Wednesday 16 January 2019

"Some people hear an Irish accent and see a black guy and go ‘they don’t go together'"

“What do you mean you’re going to go get a day job Tommy? You just went round for round with Tony Bellew, the WBC Cruiserweight champion of the world.”

Tommy McCarthy
Tommy McCarthy

Jack O'Toole

Nine months before Ensley Bingham talked Belfast boxer Tommy McCarthy out of applying for a job in the ‘real world’, he sat patiently in a changing room in Victoria Warehouse, Manchester, waiting for McCarthy to make his return from the ring.

“Have you ever been in a losing changing room with a boxer?” McCarthy asks me two days before his first round stoppage of Peter Hegyes at the SSE Arena.

“It’s the loneliest place in the world. I went into the changing room after I lost to Matty Askin and nobody was there.

“There was no one there to talk to me, except Ensley, he was standing there waiting for me.

“He came over and hugged me and he said ‘listen, that’s not the Tommy McCarthy that I’ve seen, there was something wrong there’.

“He was just really positive and that just stuck with me.”

Before the Askin’s fight, Bingham, a former middleweight contender and British champion, had brought McCarthy into his Champs Camp gym in Manchester as a sparring partner for another one of his cruiserweight prospects Sam Hyde.

Hyde was training to face the then undefeated Blaise Mendouo, and Bingham was impressed by what he had seen from McCarthy during the pair’s sparring sessions.

“He came to Manchester and he had a wicked spar with my boy and towards the end he was getting some good rounds in,” said Bingham.

“I could see that he had a lot of talent and my boy Ben Sheedy was fighting on the same card as him so I ended up missing his first round, but when I came down to see him in the second round I thought ‘what’s he doing?’

“He wasn’t moving gracefully, he wasn’t doing any of the things he was showing me in sparring, and then when he got put down I knew something wasn’t right.

“I said to him after the fight ‘that wasn’t you out there, but don’t worry about it, because you’ll bounce back.

“Having a loss on your record doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad fighter. You just have to regroup and look at why you lost, and how you lost, and come again. You have all the skills and talent’.”

McCarthy reached out to Bingham shortly after the fight and asked if he would become his new trainer following his split from Brian Magee.

He had a break over the Christmas period before travelling to Manchester in January to spar with Bellew as part of the Liverpudlian’s preparations for the David Haye fight in March.

After finishing up as Bellew’s sparring partner, McCarthy was then scheduled for a bout in April before it ultimately fell through. He was then scheduled for another fight in July before that fell through too. The same thing then happened again in August.

McCarthy had been travelling to and from Manchester for the best part of eight months and he hadn’t had one single fight to show for it.

He grew frustrated, he became despondent at training, and he even considered walking away from professional boxing until Bingham convinced him otherwise, citing the sparring sessions he had with Bellew earlier in the year as the overriding case for him to stay in the sport.

During his time in Manchester, McCarthy had developed an affinity for the city and its vibrant Irish and Jamaican communities.

With an Irish father and a Jamaican mother, McCarthy identifies strongly with both backgrounds and he sees a lot of similarities between the two communities.

“They're both island nations and their people are very similar. They're both very happy, friendly people and they enjoy dancing and food and having a good time.

“I think in Manchester it's why a lot of the mixed race people are Irish-Jamaican because they find similarities between each other in a new country."

But in the old country it wasn’t always that easy. Growing up as the ‘token' black kid in Lenadoon, west Belfast, had its challenges and some of those difficulties have helped shape McCarthy’s views today.

His upbringing has encouraged him to lend his support to the #IamIrish movement, a celebration of diversity inspired by the persistent lack of representation of the Black Irish experience.

McCarthy identifies with that experience and he uses his platform as a boxer to raise awareness for it.

“A lot of people don’t meet many black Irish people but in Manchester they can usually relate because their mother could be from Ireland, or their granny is from Ireland, and it then just becomes a talking point from there.

