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A brush with Barry McGuigan’s nipple and a Border checkpoint

As the Tricolour was raised for Kellie Harrington, I envied the uncomplicated embrace of flags

I 've always loved boxing. I don't claim any great knowledge of the sport, but I like that my eight-year-old son can ask "Is Kellie a champion?" and I just say "yeah", all casual, as if Ireland has been sending gold medal-winning women fighters to the Olympics for years.

He’s impressed, and his enthusiasm takes me back to my own childish excitement about the sport when I was not much older than he is now.

Spotting a garment in Dunnes Stores in Derry and knowing I just had to have that snowy white sweatshirt featuring a simple black screen-printed image of the man of the moment: Barry McGuigan.

His gloved fists were up, he was smiling and wearing his champion’s belt. Checked the price tag: astonishingly reasonable. It was a pocket money purchase.


I was absolutely delighted with that jumper until I realised, with horror, while posing before the full-length mirror in my parents’ bedroom, that one of the boxer’s nipples was visible. I was clearly a modest, if not prudish, youngster. Not to mention highly impractical. After all, a man who essentially goes to work topless cannot be expected, once he has thrown off his silken robe, to keep both his nipples covered up lest they offend some schoolgirl.

I still wanted to show off the sweatshirt, but the presence of the nipple I found so excruciatingly embarrassing that I determined to take certain precautionary measures. Thereafter, I decided, I could only wear it under an open jacket, my right hand permanently thrust forward in its pocket to cover up the offending appendage.

It was a complicated system, but one that I believed worked well. I proudly wore that still-beloved sweatshirt under my favourite emerald-coloured jacket when we went on a school trip to Leisureland amusement park in Redcastle, Co Donegal.

The Clones Cyclone was far too wise to wrap himself in any flag. I was a scared little person who just wanted to get through a checkpoint unscathed

Redcastle was a lot of fun, especially when a teacher was thrown off one of those bucking mechanical rodeo bulls, much to our giddy delight.

As a small train ride looped around a track, some of the boys struck up a chant about Spurs being on their way to Wembley in a hopeless approximation of a north London accent. I joined in, even though Dad had insisted, as he did every season, that this would be Everton’s year.

It was nice to feel part of something, despite the outrageous betrayal.

We were late going back home on the bus, and it must have been autumn or winter time for it was pitch black as we approached the British army checkpoint at the Border. We could see nothing but the raindrops on the window as the bus slowed to a halt, but we knew where we were, and what it always entailed.

Making a statement

Some of the politically minded kids on board decided they were going to make a statement as we were stalled there. They demanded my green jacket and I unhappily handed it over. They scrunched it up and pressed it against the damp window, on the side where they knew the soldiers would be.

Barry was badly exposed, but by this stage perspective had entered the equation and his appearance was now the least of my worries: I was also forced to forfeit my brightly coloured backpack, which happened to be as vibrant as an Orangeman’s sash, and it got similar rough treatment.

It’s a wonder they didn’t insist on my white Barry McGuigan sweatshirt for the middle of their makeshift tricolour, but one of those crinkly plastic bags that used to be ubiquitous was hastily procured for the purpose.

I can still see the passionately intense expressions set on the faces of my young classmates who pressed those colours so forcefully against that sweaty window.

Panic seized me as I stood in the aisle. I always preferred to duck and weave away from trouble, and I hung well back from that amateur emblem, for which I fretted I’d be held at least two-thirds responsible for by my teachers and parents.

Their potentially thunderous reaction probably worried me more, at that time, than that of twitchy armed squaddies on the look-out for what they deemed provocation.

On that wet, miserable night in 1980s Ulster, I'm sure those soldiers did see the three smudged colours, in the wrong order, as they peered through the glass, darkly, but they didn't deem it something significant enough to react to and we were waved on through. Maybe one of them even found the ghostly appearance of the Ivory Coast colours bleakly amusing.

And, anyway, I should have known Barry was too clever to end up in the middle of anything like that, because the Clones Cyclone was far too wise to wrap himself in any flag. I was a scared little person who just wanted to get through a checkpoint unscathed. Only later would I understand the significance of him fighting under the blue UN peace flag, rather than the Tricolour or union flag, although he was entitled to hoist both.

Both sides would say: 'Leave the fighting to McGuigan.' You see, it was also entertainment – people loved to forget the Troubles a while

It didn’t mean the rest of our days were without worry, but what Barry did always seemed to make the adults around us very happy for a while.

His fights presented an exciting occasion to stay up late. The adults laughed along with us as we knocked some fun out of trying to hit the high note in Danny Boy, performed in the ring by Barry’s father before each bout in place of Amhrán na bhFiann or God Save the Queen, although if we’d looked a little closer we might have seen a few tears in their eyes.

McGuigan himself explained it well in a 2011 interview with the Guardian: “You know that line [in Danny Boy] my father used to sing? ‘I’ll be there in sunshine or in shadow…’ Well, the shadows ran deep. And my fights felt a little like sunshine. Both sides would say: ‘Leave the fighting to McGuigan.’ You see, it was also entertainment – people loved to forget the Troubles a while.

“The fact that I wouldn’t wear green, white and gold or put on a sign that said this is who I represent was powerful. It was a very mature and dangerous thing to do. I wouldn’t choose sides. People appreciated that.”

I do appreciate what he was trying to do now, very much, but I grew out of the Barry McGuigan sweatshirt long before it ceased to fit me, fickly deeming it seriously uncool to continue to wear a jumper featuring a moustachioed boxer.

And more recently, watching Kellie Harrington fight back tears of joy as the Tricolour was raised in Japan’s Kokugikan Arena, and as my children continue to celebrate her success, I can’t help but envy, just a little, their uncomplicated embrace of flags.