Whoops of joy as Minister delivers North boxers £3m
MEN'S SEMI-FINALS:AT ST John Bosco amateur boxing club in west Belfast, teenage boys wear rosary beads around their necks in homage to their hero and clubmate, Olympic medallist Michael Conlan.
News of a £3 million injection into amateur boxing in the North was greeted with whoops of joy and less audible mutterings of “about time” at the west Belfast club yesterday.
As Minister for Sport Caral Ní Chuilin spoke to the camera crews, coach Gerard McCafferty gave The Irish Times a quick tour of the dilapidated club on the lower Falls Road – which has no running water, no toilets, no showers, no heating and visibly rotting roof timbers.
And, unlike in the movies, just one small ring for training.
The walls may be crumbling but they’re plastered with photos of champs from past and present, including four Olympians – Freddie Gillan (1954), Seán McCafferty (1964), Marty Quinn (1972) and now Michael Conlan (2012), who goes by the name Mick in these parts.
“Mick sets the standard for this club,” said 15-year-old Michael Burns. “He’s a great guy outside the ring too, very encouraging to us younger ones.”
Irish champion James Notarantonio (15) agreed. “It’s Mick who first inspired me,” he said. “But my new hero is Katie Taylor . . .”
Cue knowing giggles from the rest of the male teenagers. There are very few girls at this club because there’s only one changing area. Gerard McCafferty, son of Seán McCafferty who, famously in boxing circles, was the first Irishman to beat a Cuban, grew up in the same street as Michael Conlan.
“I’ve known him all my life,” he said. “He and his father John and his brother Jamie are a major inspiration for their dedication to this club.
“This area has the highest rate of unemployment, crime and single-parent families in Europe, so the club provides a very important outlet.
“The kids who come here, they’re like my own children. It’s about giving them something to believe in, take them off the streets.”
Like coaches in amateur boxing clubs all over the North, McCafferty puts in the hours every week on a voluntary basis.
“Every punchbag you see in this room,” he says softly, “we’ve paid for them all ourselves.”
Over at Holy Family club, dwarfed by the tower blocks of New Lodge in the north inner-city – another socioeconomic black spot – the walls are also covered with pictures of inspiring alumni.
This is where Olympic heroes Hugh Russell, Gerry Hamill, Sam Storey, Paul Douglas and, most recently, Paddy Barnes learned their moves, many of them under the tutelage of the legendary Gerry Storey.
It’s also the training ground of Barry McGuigan and new kids on the block Carl Frampton and Michaela Walsh.
It’s a surprisingly small, attic space – again, just one ring – considering the amount of world-class talent it has produced.
Eight times Irish champion Gerard McAuley (30) was putting in a bit of training.
“The mood’s been fantastic during the Olympics,” he said. “It’s great to see Paddy and Mick reaching the top; it’s such an inspiration to the young kids.
“Belfast has always been a great boxing city, so it’s brilliant to see Irish boxers back at the top of their game.”