Tuesday 22 October 2019

Tommy Conlon on Kevin Sheehy: 'Leaving a void that can never be filled'

'He was the heart of the club for the last two years. Everyone liked him,' his friend and mentor Ken Moore of the St Francis Boxing Club recalls. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
'He was the heart of the club for the last two years. Everyone liked him,' his friend and mentor Ken Moore of the St Francis Boxing Club recalls. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

For all that he tried and tried to take the bright side of the road, Kevin Sheehy's life was ended on the dark side of the street, slain in an act of violence that will tremor through his family for generations.

Yesterday morning in a Limerick city cemetery, his father and mother bore witness to the most dreaded of all the parental terrors, standing by a graveside as their 20-year-old son was committed to the earth.

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Beside them, his girlfriend Emma Colbert, bearing the daughter who will be welcomed into the world next month, swaddled by love and grief, destined for a lifelong loss before she has even been born.

Close by, his friend and mentor Ken Moore of the St Francis Boxing Club, where the coach and his protégé were dreaming big dreams and working every day to make those dreams a reality. Kevin was going to be an Olympic boxer, if not next year in Tokyo, then in Paris 2024.

He had the next phase of his life mapped out. They had talked about it during the long hours between bouts at the Hull Box Cup, a prestigious UK boxing tournament which Kevin had won in the heavyweight category on June 23. He would become a father in July; he was learning the tiling trade from his father; and in August he would start his season early and go full-bore for the national senior championships in Olympic year.

He'd been doing gym work virtually every day since February, a solid five-month slab of strength and conditioning that had already brought him on a ton. At six foot he was short for a heavyweight but he already had lightning speed and was now acquiring explosive power. Kevin could feel the power coming and Ken could see it; Kevin could feel his confidence surging and Ken could see that too.

Kevin Sheehy in action against Liam Greene in last year's IABA Elite Boxing Championships semi-finals. Photo: Barry Cregg/Sportsfile
Kevin Sheehy in action against Liam Greene in last year's IABA Elite Boxing Championships semi-finals. Photo: Barry Cregg/Sportsfile

So last Friday week, after the qualifying process for 2020 was officially released, the coach sent him a WhatsApp message: Tokyo hadn't been in their original plans but he was developing so quickly, they might as well shoot for the stars now. Sheehy replied: "I'm good enough, I'm strong enough, why not, we'll get there."

Last Sunday afternoon he went to the Gaelic Grounds to see Limerick's hurlers play in the Munster final. In the spring of 2018 he had befriended some of the players who would go on to become All-Ireland champions later that year. They had joined St Francis and learned the boxing rudiments as part of their training last season. Limerick won the Munster final on Sunday and Sheehy was one of thousands celebrating in the city later that night.

In the pre-dawn hours of Monday morning, Moore was finishing his night shift as a supervisor at Johnson & Johnson Vision Care in Annacotty. His phone rang; the caller had news so frightful that it couldn't be true; it just couldn't be true. But a bad rumour was starting to circulate. So he rang Kevin Sheehy Senior directly. "And he answered straightaway and unfortunately he was at the scene and the first thing he said was, yes, he was gone: 'They killed him, Ken, they killed him'."

The scene in question was on the Hyde Road. Kevin Sheehy Junior had suffered multiple injuries from a hit-and-run incident involving a black Mitsubishi SUV. On Wednesday a 29-year-old man with an address in England was brought before Limerick District Court and charged with murder. An 18-year-old man was released without charge; a file is being prepared in this case for the DPP.

Last Wednesday afternoon Moore sat on the ring apron in his beloved boxing club and sighed and cried and remembered the young man who was hoping to follow in the footsteps of their most famous alumnus, the Olympian and former world champion pro, Andy Lee. The gym was otherwise deserted. The multiple heavy bags dangling from the ceiling were perfectly still in the afternoon sunlight.

He had watched the teenage boy discover a new world through boxing and in the process discover the potential in himself too. Kevin had already been through a few boxing clubs by the time he fetched up as a 15-year-old at St Francis. The lad was close to giving up on the sport by then.

He had "a very, very good support structure in his parents, Kevin Senior and Tracey, they are brilliant." But for parents bringing up a family in John Carew Park near Southill, it is nigh impossible to shelter children all the time from the intermittent crime and feud-related violence that has blighted the area. Boxing clubs have been a time-honoured sanctuary for working class boys, and latterly girls, who need to release their energy and emotion in a safe space. Kevin Senior brought his son down to St Francis and the chemistry there clicked.

