Preface. The Featherweight class first became active in the prize ring around 1860 but did not gain widespread acceptance in America until 1889. The Bantamweight gloved era likewise did not begin in America until 1889. The early history of these two divisions is more confused than most with the championship almost continuously in dispute until the 1920s. Following a draw match, who was the first among equals? This was the usual dispute at the time and to this day historians argue over the rightful status of a champion because of the chaotic nature of the sport when the claim was being made. Between 1895 and 1898 Billy Irwin claimed the Featherweight Championship of Colorado. In 1898 he fought Reddy Coogan for the Lightweight Championship of Colorado and lost (see Lightweight Champion essay 12). Between 1899 & 1900 he claimed the Bantamweight Championship of Colorado in dispute with Dago Mike. All in all, between 1895 and 1900, Billy Irwin fought in Colorado state boxing championships in three different weight divisions. As such he was truly one of Colorado’s “gamest” prizefighters during the 1890s. He also was active in Leadville, Colorado political affairs and performed at various social functions as an Irish vocalist and clog dancer. According to his obituary in a Leadville newspaper, “There were few men who have won such great popularity among all classes in this county than has Billy Irwin. He was a man held in the highest regard and esteem by all who knew him. His friends are numbered by the hosts and are composed of men, women, and children in all walks of life. He was honest and upright and kind and generous to a fault.”
1840s. The Irwin family’s place of origin, since generations immemorial, was in the parish of Knockainy (East-Central County, Limerick). Their 2-acre "potato patch" was located in the townland of Rathainy and in the early 19th century the Irwin family relocated a farmstead away to a 10-acre parcel at Ballycahill. Like many other poor Irish families at this time they "moved into town" (Limerick City) in the 1840s in search of housing and employment.
1867. John Irwin marries Bridget Dooly at St. Michael’s Catholic church in Limerick City. The Dooly family’s place of origin was also in the parish of Knockainy. Their farm was located in the townland of Rusheen. They also “moved into town” (Limerick City) in the 1840’s in search of employment.
1869. William Irwin, son of John Irwin and Bridget Dooly, was born in the heart of Limerick City at Garvey”s Range (Lane) on the 4th of August. He was baptized at St. John’s Cathedral, Limerick City (August 8th). At this time Ireland still had many areas of Irish speakers and so people had two names: their original Irish one and the latter day anglicized one. At home with family and friends and whenever Irish was spoken William Irwin was called by his Irish name: “Liam Ó Ciarṁacáin” (pronounced: Lee ́am O-Kir´ wick-in).
1870. At this time more than a third of the British army was made up of poor Irishmen. In 1870 the British army offered a “short term enlistment” (6 years active and 6 years reserve) in order to stimulate recruitment. John Irwin (William’s father) enlisted and served six years overseas and was discharged in August of 1876 (from active duty). He left for America with family and disregarded his six- year reserve obligation.
1876. With saved army pay the Irwin’s leave Ireland and arrive in America circa September.
1876 - 1878. The Irwin’s lived in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania where John Irwin worked in the coal mines during the turbulent days of the “Molly Maguires."
1878. John Irwin became a United States citizen on the 24th of September at the Luzerne County Courthouse, Wilkes-Barre. By virtue of his citizenship his wife (Bridget) and minor son (William) so too became U. S. citizens. With the crushing of the Union labor movement (labeled by detractors as Molly Maguire’s) many Irish coal miners, seeking just working conditions and livable wages, scattered westward. The Irwin family and many of their coal mining neighbors relocated to the coal mines of Golden, Colorado.
1879. Having “wintered over” in Golden and with the arrival of the “spring thaw” (snow melted enough to allow travel to Leadville) John Irwin leaves Golden for Leadville with his brother (Jim) and brother-in-law (Paddy McMahon). They went by train to track’s end (Webster) and travelled the rest of the way to Leadville by other available means (on foot… freight wagon… stagecoach). After securing a job in the silver mines John Irwin sends for his wife (Bridget) and son (William) by the summer of 1879. In December a daughter (Bridget) is born to John Irwin and Bridget Dooly.
1881 - 1882. The Leadville Directory lists the Irwin family as living at the “head of East Chestnut.” In 1882 they are listed as living at 409 East Second Street. In July another daughter (Margaret) is born to John Irwin and Bridget Dooly.
1885 - 1887. William “Billy” Irwin worked in the silver mines of Leadville. He also participated in local amateur boxing matches openly within the Leadville city limits (when boxing matches were sanctioned by the city fathers) and clandestinely outside of the City limits (when boxing matches were not sanctioned by the city fathers).
1887. Billy Irwin joins Leadville’s Cavalry Militia, which, upon activation, became “B” Troop, First Cavalry, Colorado National Guard. As a member of the First Cavalry he served during the Ute War of 1887 and in the course of the campaign, short as it was (four weeks), the First Cavalry had many opportunities of proving its mettle and courage: 1) Forced renegade Chief Colorow and his band of White River Ute’s out of Colorado and back into Utah. 2) Engaged the Ute’s (nearly ambushed) near the border town of Rangely (at the mouth of a box canyon on the White River) in a half day long firefight in which blood was shed on both sides (16 Indians killed and five badly wounded… 3 whites killed and two wounded… 20 horses killed). 3) Endured an eight day siege, holding their barricaded positions, in the town of Rangely while several miles away (in Utah) between 400 to 600 fighting mad Ute’s (armed to the teeth and seeking vengeance) threatened to attack. 4) Refused, under Brigadier General Reardon’s orders, to leave their rifle pits and barricaded positions until two companies of the Ninth Cavalry (Buffalo soldiers from Fort Duchesne, Utah) intervened and “persuaded” the Ute's to return to the reservation. 5) Did not retreat from the battlefield and return home until the federal government promised Colorado Governor Adams that henceforth federal troops would be permanently stationed near Rangely in order to prevent future Ute incursions into Colorado. And thus concluded the last conflict with the Indians on Colorado soil.
