Boxers offer a window into our marginalised society

 

The admirable qualities of working-class communities are ignored by wider society outside of the Olympics, writes Fintan O'Toole

THERE IS a strange silence about one of the most obvious aspects of Ireland's Olympics: social class. It expresses an underlying discomfort.

As so often in the past, national pride was salvaged by those of whom the nation generally feels least proud: young, working class men from marginalised communities. While the horsey set, with all their money and self-regard, were making a show of us yet again, the competitors who demonstrated honesty and discipline, pride and passion, were from the invisible Ireland that is represented only in court reports.

Their accents are heard most often in caricatured advertisements, where they stand for criminality or stupidity. Unless they become individuals by making waves in sport, they are skangers, chavs, hoodies, knackers.

Kenny Egan's north Clondalkin, for example, is almost literally a non-place. It is the product, not of democratic planning, but of the shenanigans that are the subject of the Mahon tribunal. Its "town centre" is a shopping centre that most locals can't afford to patronise. The struggle to turn it into a home has been harsh: a decade ago, when Egan was starting to box, an astonishing 57 per cent of those aged between 14 and 23 in north Clondalkin had experienced homelessness.

This is an Ireland largely bypassed by the glossy high-tech economy. Just 6 per cent of its men and 5 per cent of women have a third-level education. Even now, there's a 30 per cent chance of a child leaving primary school with serious literacy problems and a 50-50 chance of even sitting a Leaving Certificate.

There are no silver medals for north Clondalkin in the deprivation stakes - it scores 10 out of 10 in the economist's index. Yet, there's more to this story than deprivation - there's the struggle against it.

Well-to-do society is quite comfortable with the products of deprivation. It finds it convenient when young men from the working class reservations live up to the stereotypes, when they wear hoodies and white socks and throw shapes and sip cans of Dutch Gold lager on the back seat of the bus. The threatening signals allow for the maintenance of a reassuring distance. These people are stupid and crude and potentially violent, and it's best to stay out of their way.

And then every four or eight years, when all else fails and the more well-scrubbed medal prospects have imploded, Ireland is forced to rally round young men from this class and adopt them as our great national hopes.

We get to hear them speak in their guttural urban accents - and discover that they have something to say for themselves. We get to meet their families - oddly enough, they're nice, decent people. The cameras are brought into their homes - which turn out to be strangely clean and bright and comfortably furnished. We find, rather disturbingly, that a place like north Clondalkin is full of people with the same aspirations and ambitions as everybody else and that some of its young men make far better representatives for the country than their supposed social betters.

Boxing matters to these young men because it creates a world in which hard things are expected of them. Violence is controlled, restrained and sublimated. Wildness is the ultimate sin and discipline the ultimate virtue. Bodily power is nothing without intelligence.

Manliness is asserted, not by bullying, but by behaving honourably and respectfully towards an opponent inside the ring and, outside it, by a stoical acceptance of defeat and even of unfairness. Above all, boxing is a fatherly culture. Older men - trainers and mentors - treat younger men like sons, giving them the benefit of their own experiences and receiving, in turn, the gift of being listened to. And the young men learn, in the process, not just how to box, but how to be fathers themselves. They learn about encouragement and discipline, about cajoling and warning, about the ways in which different generations can talk to each other.

Boxing does for these young men, in other words, what education and community and society ought to do but don't. It treats them as people who can achieve very tough things, not just in sport but in learning to be a man. It gives them respect and demands in return that they respect themselves. It defines them as individuals - in few sports is the competitor quite so nakedly alone - but it also creates its own family and its own community. It has no time for self-indulgent victimhood. It both teaches and recognises the dignity that is won in struggling against unfavourable circumstances.

But you shouldn't have to box, or to be a man, or to win Olympic medals, to be entitled to the basic dignity of high expectations. The world we look into every four years when we've given up on showjumpers and excuses, is not a world of sinister hoodies with a few Kenny Egans on the side.

Kenny Egan's skill and self-respect and intelligence and ambition represent the common values of his working class community. If Irish society as a whole could recognise that, his achievement would be worth much more than a gold medal.