Celebrations cross the divide as Belfast welcomes boxing heroes home
JIMMY KEENAN, aged 89, standing with the crowd at the barriers outside Belfast City Hall, wasn’t going to budge until he had personally congratulated local boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan on their Olympic bronze medals.
When Barnes came alongside he grabbed his medal and kissed it. “I couldn’t be any prouder of these boys,” he said. It was another success for Belfast boxing where “fighting is in the blood”, said Keenan.
“I nearly had a heart attack watching their fights,” he added. Keenan was one among hundreds of people of all ages who turned out in Belfast at lunchtime yesterday to welcome the boxers.
Barnes and Conlan received a great welcome as they travelled in an open-top bus down Royal Avenue, on to Donegall Place and around City Hall.
Seán McAughey (26), from Belfast, twice a Co Antrim bantamweight champion himself, was there with his five-year-old son James and five-month-old son Conor, a little Tricolour attached to Conor’s buggy. “I am very, very proud of what Paddy and Michael have achieved; they make us proud to be from Belfast,” said McAughey, adding that he hoped his sons might follow in the footsteps of Barnes and Conlan.
There were a few other Tricolours being waved and it’s fair to say that the majority of people who turned out for the boxers were from the nationalist side of the house.
But there was no tension or bad feeling – the opposite, in fact – and boxing tends to be a sport that crosses the old divisions, as was acknowledged by the Ulster Unionist Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy. He was delighted to be present “to share in their sporting success”.
“It’s a wonderful achievement for boxing and for Northern Ireland. They are a credit for what they have achieved,” added the Minister.
Celebrations will take place in Coleraine today to mark the success of the Team GB silver medallist rowing brothers, Peter and Richard Chambers, and bronze medallist rower Alan Campbell, and again the plaudits will come from both sides of the community.
At a reception in City Hall in Belfast yesterday, the Sinn Féin deputy lord mayor Tierna Cunningham – the DUP lord mayor Gavin Robinson is on holiday – said the boxers were the “personification of Belfast as a world class city”.
“These two sportsmen brought us almost unbearable tension as we watched them perform on the world’s biggest sports stage. They exhilarated us with their skill, their bravery and their unbelievable determination and will to win,” she said.
“They gave us incredible joy as we watched the referee lift their hand to declare their victories in bout after bout. And they made us the proudest people on the planet when they won their medal- winning bouts to put themselves and Belfast once again on the world boxing map,” she added.
She also congratulated the Coleraine Team GB rowers and all the other Olympians from the island. Barnes and Conlan took it all in their stride, enjoying their day with good humour and some banter, signing autographs and posing for pictures.
“It’s been brilliant,” said Conlan, with Barnes adding that it was the level of support that made winning the medals worthwhile. “It’s been overwhelming,” he said.