Ireland hasn't travelled far enough yet for Nevin

Wed, Jul 11, 2012, 01:00

BOXING OLYMPIC TEAM:FRANCIE BARRETT carried the Irish flag in Atlanta 1996. People looked on at the first boxer from the Travelling community to take part in an Olympic Games.

Some viewers may have innocently believed it would change perceptions.

Barrett returned to Ireland better for the personal experience but no better in some Irish eyes. Twice refused entry to night clubs in Galway he realised not much had changed.

And so it goes.

John Joe Nevin and John Joe Joyce followed Barrett four years ago in Beijing. Two more Travellers on an Irish Olympic team. This year Nevin will travel to London 2012 as a lone member of that community but with two World Championship medals in his pocket and with his eyes wide open.

There are plenty of fence-mending words. Nevin could use a patch work of stock phrases to illustrate how gaps can narrow between settled and Travelling people. Only, Nevin doesn’t really subscribe to it. High on his list of priorities is to provide a better life for his son Martin, who will be two-years-old in August, and his wife Marie.

“Francie Barrett was a big inspiration,” he says. “He was the first Irish Traveller to get there (the Olympics). Myself and Johnny (Joe Joyce) were there the last time, and myself this time. It’s great for the Travelling community to be looking up to boxers like us. Boxing is a great example for it.

“It would be nice if other people looked at what I’m doing . . . looked at people the exact same and treated people the exact same. Loads of people don’t but I’ve a strong team around me and we’re more or less like a family.”

Nevin acknowledges he has generally received some warmer reaction since his success at international level and his qualification for the Olympic Games a second time (in Beijing he was 18-years-old).

Settled people have also come up to him and expressed their admiration for what he has achieved in the sport as the only Irish boxer other than Katie Taylor to have won medals in two boxing World Championships. But the home fires don’t burn that brightly.

“What’s really got to me is Mullingar town,” he says. “Last time round we had three (Olympic) qualified, Mark Fagan (athlete), myself and Joyce and they had a civic reception. They had nothing this time. There’s no talk of it.

“People approached them, photographers, media and no there’s no word of it. When I come back I’ll just do the exact same as they do to me, turn a blind eye. I’m going out there to represent myself, not Mullingar.

“They are giving out awards for TDs saying one or two silly words. It’s ridiculous. Discrimination. That’s the world I use. Discrimination. It’s not nice. You don’t feel good at all. You feel like they are kind of using you in a way. They really don’t want you.

“I thought it would get easier but it doesn’t seem to be. Cavan treated me very well but Mullingar. . . They had to do it in 2008 because Fagan was there. They had to do it for him. Not a mention. It’s not nice at all.”

Distance runner Martin Fagan, who is not a Traveller, was handed a two-year suspension earlier this year after his sample was found to contain the banned substance EPO. An Irish Sport Anti-Doping disciplinary panel said the 28-year-old athlete tested positive in an out-of-competition test in Tucson, Arizona last December.

“I feel for Martin,” adds Nevin. “I’ve done it (qualified) again for the Olympics and there is more talk about what happened to him (Fagan) than about me qualifying.”

The Mullingar officials who decide on celebrating athletes with civic receptions may hold a radically different view. What might be more difficult to address is Nevin’s firmly-held perception of passive discrimination, which has been shaped over 23 years, a view Ward and Barrett would also understand.

“As a kid all of my cousins were all running off doing boxing. I kept wrecking my father’s head about boxing gloves,” he says. “Eventually he had to give in, sent me down to the boxing club in Mullingar at seven-years-of-age. I had my first fight when I was eight . . . with a 12-year-old two stone heavier than myself.” He smiles. “I went out through the ropes.”

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