The Troubles took hold of me, unexpectedly, on a beautiful afternoon in rural Kent in the spring of 2011. I met Barry McGuigan for the first time and, even though we were far from Belfast and the peak of his boxing career, the former world champion made me feel as if we were back in the shuddering 1970s and ‘80s. All the years of violence, of bombings and kneecappings, of futility and death, rose up again alongside his bravery and glory in the ring.
We were born in the same year, McGuigan and I, and we had grown up in strange places and dark times. The distressing politics of Northern Ireland and South Africa had shaped us. The Troubles of sectarian violence for McGuigan, and the racial troubles of apartheid for me. In South Africa, when I was in my early twenties in the 1980s, we heard intricate reports about Northern Ireland on our daily news bulletins. It was almost as if the government and the state broadcaster, the SABC, wanted us to realise that other countries were also afflicted by division and strife. We heard much about Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker in the Maze prison near Belfast, but nothing about Nelson Mandela serving a term of life imprisonment on Robben Island. And so Northern Ireland and its difficult history always held a grim fascination for me.
Even though McGuigan and I were different, we forged an instinctive understanding as we shared some of our past stories on that unforgettable afternoon. We were also bound together by our love of boxing – McGuigan as a great fighter, and now a manager and promoter, and me as a writer. His knowledge of boxing was obviously deeper than mine but he could tell I understood the power of the battered old fight game amid all the damage it could also cause. We both believed in boxing and, despite the corruption and the sadness that often surrounded it, we saw everything it had achieved during the Troubles.
McGuigan paused, turning the days over in his head. ‘The sadness was unbearable for so many,’ he said. ‘And, strange as it sounds, boxing gave people a bit of light. It took their minds off the darkness. You know that line in Danny Boy my father used to sing? ‘I’ll be there in sunshine or in shadow…’ Well, the shadows ran deep. And my fights felt a little like sunshine. Both sides would say: ‘Leave the fighting to McGuigan.’ You see, it was also entertainment – people loved to forget the Troubles a while.
‘The fact that I was a Catholic but I wouldn’t choose sides was powerful. People appreciated that. People on the Protestant side of town liked me just as much as the Catholic side. I was a political mishmash, coming from the south, going north, winning a world title in London. Looking back, I see it was special.’
McGuigan was the greatest Irish boxer of the Troubles, a world champion who bridged the sectarian divide. But Gerry Storey, who had trained him during some of his most significant bouts as an Olympic boxer and a Commonwealth Games champion, had carved out this road before him. I had been thinking about Storey for years – even since I had heard, long before I met McGuigan, how Storey had taught boxing in the Maze Prison in the immediate aftermath of the hunger strikes.
In 1981 Sands and nine other Republican prisoners had starved themselves to death in a battle against Margaret Thatcher’s government. That crisis had gripped and appalled me, at a 6,000 mile distance in Johannesburg. I had since learnt that Storey had gone into the Maze, where the hunger strikers had died a few months earlier, and taken boxing training with prisoners from both the Republican and the Loyalist cages. I hoped that, one day, I would meet this extraordinary man and learn more about his life’s work at the Holy Family gym in New Lodge, Belfast, where he worked with both Catholic and Protestant fighters.
I did not know then that I would spend years researching the subject so that I could write this book about five men: Storey, McGuigan, Charlie Nash, Davy Larmour and Hugh Russell. I would travel back and forth to Derry and Belfast. In Derry I became friendly with Nash, the first significant fighter of the Troubles, a man who fought for European and world titles despite the tragedy his family endured on Bloody Sunday. Russell and Larmour, a Catholic and a Protestant, shared two bloody battles in the ring during the Troubles in the early 1980s. I would track them down, and become friends with them too, because they had both worked with Storey.
Russell, who won an Olympic medal for Ireland, became a professional fighter and one of the great photographers of the Troubles. He would document the carnage with his camera by day while sparring in the gym at night. Larmour, meanwhile, moved from the Protestant Shankill Road to box in the Republican heartlands. These five stories weave in and out of each other and provide a fresh perspective on life during the Troubles.
But long before I pieced them together, and back in Kent in 2011, McGugian offered a vivid depiction of the night he won the WBA featherweight title against Eusebio Pedroza on 8 June 1985 – as the largest television audience in the history of British boxing, 20m viewers, watched 27,000 people roar on McGuigan against a great champion who had made 19 defences.
He leapt from his chair to showcase the combination with which he dropped Pedroza in the seventh round. The little old featherweight danced around me, throwing big punches with rasping grunts as he imagined the formidable Panamanian in front of him again. McGuigan then grinned as he remembered the people who had crowded into his dressing room that night. George Best, Alex Higgins, Dennis Taylor, Pat Jennings, Willie John McBride and JP McManus were joined by some less expected fans.
‘Can you believe it?’ McGuigan exclaimed. ‘Lucian Freud, the greatest painter in Britain, was there. Lucian Freud is a massive boxing fan … and he came to watch me beat Pedroza. Incredible. Irvine Welsh is another. Have you read what he wrote in Glue?’
Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, was lost in the crowd that wild night. He has since written about the emotional response of his father, a Scottish hardman. ‘Irvine Welsh went with his dad to the fight and, just before the first bell, he turned around to look at his father.’ McGuigan said. ‘In the ring my dad was singing Danny Boy and Irvine was amazed to see his own father crying. He’d never seen his dad cry before.’
That night, in all its savage innocence, captured McGuigan at his most powerful as he briefly united Britain and Ireland. As a fighter from the Republic of Ireland, who boxed for Ulster and won the British title, McGuigan was loved all over Ireland, both north and south, and his defeat of Pedroza made him BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1985. As a Catholic, who has been happily married to a Protestant, Sandra, since 1981, McGuigan always transcended the divide.
‘Why did I get such special support?’ McGuigan asked out loud. ‘The answer is simple. There was so much sadness and people were just fed up.’
His friend Daniel Day-Lewis, the esteemed actor who played the part of a boxer in a film about the Troubles, wrote: ‘Barry was compassionate in victory, courageous almost to his own destruction in defeat. The dove on his shorts was a symbol of the man, an exquisite paradox; the warrior and the peacemaker.’
McGuigan also suffered as his fists inadvertently ended the life of his opponent, a Nigerian called Young Ali, in 1982. ‘He’s never far from my mind,’ McGuigan said of Ali, who fell into a coma and eventually died after their bout at the Grosvenor House hotel in London.
There were tears in Barry’s eyes and his face crumpled. For a few moments he could not speak for crying. I have met many fighters and I’ve fallen for the risible and the ruined. But I have not been lost for words when sitting so close to a boxer whose success and happiness is etched with tragedy. ‘It’s impossible not to feel guilty,’ Barry eventually said. ‘I think of Young Ali every day of my life. I wonder about his wife, and the child which she was pregnant with when he died. For a long time I felt so sad I couldn’t think about boxing. But my own wife was pregnant and I had to go on. Boxing was so important to me – and to all of us in Belfast.’
We spoke for hours about boxing and Northern Ireland, about Gerry Storey and his Holy Family gym, and we agreed that one day we would see battered old Belfast together. McGuigan insisted that it was the greatest fight city in the world. We laughed and clutched hands, amused by our middle-aged relish for a dark old business. The room flooded with late afternoon sunshine as all the shadows of grief and loss retreated.
At the start of the long hot summer of 2018, outside the Holy Family boxing gym, the vivid and ominous murals remain the same. The brick wall is still painted white, with green and orange trim completing the colours of the Irish flag. In the far left corner an IRA gunman in a balaclava looks down at the rifle that has slipped from his hands. Meanwhile, in the opposite corner, a hooded IRA soldier stands to attention. His head is bowed as he holds his gun firmly.
In the centre of the wall two clenched fists hail Comrades in Resistance. On either side of this clunky slogan a stark sentence is split in two and inked into the wall like an enduring tattoo:
I don’t care if I fall
As long as someone else picks up my gun and keeps on shooting.
Next to it another mural depicts three gunmen, dressed in black, pointing their rifles up into a blue sky. The Irish words Tiocfaidh Ár Lá [Our Day Will Come] and Saoirse [Freedom] have been painted in gleaming white. Surrounded by bleak tower blocks and rows of council housing, the murals always leave a trace of trepidation. I remember the hurt and suffering felt in this hard and seemingly unyielding corner of north Belfast.
Ten minutes earlier, ambling through the Cathedral Quarter, drifting past bars and cafés filled at lunchtime with bearded hipsters and beautiful girls showing off their tattoos and piercings, I had been in a different world – in a city full of warmth and hope for the future. Here, in this Republican enclave, the ghosts of a brutal and haunting past are everywhere.
Gerry Storey and I work out that I have just made my 35th visit to the Holy Family. I have also interviewed Davy Larmour, Hugh Russell, Charlie Nash and Barry McGuigan many times. The stories of their lives run through me like overlapping rivers, flowing with pathos and pain, humanity and hope. Belfast and Derry will not be plunged again into the darkness of the Troubles but the paramilitary factions and the sectarian tensions continue. Their presence is felt in shadowy corners of the city in New Lodge and the Ardoyne, in Tiger’s Bay and off the Shankill Road. But, at last, I am ready to write.
Gerry and I sit on the apron of a blue ring. We are surrounded by black and white photographs of his favourite old fighters. His current crop of shiny-faced boys and girls, ranging in age from eight to eighteen, will soon tumble through the doors downstairs and race up to the gym for evening training. Thirty or 40 of them will turn the Holy Family into a stinking, sweating hot house of boxing fervour. Gerry will preside over everything, taking kids on the pads and watching his fellow trainers, like the passionate Seamus McCann who lived through the worst of the Troubles, light up the gym with their generosity and patience.
But first, in the deep quietness of a sleepy midweek afternoon, Gerry taps me on the arm. ‘Are you sure you’ve got all you need, Don?’
The octogenarian laughs when I remind him of the hundreds of meetings and interviews, of all the stories I’ve heard and all the fighters and former prisoners I’ve met through him.
‘It’s quite a story,’ Gerry says eventually, sounding wistful now that the telling is almost over for him. ‘We lived in desperate times. But we never stopped laughing or believing we would get away from the Troubles. We had it easy compared to most people. We had boxing….and boxing brought us together. The shadows were long, but boxing gave us sunshine.’