Wednesday 18 September 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'In the battle of the boxing books, the judges picked the wrong winner'

'The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee has won the two most prestigious awards in sports publishing on these islands this year' Photo: Stock Image
'The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee has won the two most prestigious awards in sports publishing on these islands this year' Photo: Stock Image

Tommy Conlon

In 1994, an accomplice of the Belfast boxer Eamonn Magee was abducted by a gang of IRA criminals. Martin Clarke was taken bound and hooded to an unknown location where he was tied to a chair. He was kicked with boots, beaten with sticks and fists until they extracted a confession from him. He was then shot in the leg and dumped on a street.

The confession was recorded. The tape was taken to Magee's father Terrence, himself a former IRA member, and played in front of him. The gang had wanted to find out the names of the thieves who had stripped a derelict house and sold its antique fireplace. The house belonged to one of the terrorists. Terrence Magee listens to the recording of Clarke being tortured; he hears Clarke say that Eamonn Magee was one of the culprits. Magee Snr is left with a warning and a message: either his son clears out of town or he will be severely punished.

Eamonn Magee heads for City Airport the next morning with another accomplice involved in the robbery. On their way to the airport they take a detour to the Royal Victoria Hospital. According to his new biography, they arrived at the stricken man's bed and pulled the curtains around him. They then "laid into" Clarke. "For a full ten seconds . . . Magee bludgeoned his face repeatedly while the other man focused on the wounded leg as instructed."

The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee has won the two most prestigious awards in sports publishing on these islands this year. On November 27, it was named joint winner of the UK's William Hill Sports Book of the Year; last Monday it was the sole winner of the Irish equivalent, sponsored by eir.

The shortlist for the eir award was completed by Tony 10 and Fighter, Andy Lee's story. Tony 10 is a stunning account of the post office manager Tony O'Reilly's ruinous descent into the gambling vortex, written by Declan Lynch of this newspaper. Lee's book is ghostwritten beautifully by Niall Kelly, deputy editor of sports website All three books are of international class. The standard of writing is exceptional, the stories they tell are riveting; all three are classic page-turners.

One can understand why the judges in both countries plumped for the Magee book. In my opinion they got it wrong. If ultimately it came down to the two boxing books in Ireland, then Lee and Kelly have been hard done by here. Theirs is the more artful, literary, sophisticated achievement. Lee brings us into the mind as well as the body of a prizefighter.

His reflections on the rough trade are sieved through a fine intellect and a sensitive soul. He evokes the loneliness, the black fear of hanging onto a dream by a thread; he captures the exploitation and nonchalant cruelty of the fight business.

Lee lived the life; he lived boxing; he walked across its treacherous tightropes without any safety net beneath him. He fought at world level, trained with world-class coaches, became a proper world champion.

Eamonn Magee did not live the fight game. Basically he was a part-time pro. His chosen sport and his chosen life ran on two separate, parallel lines for most of the time. The sporting story is spread so thinly across the book it disappears altogether for long stretches. In fact, it only gets a passing mention here and there in the first hundred pages. Basically it is a voyeuristic tale of one man's degradation, with a bit of boxing thrown in as a hook on which to hang all the other sordid episodes.

Magee is a small-town anti-hero who remained strictly small-time because he hadn't the discipline or ambition to match his undoubted natural talent. In this regard his is just another coulda shoulda yarn - and there's a million of those who never make the pages of a book.

He spends the best years of his athletic prime drinking so manically that he becomes a functioning alcoholic. Augmenting the booze is a steady diet of cocaine, ecstasy and hash. He deals in drugs to make money; he steals and swindles; he gambles away much of what he makes; he is a street-level criminal and thug. The street violence he dishes out frequently, and sometimes receives, is at times sickening. He has three children by the age of 22 whom he neglects for long periods; he hits the mother of these children during "ferocious rows"; there are references to domestic violence with another female partner.

The book is not written in the first person 'I' but rather the third person 'he'. It was clearly a labour of love for Paul D Gibson, a boxing journalist and fellow native of Belfast. Gibson has done an outstanding job, not just because he tells the story with such panache, but because he managed to get the material from such a volatile subject in the first place. It seems to have involved a lot of time in pubs - morning, noon and night.

But there has to be a question here about veracity. If the subject is drunk, high or stoned on such a regular basis, how reliable is his recall? How can we trust his recollections? How could the writer objectively verify many of the episodes recounted here? Memory is a notoriously fickle faculty, even in someone sober.

It is an occupational hazard for the ghost to get too close to his or her subject; in fact it is all but unavoidable. In this case Gibson had to get close to someone who has lived a repulsive life and left a trail of victims in his wake. Inevitably perhaps, there is a cloying sympathy left lingering on the pages for Magee, which this reader for one felt was ill-judged and certainly ill-deserved.

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