Wednesday 18 September 2019

Eamonn Magee: The former world champion who 'went shoplifting with Alex Higgins' and put it up to the IRA

Stephen Gordon

Hard-drinking, cocaine-snorting, womanising ex-champ Eamonn Magee reckons he gambled away £1million in a decade — sometimes staking £20,000 on a horse race or match.

From the moment he had a few coins in his pocket as a kid, Eamonn (now 46) loved the thrill of gambling.

And from games of pitch and toss in the school yard, it wasn't long before local bookies became familiar with the flame-haired punter popping in and out throughout the day to bet on anything from horses and tennis to football and the GAA.

Back when boxing was paying Eamonn well, he became well-known in gambling circles for regularly staking £20,000 on the outcome of a race or a match, and at times betting double that.

He has plenty of winning stories but as usual, it's the hard luck tales that stick in the memory.

There's the untimely last-minute point in an All-Ireland final that he had £40,000 riding on.

There's the grand he lost when the jockey inexplicably slid off his horse when he cleared the last and was cantering home with nobody near him.

There was the family weekend in Leopardstown when he lost every penny at the races and the police were called when he couldn't pay the B&B bill.

In among those extremes there is a decade's worth of constant, if unremarkable, gambling that he now estimates saw close to a million pounds lost and won and lost again.

"A gambling addiction is a really terrible f***ing thing," he tells me as we drive out of the car park.

"It can control you every bit as bad as the drink and the gear (cocaine). It can trick you into thinking that money grows on trees and so it doesn't matter if you lose, you'll get the money back again soon one way or another.

"And that's what I believed back then — that there was always another score, or another win, or another big purse just around the corner."

Ten years after winning the world title, Eamonn — in addition to continued drug and alcohol abuse which intensified the mental health issues with which he has been struggling for decades — had another major issue. Basically, he was broke.

Despite earning hundreds of thousands of pounds with his fists, every last penny was now gone or out of his reach. With the big money earned in and around the Ricky Hatton fight he had bought separate houses for his parents in Ardoyne and a large, seven-bedroom property in the west Belfast hills that was to serve as the Magee family abode until Eamonn's philandering scuppered that dream.

An additional lump sum was placed in a bank account under Mary's name and it still sits there today, the subject of a rumbling legal dispute between Eamonn and his ex on who deserves what from it.

The rest he simply gambled, drank or snorted.

Perhaps it's no surprise, therefore, that Magee was a close friend of double world snooker champion Alex Higgins — and his partner in shoplifting escapades.

It was in Kelly's Cellars pub in central Belfast that the boxer from republican Ardoyne and the snooker star from loyalist Sandy Row first hit it off.

Higgins' genius on the baize was only exceeded by his capacity to drink, smoke and clash with authority off it. It was thus hardly a shock when 'Hurricane' Higgins and 'Terminator' Magee struck up an immediate rapport.

The Hurricane rarely left home without a couple of joints in his pocket, while the Terminator could be relied upon to carry a small bag of charlie, and once Guinness for the snooker player and Harp or cider for the boxer were hurled into the mix, nothing could stop the volatile duo.

Higgins once pushed his notoriety to extremes by threatening to have a fellow pro and countryman, the universally-loved Dennis Taylor, murdered by the UVF.

Such aberrations had made Higgins an even more controversial figure than Magee in Northern Ireland.

Eamonn still recalls associates approaching him in the early days of his friendship with Alex, questioning what he was playing at hanging around with that 'Orange c*** Higgins'. They were always shocked when an angry Magee, clearly not sharing their sectarian prejudices, turned on them, promising his own physical retribution if another insult came Alex's way.

Magee took Higgins to Ardoyne, buying him pints in the Shamrock and the Glenpark, always keeping a menacing eye out to ensure no harm would befall his Protestant drinking partner.

For years the partnership was strong and the pair kept each other company on bar stools all over Belfast. Alex's health gradually deteriorated (until his six-stone body was found lifeless in sheltered housing accommodation on the Donegall Road in 2010), but while he could still keep up with Eamonn, he was only too happy to get involved in any escapades that came along.

It was generally mischievous more than anything, a bit of friendly pool hustling or low-level shoplifting, but Magee imagined it helped Higgins feel he was still that exhilarating wild child, living life at a hundred miles an hour with two wheels hanging precariously over the edge.

When a shifty-looking Hurricane blew tamely out of the Belfast Christmas market one brisk December afternoon, his long coat swaddled around both his painfully thin body and the two bottles of red wine he had just swiped from a nearby stall, Eamonn could only smile at the sight of how this one-of-a-kind, ex-millionaire was writing the last chapter of his life.

Magee paid for the goods he left the market with that day, but on occasion his fingers were just as light as Alex's.

He has had a long and conflicted relationship with the less than noble art of theft.

It dates back to his first offence aged six, when he returned from a religious retreat to Mount Mellera grotto with more than he had when he arrived at the Co Waterford holy site. The item in question was merely a cassette tape of the Irish rock band Bagatelle, but a feeling of guilt and regret bothered Eamonn for weeks.

In later life he adopted what he saw as a quasi-Robin Hood role, stealing from anyone perceived to be richer than him to sell the item or items at a knockdown rate to anyone poorer than the original owner.

By the time the 21st century had dawned, Magee was earning a handsome wage in the ring and had no pressing need to thieve.

But somehow, he just couldn't help getting himself involved in an array of low budget, and often comical, heists.

One drunken night saw him break into a south Belfast bar to remove a six-foot statue. Local paramilitaries with an investment in the establishment soon put the word out that the statue was to be immediately returned.

Belfast Telegraph

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