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In Sunshine or in Shadow: How boxing beat the Troubles

Book review: Donald McRae’s exceptional dive into Ulster boxing is dark, funny and vital

In Sunshine Or In Shadow: How Boxing Brought Hope in the Troubles
In Sunshine Or In Shadow: How Boxing Brought Hope in the Troubles
Author: Donald McRae
ISBN-13: 978-1471163104
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Guideline Price: £20

The atmosphere in the Rumford social club, on the Shankill Road in Belfast, was boisterous and jubilant on the Monday night of March 2nd, 1978, when an Irish boxing selection hosted an East German team in a hotly anticipated exhibition. Everyone was determined the event should go off without a hitch: paramilitaries manned the doors to confiscate guns from the punters as they entered. They gave assurances that weapons could be collected again afterwards, on the way out.

The event seemed like a huge risk. Just six days earlier, the IRA bombing of La Mon hotel in Gransha had left people dead and 30 more injured. It was the latest atrocity and one of more extreme acts of nihilism of the Troubles era. So on the surface, it didn’t make sense that Gerry Storey, the Irish national trainer and a Belfast Catholic, would bring a team of green-vested boxers into the loyalist heart of the city. Nor did it make sense that key figures from the loyalist paramilitary organisations would gleefully cheer on two of the brightest young prospects in Irish boxing: Hugh Russell was from the nationalist stronghold of New Lodge, and Barry McGuigan, who was not just a southern Catholic but the grandson of an old IRA captain. Yet both young boxers were lauded that night in the Rumford. The evening, as Storey had promised, was a triumph. As violence stalked the land, Storey had intuited that for some inexplicable reason, boxing transcended the murderous partisanship, the prevailing fear and paranoia and the clearly drawn border lines that mapped out nationalist and unionist Belfast. Green or orange, everyone, it seemed, loved a promising fighter. And Ulster was teeming with them.

Storey stars

It is no slight on the other fight men portrayed here to state that Gerry Storey is the most compelling of the cast in Donald McRae’s kaleidoscopic deep-dive into the soul of Ulster boxing from 1969-1985. Storey, a revered trainer from the Holy Family club and a man with a visionary’s sense of fairness and humanity, Storey moved with impunity through the nationalist and unionist strongholds of the city. He was called before the loyalist council so the UVF and UDA leaders could assure him of his safety – and had to survive three bomb attempts on his life nonetheless. Before one fight Storey arranged on the Shankill, Jimmy Craig, a UDA paramilitary, asked Storey to let Martin Regan, a republican leader and fight fan, know that he’d be safe if he wanted to come along.

Storey gave boxing lessons to political prisoners from both sides in the Maze prison just after the hunger strikes. He turned down an offer from the legendary Billy Conn to come to the US and coach. He couldn’t leave Holy Family: it was his vocation. When Barry McGuigan rose to fight Eusebio Pedroza in 1985 – the climactic fight in this book – Storey was not in Loftus Road. Instead, he coached Holy Family kids that evening and chatted about the fight in his local cornershop, where he had popped down to buy milk.


Anyone familiar with Donald McRae will know him as a prolific and brilliant profile writer with the Guardian and as the author of several classic books on sport. Boxing and rugby are regarded as his chief subjects, but his true fascination lies with people and society. McRae translates assiduous research and deep, repeated interviews – he met Storey more than 30 times for this project – into effortless storytelling. He moves through the decades by shadowing the lives of five men. Derry’s Charlie Nash is a haunted figure: a lovely man, a terrific champion always reeling from the death of his brother Willie in the Bloody Sunday murders in 1972, where McRae’s account begins.

Engaging and enigmatic

McGuigan is, as ever, engaging and heartfelt while remaining somehow enigmatic. McRae’s account of the bantamweight rivalry and brotherhood between Hugh Russell, a New Lodge youngster; and Davy Larmour, Shankill to the core, captures the strangeness of life in the North during those decades. After one fight in which they leave each other’s faces battered, Russell drives them both to the hospital. The trip through the empty streets to A&E in the Mater is nerve-racking. Once there, a doctor appears and, taken aback at their battered faces and cuts, asks them who could have done this. The boxers point at one another and simultaneously reply: he did.

The shining humanity and decency of McRae’s cast and the rapier Ulster humour balance the more disturbing elements of the story. Because this is about boxing in the Troubles, the lives portrayed here are stalked by death and fear and horrendous violence. Wisely, McRae offers no commentary or perspective on the events as they unfold. Nor does he try to suggest that boxing was possessed of some kind of healing power. He just tells the stories he hears – and fight people tell their stories with unvarnished authenticity. It becomes clear that boxing was fiercely cherished as a way of preserving some fragment of a vibrant, decent society through the bombs and debris and the casual, psychopathic murder. There are occasions, such as the period dealing with hunger strikes, when Northern Ireland’s story is so overwhelming that the reader temporarily loses sight of the vivid boxing tread that McRae skilfully weaves through three decades.

Apartheid state

As someone who grew up in apartheid Johannesburg, it is easy to understand why McRae was so strongly drawn to this subject. At the end, the stories left him emotionally drained, and it’s no surprise, because he clearly poured everything into this exceptional book. It is natural that the victims of the Troubles – including Nash, who lost a brother; and Larmour, whose father was horribly injured by a bomb in the Markets in Belfast – might feel resentful at the depictions of the paramilitary leaders from both sides regally acknowledging their shared appreciation of boxing: it was a grace denied their thousands of victims.

McRae revitalises and records the valour and hope in this moving, definitive salute to a cause worth fighting for

Implicit here is the sense of small-minded and often dim thugs orchestrating the violence and paranoia, overwhelming the decent majority of the people. It was a minor miracle that these local godfathers at least recognised the unquenchable goodness within Storey, who was, it now seems, a brilliant everyday saviour through the darkest period of Northern Ireland’s existence. Shouts of joy were rare in the North for 30 years, but the boxing halls and Ulster’s fighters offered escapism and, paradoxically, a few hours of peace. Donald McRae revitalises and records the valour and hope in this moving, definitive salute to a cause worth fighting for.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times