Monday 20 January 2020

Boxing: A challenge to our prejudices

There seemed to be a huge amount of genuine goodwill towards Francie Barrett. A Traveller qualifying for the Olympics, it was generally agreed, was a significant event
There seemed to be a huge amount of genuine goodwill towards Francie Barrett. A Traveller qualifying for the Olympics, it was generally agreed, was a significant event
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The first thing to say about the documentary Knuckle, shown on RTE recently, is that nobody can condone people who continue ancient feuds by launching savage attacks on others, not caring who gets hurt by their crazed eagerness to inflict pain on their old enemies. But that's newspaper columnists for you.

Knuckle may have provided its share of sickening moments but the aftermath was more sickening still as the usual coterie of bigots seized the opportunity to land a few punches on the Travelling Community while it was on the ropes. That Travellers groups such as Pavee Point and Involve have condemned the kind of bare-knuckle fighting captured by director Ian Palmer meant little to those eager to blacken the name of an entire community because of the behaviour of a minority of its members.

Yet there is a very different story to be told about Travellers and boxing in this country. It's more interesting than the one in Knuckle, because it challenges our prejudices rather than confirms them. It's more representative because it involves a greater number of Travellers. And it's more significant because it's connected with the mainstream of Irish sport. It might lack the cinematic allure of Knuckle, with its simultaneous appeal to the bigot and the voyeur within us, but a documentary on the stunning success of Travellers in Irish and international amateur boxing in recent years would be well worth viewing.

Who is our best amateur boxer? John Joe Nevin, twice a World bronze medallist and one of our best chances for an Olympic medal in London. A Traveller.

Who is our most exciting prospect? Joe Ward, European senior champion at the age of 17 and double world champion at underage level. A Traveller.

Who are our best boxers at Youth level? Portlaoise welterweight Michael O'Reilly and light-heavyweight Gary Sweeney of the Mike Flahertys club in Rosmuc who won silver medals at last year's European Championships. Both Travellers.

Who is our outstanding Schoolboy boxer? European flyweight champion and best boxer of the championships award winner Joe Joyce from Moate. A Traveller.

Then there's John Joe Joyce, an Olympian in 2008 when he was desperately unlucky to lose a points decision on countback to eventual gold medallist Felix Diaz of the Dominican Republic, European bronze medallist at light-welterweight a year later. His cousin and fellow Athy boxer David Oliver Joyce is a former EU featherweight champion who's twice come within a bout of making the Olympics.

Michael McDonagh of Tallaght is another outstanding prospect; national senior lightweight champion twice already at the age of 18, he'll be competing at the Olympic qualification tournament in Trabzon. Light-heavyweight Davy Joe Joyce was a world youth bronze medallist in 2008. All Travellers.

Bantamweight Michael Nevin and heavyweight Christy Joyce both made national senior finals this year. Something very significant is happening in Ireland's most successful Olympic sport.

You can also see this at underage level where young Travellers are racking up medals to an extent vastly disproportionate to their numbers. This small, marginalised and perpetually denigrated community is producing a remarkable number of top-class athletes. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that by the time the 2016 and 2020 Olympics come around there will be several Travellers qualifying, all with serious medal hopes.

Boxing at the top level requires an enormous amount of hard work and self-discipline and the success of young Travellers is a rebuff to those who would tar an entire community with old stereotypes of indolence and shiftlessness. In international competition they fly the Irish flag with dignity, class and style. Like their team-mates they are testaments to the remarkable sportsmanship within amateur boxing which sees fighters accept the most unfair decisions with an equanimity which might serve as a model to those in other sports.

We don't hear much about this story. Yet when Francie Barrett qualified for the Olympics in 1996 there was an enormous fuss made of him. He carried the flag at the opening ceremony in Atlanta, was the subject of a tremendous documentary, Southpaw directed by Liam McGrath, and was generally grasped to the nation's bosom. There seemed to be a huge amount of genuine goodwill towards the Galway light-welterweight. A Traveller qualifying for the Olympics, it was generally agreed, was a significant event for the country as a whole. But in 2008 when two Traveller boxers, John Joe Nevin and John Joe Joyce, qualified for the Olympics, the fact was hardly mentioned. What had changed? We'd changed. Ireland in 1996 was on the verge of the Tiger era, it was a less harsh and judgemental society than the one it was about to become.

These days our public discourse seems to be dominated by those who, in the words of the English philosopher Nina Power, apparently see their purpose as "reassuring bigots everywhere that their lives are actually mysterious and interesting and not merely piles of hate held together with incoherent ideas about gender and immigration".

Lately all we seem to offer Travellers is condemnation. It's as though we were suffering from compassion fatigue, as though Francie Barrett had let us down. In fact, we'd let him down; the last time this teetotaller who'd tried so hard to play by our rules hit the headlines he was being refused entry to a Galway nightclub because of his background.

The essence of bigotry is tarring all the members of a group with the same brush. When I saw that James McClean had suffered sectarian abuse because he'd declared for the Republic of Ireland, I didn't say, 'Ah that's Protestants for you. A pack of Orange bastards the lot of them'. Only a fool would say that. Yet plenty of people claim the Travelling community as a whole stands indicted because of the behaviour on show in Knuckle.

You could of course claim that the ethnicity of Travellers makes no difference to their status as sportsmen, that it's simply not relevant. But if we're going to jump down the throats of the Travelling community when something reflects badly on them, it behoves us to praise what is good in their culture. And just as Irish traditional music would have been infinitely poorer without the likes of Johnny and Felix Doran, Ted and Finbarr Furey, Paddy Keenan, Johnny and Mickey Doherty and John Reilly, Irish boxing would be significantly impoverished without the contribution of boxers from the same community.

Pat Ryan of Portlaoise Boxing Club, who coaches the immensely promising Michael O'Reilly and national finalist Michael Nevin, says: "The vast majority of Travellers have evolved away from bare-knuckle boxing, it's just a few families involved there now. Amateur boxing has opened its doors to them and there are huge numbers involved in our sport. And these lads, like Joe Ward, Michael O'Reilly and Michael McDonagh, are highly intelligent individuals. They mightn't have gone to university in an academic sense but they have in a sporting sense because you need to be very bright to be a top-class boxer. They come from a fighting tradition but education means they've moved on from brawling. They're good technical boxers who know the difference between fighting and boxing. And if the youngsters get a secondary education instead of being let quit in sixth class, who knows how well they can do?"

In recent weeks, a member of the Irish rugby team was bound to the peace after being charged with assault, while one of the country's leading Gaelic footballers pleaded guilty to threatening unlawful violence during an affray. There was no big deal made about either case. I think that's fair enough. But if a well-known Traveller boxer had been involved? He'd be lucky to escape a detached retina from being poked in the eye by all the wagging fingers.

Nobody can deny that the Travelling community has serious problems. Yet it's telling that the groups which make an honest attempt to tackle these problems, Pavee Point, Involve and the like, come in for as much condemnation and mockery as any bare-knuckle bozo. Their insistence that Travellers have things they can be proud of draws an inordinate amount of ire and outrage.

Yet they're right. In this country we're better at boxing than we are at any other sport. And nobody's better at boxing than Travellers, the real stuff which takes you all over the world to fight, and sometimes beat, the best. The stuff which does your country and your community proud.

We can't take that away from them.

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