Miriam Lord: Golden girl Kellie, the pride of Portland Row

‘She’s like a beacon of light in the area now after everything that has gone on in the last few years’

Crowds welcome Irish boxer and Olympic gold medallist Kellie Harrington home to Portland Row in Dublin’s north inner city after victory in Tokyo.

 

Bernie Hanaphy looked up and down her street.

The place was buzzing.

Like St Patrick’s Day had collided with all the cancelled festivals and lost All-Ireland final celebrations and exploded in a riot of bunting and balloons, music and merrymaking. Two missing years of colour and excitement suddenly rolled into one exhilarating neighbourhood party.

She was thrilled to see it.

“We done her proud, didn’t we?”

You did, Bernie. You certainly did.

For this was Portland Row, where hearts are bursting with pride, returning the compliment to its Olympic champion, Kellie Harrington.

But while the focus of the gold medallist’s homecoming on Tuesday was on the road where she grew up, her success was celebrated by all her community in Dublin’s north inner city.

They came from the surrounding streets and schemes to pay tribute, decked out in “Golden Girl, Kellie” T-shirts and all their finally liberated Patrick’s Day regalia.

The party atmosphere on Portland Row was irresistible.

With just a couple of hours to go before their heroine was due to parade by in an open-top bus, two cherry pickers were deployed to get the overhead triumphal arches of balloons and flags in place. Gold ribbons and bows were tied to the crush barriers. Green and orange Christmas tinsel was pressed into early service. Kitchen and garden chairs were placed up against the barriers by residents to reserve viewing positions in case there was a sudden influx of fans at the last minute. The children were eating chocolate gold medals faster than the Italian relay team. It didn’t matter, because they had plastic gold medals for hanging around their necks.

Cheryl Howard and Kadie Curtis from Sheriff Street were waiting at a spot opposite Kellie’s parents’ home. They had two three-month old Staffordshire Bull Terriers. Rocky and Apollo were named after the Sylvester Stallone boxing films “because they have two black eyes”.

The dogs wore matching white Kellie Harrington tops. “I just ironed on the pictures to baby vests with the ends cut off them,” said Cheryl. “You make do with what you have at short notice.”

The aunt and neice are proud of Kellie’s sporting achievement but also very proud of what she has done for her home place.

Supporters line the streets to welcome Olympic gold medal winning boxer Kellie Harrington home to Portland Row in Dublin 1 on Tuesday. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Supporters line the streets to welcome Olympic gold medal winning boxer Kellie Harrington home to Portland Row in Dublin 1 on Tuesday. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Kellie Harrington waves to fans as she returned to Portland Row on Tuesday following her success in Tokyo. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Kellie Harrington waves to fans as she returned to Portland Row on Tuesday following her success in Tokyo. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

“She’s like a beacon of light in the area now after everything that has gone on in the last few years,” explained Cheryl as Kadie said it was wonderful to see all the community come together in celebration. “It’s not just Portland Row, it’s Sheriff Street, Ballybough, the North Strand, Seán McDermott Street . . . ”

Everyone on the street is in great form as they await the arrival of their homegrown heroine.

“I nearly wrote Ant ‘n Dec instead of aunt and niece,”  said the Irish Times to the two women.

“You can call her Dec,” retorted Cheryl like a shot. “Because I feel like decking her half the time.”

St Patrick was lighting up a ciggie halfway down the road at the barrier, down from the big red-brick former convent which locals always knew as “the old maids’ home” and is now apartments.

“I wear the outfit for the soccer matches and the parade. I just go out for the craic,” said Liam Mooney from Grenville Terrace. “Even for the last two years I done the walk down O’Connell Street with the parade cancelled. Couldn’t let them take me thunder away. I had to turn out for Kellie today.”

Emma O’Leary-Carabini from Sheriff Street was on the decks for the afternoon, in a little corral with her laptop, mixing desk and speakers. She used to be a full-time singer doing funerals and weddings and gigs in local pubs and clubs. But with the pandemic her work as a singer and DJ dried up. Now she is back performing, but only at weekends.

“I became a homecare worker in palliative care. I absolutely love it. I don’t know how I could do without it now. I do the singing and karaoke and all with the old people. I just couldn’t give it up. Kellie, coming from here and being such a great success and role model, that’s great for us here.”

Directly across from Emma and her sound system were musicians and buskers Mick McLoughlin and Eddie Sherlock. They were set up in the small front garden of the house opposite, alternating with Emma.

Eddie belted out a fine number he wrote specially for Kellie, to roars of approval from the locals.

