Rags to Riches in the Ring: An Interview with Des Kilbane

April 08, 2013   |   posted in Filmmakers


Des Kilbane makes his directorial debut with “A Fighting Heart,” a documentary about champion prizefighter and Cleveland native Johnny Kilbane. The director is from Ireland, but has a personal connection with Cleveland. A distant relative of Johnny, Des has a lot of cousins living in the Cleveland area. All were very supportive during the making of the film.

CIFF: How did you become interested in the story of Johnny Kilbane?
Johnny is a distant relative of mine. When I was a child on Achill Island off the West Coast of Ireland, I remember my father talking about Johnny visiting the island, where Johnny’s parents originated. It was in the early 1920s when Johnny was still the World Champion. There was such a sense of excitement on the island that all the boys wanted to be boxers. Then in the late 1980s, I picked up a copy of “The Book of Lists,” where celebrities pick their favorites in their chosen fields. Mike Tyson was the World Champion at the time and he picked Johnny at number 7, which really amazed me. So the idea was always there; but, it wasn’t until about three years ago, when I found Kevin O’Toole’s website on Johnny, that it started to come to fruition.

CIFF: What does it mean to you to show the film in Cleveland, since it was Johnny Kilbane’s hometown?
“A Fighting Heart” is my feature debut and it means a lot to me to have my film screened at the Cleveland International Film Festival. It is a very prestigious film festival with a great reputation. Also because local boy Johnny Kilbane was probably Cleveland’s greatest boxing hero. He served and entertained his community on the west side all his life. It’s very fitting that the premiere be here. It’s great too that one of the screenings is in the historic Capitol Theater, just a block away from where Johnny lived and frequented at one time or another.

CIFF: This year’s theme is “Be The Applause.” What aspect of your film do you hope will inspire the applause of CIFF audiences?
The film is a rags-to-riches story with a lot of heart (pardon the pun!). It shows that anything is possible if you have the passion, drive and especially the belief to achieve your dream. Dreams can and do come true! That applies to me as much as it does to the Johnny Kilbane story.

—Interview by Bridget Kriner
Photo: Des Kilbane and Orla Higgins. Photo by Janet Macoska.

PDF  Download Related PDF [1.8 MB]

Related Screenings:
04/07/13 @ 9:30 PM – A Fighting Heart and The Sugar Wars: The Life Story of Angelo Lonardo
04/08/13 @ 7:20 PM – A Fighting Heart and The Sugar Wars: The Life Story of Angelo Lonardo
04/09/13 @ 11:40 AM – A Fighting Heart and The Sugar Wars: The Life Story of Angelo Lonardo

Related Events:
03/22/15 @ 5:00 PM – Capitol Theatre

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