Irishman in New York: Watching Katie Taylor win brought me home and re-connected my Irish soul

In Madison Square Garden, Katie Taylor made Mark O’Toole’s heart burst with pride

I’d never been to a boxing match. In my youth, I vicariously lived the sport through the television. I’d spent every Barry McGuigan fight shouting at the TV while working my shift at The Harbour Bar in Bray.

Those fights were special occasions. Monumental events. An Irishman connected to the world where being Irish on a global stage was crystallised into a punch. A green punch at that. A winning Irish punch until one night in a 110 degree Las Vegas desert, the luck of the Irish ran out. Ireland's brightest boxing star and beacon of peace lost out to Steve Cruz.

The recriminations flew, who’s bright idea was it to have an Irishman fight in 110 degree heat? How do you acclimatise to that? It was like making Superman go rock climbing on a Kryptonite mountain and then complaining that he didn’t make it to the top. And for me, on that sad night in the summer of 1986, boxing faded into the background, my bright star dimmed, my connection lost.

Twenty six years later, a New York Times story caught my attention. I was now living there and had almost fully morphed into a bona fide New Yorker, I’m guessing 10-plus years in this city gives you that right. Or maybe it’s New York that grants you that right? The Statue of Liberty is a constant welcoming reminder for any immigrant.

The arena erupted in joyful unison. Katie Taylor, and indeed Amanda Serrano, did what most thought was impossible. They had revived a sport that had lost its way

It was 2012, when I nearly fell out of my chair reading the New York Times. Here in black and white was a story about Ireland's great hope for boxing. It concerned Katie Taylor and incredibly she was from my hometown of Bray, the seaside town in Wicklow just south of Dublin. Then in a twist, I didn't see coming, this: "To use the loo, Taylor had to walk up the road 150 yards to the Harbour Bar…… training in the ring for the glory of Ireland, having to traipse into a pub for relief."

I excitedly called my brother Colin in Ireland who was managing the pub. “Does Katie Taylor use the bar’s jaxx”? His withering reply: “Yeah all the time, but she never buys anything.” Only in Ireland.

I was hooked. My boxing interest revived - a hometown woman and a toilet-user in my bar. It ticked all my boxes, I was a fan for life.

Fast forward 10 later and here I was screaming in at a women's boxing match in Madison Square Garden like a giddy teenage boy-band fan who had drunk too much Pepsi. I wasn't alone. My two friends had never been to a boxing match either. My Irish friend Kimball was equally energised. We were channelling our deepest Irish pride, muttering prayers for a favourable outcome while grumbling about the price of pints in the arena.

This was not the night to be cost-conscious about drinking. Inflation be damned. My friend Rob, a gentle viola player with the New York Philharmonic, practically levitated from his seat over every punch and parry. The excitement was palpable. The raw energy of it intoxicating. I had tears in my eyes when the Garden went Green while Cathy Maguire belted out Amhrán na bhFiann. For those few minutes, everyone was Irish. Then from the ring, the announcer “from Bray, Co Wicklow… the undisputed lightweight champion of the world, Katie Taylor”. My chest bursting. The pride. The stark reminder of where I’m from, my lost connection.

I honestly thought Taylor was done for in round 5 as she took a pummelling from Serrano. The wind was temporarily sucked out of the Irish supporters and the Puerto Ricans loudly filled the gap. Was this going to be my Vegas?

Saved by the bell, it took Taylor two more rounds to get back on her feet. And boy did she deliver. Having practically bitten my nails down to the quick – I was about to start on my friend’s next – it wasn’t until that final round and the long minutes that followed the ending bell ring before we heard the magical words “And … still the undisputed lightweight champion of the world…”

The arena erupted in joyful unison. Katie Taylor, and indeed Amanda Serrano, did what most thought was impossible. They had revived a sport that had lost its way and created history as the first women to headline the card at Madison Square Garden. They deserved it.

In a world of lost connections, witnessing this fight brought me home and re-connected my Irish soul.

If they both agree on a rematch in Ireland – don’t walk, run and get your ticket. The atmosphere and pride are worth the price alone. And please, Mr Promoter, pay these women way more than the miserable one million dollars they got for this fight while you’re at it. As the new ambassadors of the sport, they’re good for it.

Mark O'Toole is a UCD graduate from Bray, Co Wicklow, where his family used to own the Harbour Bar. He has lived and worked in New York City for almost 26 years. His award winning documentary, Outside In , about NYC during the pandemic is playing film festivals around the world. You can follow Mark on twitter @MarkdOToole and his blog here

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