In Sunshine or in Shadow opens in Derry in January 1972. Charlie Nash, the best amateur boxer in Ireland, hears that his close friend, Martin ‘Mousey’ Harken, a fellow fighter, has just died after being hurt in the ring. Having been ringside for that tragic fight, Charlie is devastated. Three weeks later, just as he begins to immerse himself in boxing again, Bloody Sunday erupts across Derry. Charlie’s father is shot and his brother, Willie, is killed by British soldiers on the most infamous day of The Troubles.
The IRA visit him a few days later. It is done with due solemnity, and the sympathy felt for the family is obvious, but towards the end of the meeting they ask Charlie if he would like to join them. They could do with his fighting spirit, and status in Derry, to intensify their resistance. It is time that they strike back hard while refusing to bow down to the Brits or injustice.
Charlie listens silently and so they ask him directly. Will he join the IRA?
‘No,’ Charlie says firmly.
They try again, urging him that fighting back is the only way they will ever get the soldiers off their streets. It is the only way they will ever force through the dream of a united Ireland. It is the only way they will stop more atrocities like Bloody Sunday.
Charlie shakes his head. He is a fighter in the ring and nowhere else. How can he condone more bloodshed and carnage? There has to be a different way to bring people together.
Charlie is one of four fighters in this book who, at some stage of his career, is trained by Gerry Storey. All these decades later the choice of all five fighting men to choose peace and reconciliation remains profoundly moving.
Gerry Storey is the book’s central character. Training both Catholic and Protestant boxers in the fiercely Republican area of New Lodge, the trainer criss-crosses Belfast. Boxing gives him a form of diplomatic immunity to travel anywhere he chooses in both Loyalist and Republican no-go zones.
It explains why on a Sunday night at the end of winter in 1972, Belfast seemed more deserted than ever as Gerry headed slowly towards the Shankill Road. He felt calm and kept any trepidation in check by reasoning he had nothing to hide. The Loyalist Army Council obviously knew what he was doing on the Shankill. If they told him he had to stop his visits, he would simply explain his motives. He did not allow himself to consider more sinister possibilities.
Gerry parked his car on a side street just off the Shankill. Apart from three minders standing watch outside the club, there was no-one to be seen. Gerry got out of his car, locked it and walked over to the club. The minders were clearly expecting him. One of them, without a word, led Gerry up the narrow stairwell to the first floor. The minder knocked on the door and waited. When the call came, he gestured to Gerry that he should walk inside. This was the moment which would have turned the blood of most men cold.
Yet, with just one deep breath to steady himself, Gerry walked into the room. A large group of men, more than a dozen of them, watched him approach the round table where they sat.
‘Good evening,’ Gerry said, breaking the silence.
‘Gerry Storey,’ one of the men said, rising to his feet and extending his hand.
Gerry recognised some of the faces. Harry Burgess. Bob Morrison. Tucker Lyttle. He avoided looking too closely at anyone else. It was best he didn’t know exactly whom he was meeting. Too much knowledge in Belfast could be a dangerous thing.
‘Take a seat, Gerry,’ Burgess said, pointing to an empty chair at the table.
Gerry sat down and waited to hear the reason for being summoned. The formality of the setting, and the seriousness of the men, proved he had not been wrong. These boys really were the top paramilitary men in the North.
‘We know what you’ve been doing,’ another man said quietly to him.
Gerry nodded and waited. ‘You’ve never hid it,’ the man said.
There was a long silence and then a different Loyalist leader leaned across the table. He was close enough that, if Gerry stretched out his hand, he could ruffle the man’s hair.
‘We understand what you’re trying to do,’ the man said. ‘We’re behind you 100 per cent.’
The tension melted away as approving comments echoed around the table. There was genuine love and admiration for boxing in this hard-bitten circle of men that Gerry, as the leading amateur trainer in Britain and Ireland, was revered by the Army Council. It was incredible – for many of the men in that room were used to ordering the murder of a random Catholic or planning targeted attacks on Republican communities. Yet they were embracing a Catholic boxing trainer whose family was linked to the IRA.
‘Thank you,’ Gerry said, smiling in a way he had not expected to do at the start of the evening.
'Gerry,’ Burgess continued, ‘we’d love you to run even more of your shows on Rumford Street. Bring the kids over from the Holy Family and box in our club.’
The Rumford Social Club, just off the Shankill Road, was an infamous meeting place for Loyalist paramilitaries. Gerry didn’t mind. He was happy to be invited with his wee boxers.
‘We know it’s a lot to ask,’ a heavy-set man said. ‘But if you’re willing to do it, you’ll have our protection. And that means the protection of everyone at this table.’
The man spread his arms wide to indicate that the full might of the UDA, the UVF and UFF would protect him. If Gerry had not believed in the power of boxing, he would have thought it was miraculous.
