He was back in the news again last week, 40 years after he died penniless in London. Jack Doyle, the Gorgeous Gael, was larger than life. Boxer, actor, showman, singer, movie star, hell raiser, his exploits were legendary. He made, and burned his way through, fortunes. An international celebrity, he was the original Irish superstar.
But by the time the carousing and the alcoholism and the high living had taken its toll, he had completed the full return journey from rags to riches and back again. And the roller-coaster ride came to its finale in the unlikely setting of the courthouse in the seaside town of Enniscrone.
Born into abject poverty in Cobh in 1913, Jack Doyle ran away to join the Irish Guards at the age of 16. His fine physique and good looks marked him out as something special, and his talent for boxing was to be his passport to fame and fortune. With 28 straight wins, he became British Army champion, and when he turned professional at 18, his ten wins inside two rounds made him a sporting celebrity.
His chaotic shot at the British heavyweight title, far from blighting his career, seemed instead to enhance his celebrity status. The fight, against the Welshman, Jack Petersen, was farcical; Doyle, realising early that he was totally unprepared for such an encounter, resorted to the tactic of delivering low blows to his opponent, enough to have himself disqualified in the second round.
But then, and not yet twenty, Jack Doyle found a new string to his bow when Dr Vincent O’Brien, the respected vocal coach to Count John McCormack, discovered that the boxer had a rich tenor voice. And so the Gorgeous Gael – so dubbed by the press – embarked on his entertainment career. Doyle was star material with a personality to match; his concerts sold out the London Palladium, he travelled to America, was signed by Decca records, became an actor, starred in movies and married the glamorous Hollywood star, Movita Castaneda, who eventually got tired of his womanising and drinking and left him to marry Marlon Brando.
Crucially, money was being wasted as quickly as it was being earned. Small fortunes were spent, in his own words, on ‘slow horses and fast women’. A retinue of hangers-on were enjoying the good life at Doyle’s expense – not that he seemed to mind.
Visits home were becoming notorious, for all the wrong reasons. A concert tour of Ireland was interrupted by spells behind bars in Dublin on assault and misdemeanour charges.
The final chapter came when he and his troupe of entertainers arrived in Enniscrone for a week-long run of performances at the town hall. When six members of his concert company took lodgings in a local guesthouse for the week, the cheque he used to pay their bills turned out to be worthless. Jack Doyle was brought before Enniscrone District Court charged with issuing a fraudulent cheque and was returned for trial to the Circuit Court in Sligo.
The case made national and world headlines, and hundreds of onlookers turned up at Sligo courthouse for a glimpse of the legendary Jack Doyle. The jury took a mere five minutes to bring in their guilty verdict. Judge Lynch sentenced him to four months’ imprisonment with hard labour in Sligo gaol, in spite of eloquent appeals by his defence counsel of the immense reputational damage his client would suffer.
It was the beginning of the end. There followed a few more years of exhibition bouts, concert appearances and minor film roles, but the good days were over. The Gorgeous Gael died, alone and penniless, in London in 1978.