"He (Kevin Jnr) used to joke," recalled Moore, "that when he was 16, 17, he had about 30 friends. Now he reckons he'd maybe three or four! Because they chose to go a different route, unfortunately they got caught up in the drugs scene and the drink scene and some of them are in jail, some of them aren't with us anymore. But Kev decided he wanted more, he chose not to do that, he chose to come here to the club, he chose maybe to have a bit of a better life for himself."

His turning point was the world youth championships in Russia in November 2016. Sheehy had won the Irish Under 18 national title earlier that year at 91kg.

"It always made me laugh because he was getting on the green bus to go to Dublin and he was crying because he'd never left Limerick on his own! And he truly couldn't understand why people would leave Carew Park! Like, 'Why would you want to leave Carew Park?' So Russia was his first big trip, he went to Moscow for a training camp and it was the middle of winter and they went on a train journey to St Petersburg (the tournament venue) and you know, that's a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

"He came back and he was so proud of that, the places he'd seen, the people he'd met, and that really opened his eyes. When he came back from Russia he said his initial thought was how small Carew Park was, his circle was, because now he'd seen (the world) outside and he wanted more of that.

"He came back from Russia a different guy. He still loved being from Carew Park, he was very proud to be from (there), but he saw a little bit beyond that and that's what he was working toward - he was working toward just making things a little bit better for himself and his family and the little girl that was coming."

St Francis BC was founded in 1928. Moore, 44, has been head coach for over ten years. It has about 40 members, adult and juvenile. It costs €2 per training session. He is a volunteer, the club is run by volunteers, no coach gets paid. It is club policy to keep the price as low as possible.

"At €2, we think that most people can afford that. We don't want a boy or girl sitting at home because their mum or dad can't afford a fiver, you know? Things get tight sometimes. And sometimes they come in and they don't have it and that's sound, there's no problem there, they just write it in the book."

Naturally it makes for a shoestring budget all round, but they are not serving the golf club demographic. The premises, a former factory unit, is based behind the city's Milk Market, surrounded by blocks of public housing flats.

"€2 isn't a lot of money but it is a lot of money if you don't have it, you know? If on the night you don't have the money, it's a big thing to the kid, it's a big thing to the parents not to have €2. But people sometimes get caught that way, unexpected expenses arise, some people just don't have it. That's why we keep it so low, we're not going to stop someone training because they don't have €2."

Moore has found that the club's strict code of conduct is not a deterrent for juveniles but an attraction. They gravitate towards the protection that the code offers; it is a form of security and an enhancer of self-esteem.

"Our membership form spells it out: you sign up for a year, you have to acknowledge that you are going to behave yourself to a certain standard, to our standard, both in the club and outside. And that includes social media and all. If any of them are found to be fighting out on the streets, they'll get the road. We don't train boys here or girls here to go outside and be thugs. We train them so they don't have to go outside and feel they have to fight.

"We train them to realise there is a different life there, if they want it, (that) they are better than maybe some people have been telling them their whole lives. And kids like to be held accountable. Initially they won't but after a while they absolutely like to be held accountable; they feel more mature. We don't speak down to them, we don't bark at them, and they like that."

Kevin Sheehy, unbeknownst to himself, was starting to embody this culture at the club. Having won two national Under 22 championships, and with his profile rising, he had become a figurehead, says Moore, by the power of his example. He would train twice a day, he had the natural authority that comes with being a powerful heavyweight, and youngsters warmed to him. He had charisma and he was decent - he was sound.

"He was the heart of the club for the last two years. Everyone liked him, the kids, the lads he trained with - fellas who were older than him looked up to him, you know that sorta way? And he never recognised that. He'd come in that door and the kids would be training on the bags and as he was passing he'd give them a tip on the back, 'Keep it going,' something small like that. Or if someone new was starting I'd say it and Kev would (have a word). And he never copped it: those few words as he walked from that door to here meant a terrible lot to those kids."

Yesterday morning some of those kids formed part of the St Francis guard of honour that accompanied his coffin from church to cemetery. Ken Moore was at a loss last week as to how they would come to terms with the tragedy.

"I don't know. I don't know. I don't want to think about it, none of us do. There's a big void left here now and I'm not too sure how we're going to fill it. But the club has been around for 91 years, you'll have kids walking up every day, someone has to be there for them, someone has to open the door."

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