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

Irish featherweight boxer Barry McGuigan in his hometown of Clones, Co Monaghan, in 1984. He is posing astride the Border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Photograph: Michael Brennan/Getty

Irish featherweight boxer Barry McGuigan in his hometown of Clones, Co Monaghan, in 1984. He is posing astride the Border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Photograph: Michael Brennan/Getty

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.

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