‘We mean it,’ a new voice said. ‘If anybody out there offends you, or anyone with you, they will we dealt with by us.’
‘They will be dealt with severely,’ another man said gravely, his gruff voice lacing that last word with menace. It was obvious they would maim or kill anyone who offended him.
‘That won’t be necessary,’ Gerry said. ‘My boys will be delighted to box at the Rumford.’
The men rose as one to shake his hand. It was so peaceful and harmonious that Gerry wondered why it could not always be this simple. Why could only boxing bring them together?
Two of Gerry’s boxers, Hugh Russell and Davy Larmour, came from different backgrounds. Hugh was from New Lodge and Davy from the Shankill. Years later, as professional fighters, they fought two savage battles. Miraculously, there was no trouble outside the ring and Hugh and Davy, a Catholic and a Protestant, even became friends. That friendship was rooted in the aftermath of their first brutal bout at the Ulster Hall on 5 March 1982.
After the contest was over Davy just wanted to get back to the dressing room and sit down in a quiet corner. He looked over at Hugh one last time and saw his bloodied opponent move towards his mother. Eileen Russell clutched her glasses in her left hand. She had hardly worn them all night as she could not bear to watch her son. Hugh walked towards her. Still in the ring his arms were outstretched, as if to tell his mum he needed her.
Brendan Murphy, the great photographer who was Hugh’s mentor, sensed the moment. He prepared for a shot that would illuminate the front page of the Irish News the following morning. He framed his photograph perfectly so that he caught his battered and bloodied protégé leaning through the ropes to kiss his mother. Love and relief, mingled with tears and horror, were etched into Eileen’s face. Murphy pressed the shutter just before they kissed. He captured the fighter and his mother, bound together by love, in a black-and-white photograph which distilled the gory drama and bruising intimacy of boxing.
Eileen Russell cried as she kissed her son. Hugh looked so tired and vulnerable she wished she could tell him never to fight again. She wanted him to throw away the boxing gloves and pick up his camera for good. But she knew that the urge to fight still pumped in his blood, which kept dripping down onto the turquoise canvas.
‘I won,’ he told his mother as he gazed down at her from the ring.
‘Yes, son,’ Eileen smiled up at him through her veil of tears. ‘You won.’
The loser sat in the corner of his dressing room. Davy sank into the familiar pain as his adrenalin faded. He hurt all over. In the shower he watched the blood run from his face, his chest and his legs before it disappeared down the plughole with water which turned red beneath his feet. Davy lifted his tender face up to the shower and winced. He had come so close to winning. It echoed the story of his career. Davy knew he would have to keep driving his pirate taxi at night while he waited for the rematch.
He felt a little better as he towelled himself dry. The dressing room was silent as Davy pulled on his shoes and socks. His hands were bruised and sore. He had hit Hugh very hard, and very often. He was just about to pull on his jacket when there was a sharp knock. A boxing official popped his head around the door.
‘Davy, how are you getting up to the hospital?’ the man asked.
‘I’m driving over to the Mater.’
‘You wouldn’t take Hugh up?’ the official asked. ‘He has no way of getting to the hospital.’
‘Aye, no problem,’ Davy said.
‘Good man,’ the official murmured.
Hugh didn’t make Davy wait long. They shook hands and Hugh thanked him for the lift.
The streets around the Ulster Hall had emptied and few would have seen two fierce rivals, a Protestant and a Catholic, leave the scene of their epic fight together. When they got to Davy’s car, Hugh spoke softly. ‘Would you mind if I stretched out in the back? I’m a bit sore.’
‘No bother,’ Davy said with a small smile. ‘I know the feeling.’
It felt strange to be driving again, as if he was back on his taxi beat, and so he looked into the rearview mirror. He saw Hugh’s face, cut and swollen beneath the gauzy street lights.
‘How you doing, mate?’ he asked.
‘I’m okay, Davy,’ Hugh said. ‘You?’
‘I’m sore too. It’ll be good to get these stitches out of the way.’
He reckoned Hugh would be needing more than him and so he changed the subject. He said they should avoid any army checkpoints.
‘We’ll confuse them if they do stop us,’ Hugh said with a wry laugh. They imagined the scene if British soldiers stopped a battered Protestant driving a bloodied Catholic to hospital.
For once, it was quiet in A&E. A night nurse led them down an echoing corridor. Would they mind seeing the same doctor? Both fighters smiled. They had shared a much more dangerous space in the ring. They were each shown to a bed in the same room. The nurse pulled a screen between them to offer some privacy.
Davy was closest to the door and he had stretched out on the bed and closed his eyes. The pain and the fatigue made him ache now.
Eventually, a doctor walked in and came over to the bed. He took a long look at Davy’s face. ‘Oh my,’ he said. ‘You’ve been quite badly hurt. Who did this to you?’
