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Thursday 19 September 2019

Leo Cullen: 'Long count emigrant'

An elegy to the ones who don't come home at Christmas from Leo Cullen

'Boxer Andy: one afternoon at Ballincurry sports, he beat the opponent he was listed on the poster to fight.' Stock photo
'Boxer Andy: one afternoon at Ballincurry sports, he beat the opponent he was listed on the poster to fight.' Stock photo

Leo Cullen

They call him Shamrock Andy over here on Holloway Road; over there where he grew up he was first Little Andy, then Big Andy, then Boxer Andy or Handy Andy, then he left.

Now he's an elderly man, a lined forehead, a pointed chin, a circle of grey hair around a bald pate - like a halo.

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At the beginning he was a sickly five-pound baby with muddy-blue eyes that seemed to soak in the light. The eyes stayed blue, but became bright blue, almost transparent, so vivid you thought they gave out light rather than drew it in.

Making up for the slow start he grew into a strong boy, grew quicker than boys his age. That's when he became Big Andy, a lad in those early years who could push the others around in the small playground at the back of the grey schoolhouse. He was let have his way but at age 14 others began to pass him in height and weight so that he had to use means other than dumb power to maintain his dominance. He strove to make his hands and arms work fast and sharp instead of slow and mauling. He went from loose wrestler to tidy boxer. "Handy Andy has fists like needles," his shadow-boxing father Denis said.

He won medals on roped-in grassy patches at summer sports meetings all over his part of the county. His skin was white as milk, his curls fell on to his forehead. His vision in detecting opponents' weaknesses was X-ray; his fists found their target. His father was his sponge man and coach. If you were to see his father back in those county sports days, holding bucket and sponge, towel over his neck at the ready, you would recognise the Andy that lives in London today. Shamrock Andy.

Boxer Andy: one afternoon at Ballincurry sports, he beat the opponent he was listed on the poster to fight. And then he stood in the middle of the ring and before his father could say anything, he invited all comers. An ex-army man named Bonar Clancy stepped into the ring, All-Army Lightweight Champion until the army got rid of him. He threw off his coat, slid braces off his shoulders, knotted them into a belt around his trousers.

The scent of trampled earth rose threateningly all around him. He pulled a long-tailed shirt off his thin and wiry trunk, smacked his gloved fists and grinned at Andy.

"Now kid,' he said, "I'll bate the shit out of you and your father along with you."

The crowd had begun to gather round the ropes. Bonar had no sponge man but had left his clothes in a neat pile, army style, in the corner opposite where Denis stood. But Andy had already spotted the weakness. For when Bonar spoke he'd looked directly into Andy's eyes. And when Denis crossed the ring and asked him not to fight "the young lad because he's not ready for your level, Bonar Clancy, he's too raw", Bonar was still staring into Andy's eyes.

"Put up your guard, young lad," someone called.

"Three rounds is all mind," Andy's father ordered.

"I don't see no referee," Bonar said, "I'll decide how many rounds."

"Why did you call me kid?" asked Andy when the two walked into the centre of the ring and squared up, though Andy was six inches shorter. And Bonar's reply came through his eyes before his words had even formed. His eyes, that looked down into Andy's, they were looking at the wrong spot! The fists, the fists they should have been looking at. But it was too late.

Two to the jaw - jab, hook - Bonar staggered. Andy felt, telegraphing up his arms, the angle and shape of the jaw he'd just hit. He bounced forward: Jab to the midriff. Bonar, knocked off balance, slipped. Uppercut to the jaw. And Bonar was out, stretched on the grass.

When he got up, long after the count, though nobody counted it, he turned his back on Andy.

Bits of grass clung to his skin and it was the last Andy ever saw of Bonar Clancy. Though he knew where Bonar lived, knew Bonar's wife; the Flyer Clancy they called her locally.

Yes it was the last Andy would ever see of Bonar. However, he would, in his triumph, see The Flyer Clancy. And in their one brief encounter she would deliver a KO counter punch. Not on Andy's jaw but on the life he'd take. The KO that would mark him all his days though he would never recognise it: The baby. It would rock him on his heels, send him flying. Land him in England, one-way ticket. Boxer Andy wasn't that careful with his guard after all.

But Shamrock Andy you may come across over here on Holloway Road these many years. A day there was a summer ago, he sitting at the pavement caf' beside the street stalls, butterflies floating above the flowers, when a commotion started: It was a little boy, stung on the arm by a bee. Andy leaped from his chair, took the boy's arm in his mouth, sucked out the sting barb. The boy stopped crying and playfully Andy swatted him with his fist: "You'll live to fight another day, son." But where the barb had landed within Andy's mouth, pain soared hot and pulsing. Was that what revived his life's calling?

For he has shadow-boxed with children ever since. He has no particular child in mind, no once-upon-a-time child who must have skipped stones on footpaths and chased animals across fields, no boy child he's never known. It's just he finds these kids the loveliest things to have around him. They shine into his eyes; he shimmies, shadow-punches, up and down the pavements with them… New Years, Easters, Christmases. The long count.

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