony, an invocation, speeches and more.

For further information visit the Irish American Archives Society website or the Facebook page titled ‘Johnny Kilbane Sculpture Project 2014.’

You can also contact Executive Director of the Irish American Archives Society Margaret Lynch at