Rocky in Ros Muc

Boxer’s biography delivers knock-out blow


At the beginning of Rocky Ros Muc (Cló Iar-Chonnacht), Rónán Mac Con Iomaire’s hugely enjoyable biography of boxer Seán Ó Mainnín, the former heavyweight Kevin McBride, who famously defeated Mike Tyson with a technical knock out, makes his feelings known about the light-middleweight from Connemara: “They should put up a statue of Seán in Galway, and you can put that in your book. The man is a f****** legend.”

Ó Mainnín, whose achievements have never been given the recognition they deserve in this country, was the light-middleweight champion of America during a golden age in that division. During his career, he fought against five world champions and lost a world title bid to the great Mike McCallum. In 57 professional fights, he was never knocked down.

During the twilight of his career, Ó Mainnín worked with Muhammad Ali’s former trainer Angelo Dundee who was convinced that he would have made the Gaeltacht man a world champion had their paths crossed earlier.

With 800 copies of his biography sold in the space of a few months, Ó Mainnín is still defying expectations. Such brisk sales for a book written in Irish are almost unprecedented, and the success of Rocky Ros Muc is as close to a knockout blow as Irish-language publishing has seen for many years.

Of course, it was a great help to Ó Mainnín that he had a good sparring partner and Rónán Mac Con Iomaire’s lively and evocative prose earned an Oireachtas literary award last year.

Mac Con Iomaire, the deputy head of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, who is working on translating Rocky Ros Muc to English, puts the success of the book down to Ó Mainnín’s unique story: “It’s a very human story and people are always interested in those types of stories. There were always groundless rumours about Seán Ó Mainnín, that he went drinking the weekend before the McCallum fight, for example. But the real story of the man himself wasn’t available.”

Since Rocky Ros Muc was published last Christmas, Mac Con Iomaire has encountered several people who told him that it was the first book in Irish they ever read. Is there a lesson here for Irish-language writers? “Everything depends on the story. I was lucky for my first book that this story hadn’t been told yet. It would be interesting to choose another topic and see how well I would get on. All I need now is to find another Connemara boxer who hasn’t been given the respect he deserves!”

Rocky Ros Muc is a rare thing, an Irish-language page-turner. It is also a fiercely honest book that never shirks from addressing some of the more unpalatable truths about Ó Mainnín’s colourful life: “We agreed from the outset that we would be totally honest with each other. Seán wanted to tell the truth about all the false rumours. He never denied that he drank or that he drank heavily after the defeat to McCallum, but he wasn’t drinking on the weekend before the fight.

“We both understood that there would be a price to pay for telling the truth. There are stories in the book about fights Seán was involved in outside the ring, for example, and he was understandably a little uncomfortable telling those stories. But he didn’t want to change anything when I sent him the draft apart from a few dates here and there. He accepted that if we didn’t tell the less flattering stories, it would compromise the rest of the book and undermine the account of all he achieved.”

Rocky Ros Muc is full of compelling characters, some of whom wouldn’t be out of place in a work of mob fiction. In South Boston, Ó Mainnín was surrounded by members of gangster Whitey Bulger’s notorious Winter Hill Gang, but the boxer resisted the pressure put on him to become involved in the criminal underworld.

Always a man of principle, before his world-title bout, he turned down a sponsor who offered him a small fortune – the equivalent of his purse for the fight – to display a certain brand on his shorts. In Madison Square Garden, he arrived in the ring as he always did, with the words “Ros Muc” displayed proudly on his boxing shorts. On the same night he threatened to call off the fight when news reached his hotel room that the national anthem was to be sung in English rather than in his native Irish as he had requested.

“His principles might have held him back in his boxing career, but they stood to him in the long run. Anyone I spoke to about Seán, they never had a bad word to say about him. He is a modest, gentle and kind man; the very opposite of your stereotypical boxer. He is held in huge esteem by the boxing fraternity in America, but somewhat unjustly forgotten here,” says Mac Con Iomaire.

(A version of this article originally appeared in Irish in Bileog.)

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