Thomas (he didn’t give his full name) was back selling flags and scarves “and the aul bubbly coloured wigs”. He sells outside matches and other events. “The pandemic has robbed us of a living. It’s hard to get a shilling and we’re trying to get a few bob back.”

Suddenly, a number of gardaí on bicycles swooped in like an Olympic cycling team and asked for his licence. But Thomas had already been on to the council and was told no permit necessary as it wasn’t an official event.

He went on selling. His next customer was Ruth from Latvia who has three daughters and lives around the corner. They are delighted with Kellie. Ruth bought three flags “€2 each and three for a fiver, love” and a large Tricolour.

Paddy Murdiff is a member of the city council-funded North East Inner City initiative and on its Public Implementation Board. He is retired “and in nearly everything around here except the women’s sodality”. Her win has buoyed up morale in a vibrant community frustrated by pandemic restrictions. The local Monto festival hasn’t been held in two years.

“I think Kellie is a total credit to this area, and she’s also the nicest woman you could ever meet.”

Just after 4.30, the Garda mounted arrived. The four greys made quite the impression, although not the best one as the horses liberally manured the upper end of the street.

“Typical. The guards shite-ing all over Dublin 1 again,” sniffed one resident, holding her nose.

Lily Fagan (84), who has been appearing 24/7 on television and radio as The Queen of Portland Row, was sitting out in a collapsible chair and holding court. She has become something of a tourist attraction. Beside was Cllr Christy Burke, who was handing out plastic gold medals. Across the road from Christy, Cllr Nial Ring was holding forth at some length on live radio, like a GAA pundit.

The word went around like wildfire. “Two minutes! Two minutes! She’s nearly in Ballybough!”

Liam Mooney welcoming home Olympic gold medal winning boxer Kellie Harrington to Portland Row in Dublin 1 on Tuesday. Photograph: Alan Betson
Liam Mooney welcoming home Olympic gold medal winning boxer Kellie Harrington to Portland Row in Dublin 1 on Tuesday. Photograph: Alan Betson
Members of the Russell Family welcoming Olympic gold medal winning boxer Kellie Harrington back to Portland Row in Dublin 1 on Tuesday. Photograph: Alan Betson
Members of the Russell Family welcoming Olympic gold medal winning boxer Kellie Harrington back to Portland Row in Dublin 1 on Tuesday. Photograph: Alan Betson

Christy O’Brien, ex-Irish Army pipe major and a member of the IUNVA pipe band, got ready for action. A veteran of two tours of the Lebanon, Christy, from Sheriff Street, was resplendent in his gold Irish kilt and green jacket.

“I’m going to play her favourite song, The Wild Colonial Boy, when the bus goes past her house.”

A helicopter was circling overhead. “The lift this has given to this place is unbelieveable,” said Christy, who was standing outside Chrisy and Yvonne Harrington’s front door.

Then, at five-past five, the cheers came from the corner at Summerhill. Blue lights appeared at the top corner. Then the bus itself.

A show of gold balloons went up in the air. “Are yis right? Wave your flags now. Don’t forget to wave your flags!”

Christy started piping. Kellie’s aunties – with lovely hairdos – appeared on the front step with family and friends. A number of men from a few doors down were out on the street laying a line of gold stair carpet across the street. The horses were there, with the motorbikes and the push-bikes. Christy segued from The Saints Go Marching in to God Save Ireland Say the Heroes. “We’re all part of Kellie’s Army” sang the crowd.

And suddenly, she was there. Kellie, their Kellie Harrington. Waving from the top of the bus, crying her eyes out.

“Aaah, God love her,” blubbered a man at the crash barrier. Everyone was crying. “She waved at me. She waved at me!” shouted a little boy to his mammy. “I saw that. I definitely saw that,” she said, wiping away the tears.

And then she was gone. But not for long as the bus was doing a loop around the northeast inner city and due back shortly. “Christy is a hero, Christy is a hero, lah-lah-lah-lah, lah-lah-lah-lah,” sang the crowd. He was doing requests on the bagpipes at this stage. “Put him in the paper, Put him in the paper, lah-lah-lah-lah.”

Then she was back. More composed this time, slowly past her house, the crowd going wild. Somebody threw up a gold Simba soft toy and she caught it. As the bus slowly rounded the corner from Portland Row on its final sweep, Kellie Harrington held up the little gold lion in one hand and her gold medal in the other.

More tears. More kisses to blow to friends.

Past the five lamps, the landmark of her life. Three of them lit in green, white and orange.

The crowd dispersed. Elated. Exhausted.

“That was just brilliant. Wasn’t it?”

The musicians were still going. And the last song they played?

Dublin in the Rare Aul Times.

Welcome home Kellie.

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