“I know times are changing now in Belfast but growing up as the token black kid in school, or in your area, it can be difficult. I was lucky enough that I didn’t really have too much of a hard time but people that I know had it very rough.

“Boxing is my talent, and I’m fortunate enough to do it for a living, but it’s also a good platform for me to get on and speak to people like yourself and address these issues that people don’t really know about or speak about.

“Even still to this day I’ll meet people and I start talking to them and they’d ask ‘are you American?’

“And I’d say ‘no, I’m Irish, I clearly have a Belfast accent’, but some people hear an Irish accent and see a black guy and go ‘they don’t go together, he must be American’.

“People go through that stuff, I go through it as well, even when I was away with Irish Boxing people would go ‘oh well you’re not Irish, where are you from?’

“And I’d say ‘but I am Irish’.There’s also a thing now that this woman Lorraine Maher started called #IamIrish. She’s like me in the fact that she’s from Tipperary and she’s trying to raise awareness and I just hopped on the bandwagon from there.

“It’s an issue that is close to my heart because it’s me and I live it.”

Maher started the movement to celebrate Irish people of mixed race and to question the concept of ‘Irishness’ and what an authentic Irish identity means for Irish communities today.

McCarthy will head to Ballymun, Dublin, on Wednesday for the first ever #IAmIrish exhibition and Maher is hoping the event will help further a conversation that has to be had.

“In Ireland people will say well ‘where are you from?’,” said Maher.

“I’m from Carrick-on-Suir and Tommy’s from Belfast but people will say ‘well you can’t be’.

“It’s always that - ‘well you can’t be. How does that work?’ You can see the puzzled looks on people’s faces when they just don’t get it.

“The stories that I’m hearing just make me question how can we still not see? We have 80-year-old's with Irish accents who happen to have brown skin.

“They didn’t just get it in the last couple of years, they were born here. There’s evidence of a woman called Rachel Baptiste, who sang in the dance halls in 1752, there’s evidence that we’ve been here for a very long time.

“But because we’ve been in smaller numbers we’ve almost been written out.”

McCarthy and Maher are trying to ensure that the book does not close on Black Ireland but McCarthy also has a pen for a book of his own.

He’s the author of the Tommy McCarthy story and there’s several high profile boxers from his city that feature in the narrative.

Belfast is a city with enough history to fill up an entire library of books, but ultimately, it’s small in size, and even more so in its boxing community.

“Success breeds success,” adds McCarthy.

“All of us know each other - Jamie Conlan, Michael, Carl Frampton, Paddy Barnes, Tyrone McKenna - they’re all my good friends.

“Ryan Burnett, we’d be good mates with him too. Paddy got the ball rolling with the Olympics a few years ago and because we knew him we thought ‘well if he can do it, why can’t we do it as well?’

“That led to Mick going on to do what he did. Carl going on to win a world title. Jamie is fighting for one next month. I want to fight for one in the next 18 months.

“Belfast is a small city and everyone knows each other. Coming up through the amateurs we were all on the Irish team together.

“We’d spend Tuesday to Friday living with each other for years and you just form a bond and you almost become family. When you get together, it’s like seeing your brothers.”

Family looks after other family and McCarthy’s next fight could be on the undercard of Frampton’s highly anticipated bout with Horacio García next month.

Both Frampton and McCarthy signed to Matthew Macklin’s MTK Global earlier this year and Frampton is the management company’s most prominent fighter.

The former WBA super bantamweight champion will try to put a good word in with the fight’s promoters to see if he can get McCarthy on the card, as the 26-year-old looks to finish the year strongly after spending the majority of the year in limbo.

It’s a good thing he didn’t quit the day job.

*On Wednesday October 25th, Lorraine and Axis Ballymun hope to bring together a cross sector of voices and perspectives from across Irish communities to reflect together on the challenges faced in regards to #race ,colour, culture and heritage in #multicultural #Ireland today. To attend contact or @Iamblirish on Twitter.

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