Davy leaned across and pushed the screen away. ‘He did,’ he said with a laugh as he pointed at Hugh who was also spread out on the adjoining bed.
The doctor’s eyes opened wide as he stared at a freckly face which would need many more stitches. ‘You might not believe it, doc,’ Davy cackled, ‘but Hugh won the fight.’
‘It looks as if you’ve both had quite a night,’ the doctor murmured.
The two fighters waited to be stitched up. Davy needed a dozen stitches to seal his cuts. Hugh’s face was even more of a mess. Thirty stitches were threaded through his skin. They had been through the bloodiest fight of their lives.
The book reaches a climax on the night that Barry McGuigan fights for the world title on 8 June 1985 in London as 20 million people prepare to watch him on television. Gerry walked through New Lodge an hour before the fight. His old neighbourhood was empty. It reminded Gerry of the days when the city resembled a ghost town and he had survived three assassination attempts. Gunmen and bombers, at war with each other and the British army, were the reason Belfast had looked like a town in the Wild West.
It was different now. The streets were so quiet because everyone had chosen to leave the fighting to McGuigan. They were all inside, at home or already in the pub, tuned to BBC1 so that they could watch McGuigan try to win the world title for all of them. Boxing had done it again. Boxing had brought down peace on a Saturday night. Boxing offered hope once more.
Gerry slipped into the corner shop and picked up the milk that his wife Belle needed for the following morning. He also bought a few soft drinks for him to share with his sons. It was a night to raise a celebratory glass in honour of boxing in Belfast and, he hoped, a new world champion in young Barry McGuigan.
Gerry knew that fighters all around the city would be watching and willing on McGuigan. Hugh Russell had put down his camera for the night. He was relieved to be out of the fight game, but Hugh still loved boxing. He had also shared many great nights with McGuigan at the Ulster Hall and the Kings Hall – as well as when they were fellow amateurs boxing for Ireland on the Shankill Road or at the Moscow Olympics.
Hugh’s old rival, Davy Larmour, was watching the fight with his great friend and former trainer, Paddy Maguire. The Protestant boxer from the Shankill Road and the Catholic fighter from the Falls Road were as close as ever. Davy had sparred more rounds against McGuigan than he could count, and he and Paddy wanted Barry to win for the sake of all of them.
‘I thought you’d be in London with McGuigan,’ the corner shop owner said to Gerry.
The trainer shook his head and explained that he had been working with his Holy Family boys earlier in the day. They remained his priority.
‘Do you think he’ll win?’ the man asked.
Gerry smiled and nodded. ‘I do,’ he said. ‘I always said McGuigan would become a world champion. I think tonight’s the night.’
Seventy miles away, in Derry, Charlie Nash also settled down for a night of boxing. He had driven through Derry earlier that evening, having spent the afternoon training young fighters at the gym, and the same hushed emptiness that gripped Belfast had taken hold of his city. There was neither any tension nor much traffic on the streets. In Derry, the fighting had also been left to McGuigan.
Charlie remembered his first sparring session with Barry at St Mary’s eight years earlier. He could still see Barry crying in the store room because he had been unable to land a glove on him. Barry had come a long way since then. Charlie felt certain that McGuigan winning the world title would lift Derry in a way it had not felt since long before Bloody Sunday.
He wished his brother, Willie, could watch the fight with him. Willie, who had been only 19 when he died on Bloody Sunday, would have been 32. He would almost certainly have been married because most of the girls in Derry who knew him had loved the way that Stiff Nash danced so beautifully at clubs like the Borderland. If Willie had been alive, he might have brought his wife and kids over to watch the fight with Charlie and all his family.
Charlie knew that such thinking served no purpose and so, instead, he leaned forward in his chair so that he could support his fellow fighter. Linking his boxer’s hands together, almost as if in prayer, Charlie spoke softly to the gleaming television screen. He wished McGuigan might hear him as he prepared to make his lonely walk to the ring.
‘C’mon, Barry,’ Charlie urged, ‘c’mon!’
“In this outstanding and important book Don McRae’s powerful storytelling shows the courage of Gerry Storey and the people of the North as they withstand everyday horror. These stories of bravery through boxing stay with you and their passion comes out in every word; their strength in every unassuming anecdote.” [Andy Lee, world middleweight champion 2014-15]
“Don McRae is one of the most captivating boxing writers on the planet. His ability to understand and illuminate his subjects is extraordinary. He uses the personal stories of four boxers and one remarkable trainer to articulate how boxing became a unifying force during those desolate days.” [Barry McGuigan, world featherweight champion, 1985-86]
“Donald McRae’s superb new book...” [The Catholic Herald]
“Fascinating...poignant.” [The Irish News]