1887 - 1893. Irwin, following the Ute War of 1887, returned to the silver mines and continued participating in local boxing contests. In 1891 the Irwin family moved to 109 North Toledo Avenue. In 1893 the “Silver Panic of 1893” takes place in which the price of silver plummets… many Leadville mines are closed… the pay scale drops from $3.00 to $2.50 per day and many miners are without work.
1894. Irwin, in the wake of the “Silver Panic of 1893” and hard times in Leadville, left Leadville to work in the copper mines of Butte, Montana with his father, uncle and many other fellow townsmen. His father (John Irwin) left the mines and opens up the Irwin Brother’s Saloon (John and Jim) at 105 East Fourth Street and remains there until 1898. In 1898 he relocated the saloon to 320½ Harrison Avenue and remained there until his death on April 22, 1902.
1895 - 1900. Irwin returned from Butte, eager to pursue a professional boxing career, but Leadville, at the time, frowned upon boxing. Conversely Aspen allowed boxing matches and local backers/promoters offered generous purses to aspiring, winning pugilists. Irwin therefore relocated to Aspen, CO where he worked in the mines and engaged in prizefighting matches. His main activity and livelihood during this time however was as a prizefighter. It was during this time that Billy Irwin claimed both the Bantamweight and Featherweight State of Colorado Championships and was considered one of the “gamest” prizefighters in Colorado.
1900. Irwin returned to Leadville because of the near demise of boxing in Aspen. This demise resulted from a new state law (mid-1899), which, although recognizing boxing contests, stipulated a $1,000 boxing license fee. The Aspen boxing element considered the fee too high and thus Aspens “golden era” of boxing ended. In Leadville Irwin returned to the mines and also worked as a bartender.
1903. Irwin married Mary Loftus (of Leadville) in Buena Vista, CO. Mary Loftus was born at 1301 North Second Street in the “Kerry Patch” (Irish district) of St. Louis, Missouri on October 9, 1875. She was the daughter of John Loftus (Fallmore, Kilmore Erris, County Mayo, Ireland) and Catherine Cunningham (Kildorragh, Castlerahan, County Cavan, Ireland). She came to Leadville with her parents during the “silver boom” year of 1879. Upon their marriage, they resided at 124 West Third Street, Leadville, in the home of Kate Cunningham Loftus, mother of the bride. Children born to them were James (1904-1926), William (1906-1906), Francis (1907-1977), Emmett, (1909-1966) and Kathryn (1911-1976).
1903 - 1907. Irwin worked as a fireman for the Leadville Fire Department. He also managed the Cloud City Athletic Association and as manager he promoted a number of boxing matches in Leadville (1906-1908).
1907 - 1909. Irwin served as the Leadville Fire Chief. He was elected President of the Eagle’s Lodge (1908) and was active in Democratic Party politics. He also founded the Eagle’s Athletic Club and as manager he promoted a number of boxing matches in Leadville (1908-1910).
1909 - 1910. Irwin was appointed as the Lake County Deputy County Clerk and Recorder, working with his cousin, John W. McMahon, who was the County Clerk and Recorder.
1910. Irwin was chosen Secretary of the Democratic Party Central Committee (Lake County) and devoted all of his efforts towards the success of his party in the upcoming November mid-term elections. He developed pneumonia in late October and battled it for nearly two weeks before he succumbed at home on November 5th. It was his fourth bout of pneumonia as a result of long years of working in the mines from a very early age. He was survived by his wife (Mary), three sons (James, Francis and Emmett), an unborn daughter (Kathryn), his mother, two sisters, several nieces, nephews and cousins, all in the Leadville area. Pallbearers were M. J. Kilkenny, Abe Flak, Maurice Miller, Charles Byrne, Charles Slavin and Alex McDonald. He was buried in the Irwin plot at St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery (Leadville).
1912. Had he lived to see the 1912 general election he may have entered into and run for a statewide position. Prior to his last mortal illness he had already been approached by Democratic Party state officials and asked to consider such a possibility. It was their opinion that William “Billy” Irwin was a “rising star” in Democratic Party politics at the state level. This was due, in their opinion, to his tremendous popularity, iron clad honest reputation and his state-wide exposure as a prizefighter, boxing promoter and Eagle’s president. In addition to these attributes, he was Irish and Catholic in a state that was substantially Irish and Catholic. And he was staunchly pro-labor and unionization in a state that was also largely pro-labor and unionization. Unfortunately the untimely demise of William “Billy” Irwin, at the early age of 41, can only leave one to “speculate” about “politician” William Irwin in the 1912 general election and other elections beyond.
2004. In 2004 the Leadville-Lake County Sports Hall of fame was established to honor its many outstanding athletes.
William “Billy” Irwin was chosen as its first inductee.