The recent rí rá about our boxers at the Olympics in Rio brought back memories to me of my own boxing career. I used to box for a club on the Shankill Road in Belfast. It was around the time Johnny Caldwell won a bronze medal at the 1956 summer Olympics in Australia. I was eight years of age and I still remember his homecoming on the back of a lorry down and around Cyprus Street and the other terraced streets of the Falls. He was one of our sporting heroes. It’s great to see his statue in the Dunville Park.
Freddie Gilroy from Ardoyne was another Belfast fighter who won a bronze medal at the Melbourne Olympics. Jim McCourt later won bronze at the Tokyo Olympics. If I remember rightly Jim lived at the bottom of Leeson Street. Or at least he had a little bicycle shop there. In the front room of his house. I hope I’m right about that. What is for certain is that Jim was rated as one of the best amateur boxers in the world. My achievements were much more modest.
Dominic Begley was a relation of ours. He was a handy boxer. So at the height of all the pugilistic excitement of the time Dominic took me the short walk up Conway Street to the Shankill Road. I think the club was in the YMCA but maybe not. I know it was close to The Eagle Supper Saloon. I didn’t last very long. A few months or so. I perfected the little hissing noise that boxers make when they are throwing or receiving punches and I was very good on the punch bag. The bit I never embraced was when I was put into the ring with some other wee buck who seemed to have a homicidal desire to knock my pan in. I never quite managed the ability to let my opponents hit me. My instinct was to talk to them. That however seemed to compel rivals to hit me even harder and more often.
Poor Dominic Begley was distracted. So was I. Time and time again he would stop the fight.
‘Gerard,’ he would entreat me, ‘hit him back. Stop talking to him. He is only seven. You’re nine. Don’t keep backing away. Hit him with a left, then a right and then a left again. And stop making that stupid hissing noise’.
So I did my best. My left, right, left combination became more polished and accomplished. So long as the punch bag didn’t strike back. Dominic persevered. He used to spar with me when no one else would. Eventually he gave up and returned me to my Granny.
‘I’m sorry Aunt Maggie but now that he is wearing glasses I don’t think the boxing will suit him’.
I was glad and Dominic was kind. My Granny seemed to be glad also.
‘Well at least no one will be able to pick on him’. she said.
Little did I know how true that was to be. Almost.
Actually as it turned out no would be able to pick on my older brother Paddy. Not when Paddy could say ‘Do that again and I’ll get our Gerry for you’.
I remember the day it started. A big boy from across our street hit him one day when we were playing a game of Rounders. Our Paddy was small for his age and he started crying. I challenged his assailant. He told me to mouth away off. Before either of us knew it I hit him. Not just once. No.
All my months sparring with Dominic Begley paid off. I hit the bigger lad with a left then a right and as his knees buckled and his nose spouted blood I finished him off with another left. He was amazed. So was I. And I never hissed once.
My next street fight was also our Paddy’s fault. One of the Dunnes stole his kitten. I was sent out to get it back. Again my winning combination had the desired effect. The cat napper collapsed on Glenalina Road as I caught him with a left, then a right and another left.
Then I made a mistake. I picked up the kitten, turned my back and started to walk back to where our Paddy waited for his pet. That’s when I got hit on the back of the head with a half brick. An Ardoyne upper cut.
Later when I got out of hospital I was distraught to find out that our Paddy gave his kitten away. For fourteen marleys, a kali sucker and two gub stoppers. To the brick thrower who did the Judas on me. Michael Conlan’s outburst was muted compared to my outrage.