‘I don’t go around in fear of my addiction’ - After many battles, Eric Donovan has finally found his happiness

After a life marked by drink and drugs, Athy boxer is now a European title holder at the venerable age of 37

Look at Eric Donovan now. Here he comes into the hotel lobby, offering a needless apology a few minutes past the hour. Four days on from his greatest night, the face is mostly fading back to normal by this stage. A bit to go yet on the shiner under his right eye but he won’t mind that. Everything leaves its mark.

Look at him now, champion of Europe. A man at peace, happy and free. Back when he drank, when he was a drug addict, it wasn’t that he thought something like this was impossible. It was more that it just didn’t occur to him.

“I was into my late-20s or maybe even my 30s before it really struck me and hit home with me that happiness is an inside job,” he says. “All my life, I was searching for happiness and meaning and purpose elsewhere. In friends, in groups, in drink, in drugs, in pubs, in clubs, in different towns even. I used to think that if I met a girl in a different town and lived there, then I’d be happy.

“But everything was an external viewpoint. Everything I thought would make me happy was external. Carl Jung says it — the person who looks outside dreams, the person who looks inside awakens. I feel awakened today.”


Last Saturday night in Belfast, Donovan won the decision over French fighter Khalil El Hadri to take the vacant European Union super featherweight belt. It was the kind of fight that rooted you to the spot, whether you watched it live on TG4 or caught up in the days since. Donovan took plenty of punishment, enough to make the French corner howl at the judges’ numbers afterwards. But if it was closer than the final outcome suggested, nobody could argue it was undeserved.

For the 37-year-old from Athy, it caps a story-book late-career revival. Donovan was a crack amateur back in the 2000s, a five-time senior champion and a key member of Billy Walsh’s High Performance Unit. When Ireland finished second in the medal table at the European Championships in 2010, his lightweight bronze was among the five-medal haul.

A few weeks later, he was flown in by helicopter to the Kildare County Show in his home town, along with reigning Rose of Tralee Charmaine Kenny. Athy loves a boxer and Donovan was the next big thing. He was going to fight at the Olympics in London. Nothing surer.

But it never happened. He went out one night and got off his face and swan-dived into oblivion. Got into a row, broke his hand and lied about it to everyone. Not that the truth really mattered one way or the other — the upshot was he couldn’t fight in the Olympic qualifier and so everything he’d been building towards was gone.

“When I got to my late 20s and early 30s, I had to grow up. Grow up, Eric. Had to come face to face with myself and get f**king real. You know — cop the f**k on. I had to hear some hard truths and I had to hear a lot of them from myself. Sometimes we have to stand up for ourselves, to ourselves. You have to tell yourself to cop on and get real.

“It dawned on me when I was faced with the prospect of giving up drink and drugs that my life would be over. That’s how I saw it. My life will be over. What am I going to do with myself? I can’t take drugs. I can’t gamble. I can’t have a drink. I can’t do anything. But in actual fact, I think my life has just begun. It has opened up a whole new avenue, new possibilities. And it all comes down to that honesty, integrity, knowing your limits.

“Like, I see a lady over there drinking a glass of wine. I can drink if I want. I’m an adult. There’s nothing stopping me ordering a drink right now. But the worst side of Eric is when he’s intoxicated. And that leads to everything bad about me. I become self-absorbed, obnoxious, angry, bitter, jealous, everything. The worst side of me. I become a child.”

He didn’t flick a switch. He didn’t turn his problems off at the mains. He was an addict for a long time before he got sober and he was sober a long time before he was okay. He sat in rooms with strangers and they all told their stories and he walked all the steps he was told to. But he didn’t get it until he got it.

When it comes to my mental health, there’s always going to be a part of me that’s just a little bit fractured

“When it comes to addiction and mental health, the only way you win is by surrendering. When a guy said that to me one time, it dawned on me that I had to throw in the towel. That’s the way he put it to me: ‘You have to throw in the towel here, Eric. Because you’re not going to win this fight. You’re getting bet around the ring by your addiction. Bet around it. And you have to give up and let the f**ker have it. Throw in the towel.’

“I was late 20s at this stage, probably about a year or two even after I came out of rehab. That really, really struck a chord with me. And now I see that, I get that. I don’t go around in fear of my addiction. I respect it so much that I know it’s a powerful thing. And it’s not completely gone. People often say, ‘my addiction is there in the corner doing press-ups and sit-ups.’ But I respect that.”

Where did it come from? He has the humility to admit he still doesn’t really know. He can take plenty of educated guesses at it but the work is never finished. Recovery is an endless pursuit.

“When it comes to my mental health, there’s always going to be a part of me that’s just a little bit fractured. And it probably comes from development. Childhood. For us growing up, not having a good education, mam and dad’s marriage breaking up when I was just a child. They separated when I was six months old.

“I don’t remember that time obviously but I think about it a lot now — if my wife and I broke up now, how hard it would be. I was only a little child. I think I went to stay with my aunt for a while. Mam had four young kids and had to organise them. We were all under the age of 10 and she had to try and keep us all in line. Losing my dad — he moved to England. So there was a lot of upheaval.

I left school at 14. Stages of my development were interrupted by life experiences. And then I didn’t grow up

“But I never really had those in-depth conversations with myself. Or with my mam or my family around it all. It was always just a case of keep moving on, let’s get on with it. That was probably a bad thing too because it meant I never dived into these things properly. Never digested them. It was just kind of, it is what it is.

“Coming through the different stages of development, I probably missed out on a lot. I left school at 14. Stages of my development were interrupted by life experiences. And then I didn’t grow up. So the drink and the drugs were always an immature thing. They always brought me back to a child-like state.”

He got out though, found his way. He went to college and qualified as a counsellor, he started doing punditry for RTÉ. He kept fit and trained in the gym but outside of occasional sparring sessions to help out some of his old coaches and team-mates, Donovan didn’t box for 3½ years. And yet, in 2016, a month short of his 31st birthday, he turned professional. Why?

“I had a few different thoughts in my mind. A career change, a few fights, see what happens. Maybe I could get an Irish title. After a while, I got pulled into Ryan Burnett’s training camp and did some sparring and I was going, ‘hold on, I have something here’. I was maybe setting the bar a bit low. I started to realise the quality I have.

“I was going in with a new perspective. I was in recovery. I had an education to fall back on. I had my diploma in counselling and psychotherapy. I was just enjoying boxing, rather than it being everything to me. I was freed up. The outcome of a match used to be everything to me in my amateur days but that wasn’t the way of it anymore.

“I built it up, one foot in front of the other. I built up a bit of a fanbase and I wasn’t done yet. A European title is definitely something I could do. I said it a long time ago. I put it out there as an aim. Put it out into the world. Careful what you wish for!”

Over the last few years of my life, my head and my feet are in the same place. I love that

It took him six years but that was fine — he hadn’t as much mileage built up as others his age. Last Saturday night, he walked into the ring in Belfast as calm and serene as he could ever remember being for a fight. It was his time.

This week has been about letting it all settle upon him, bedding back down with the family. He met Laura in 2014. It was still early enough in his recovery and he says she was initially a bit suspicious of him because he didn’t drink. Once he let her in and told her why they connected. Some day in the next week or two, touch wood, Laura will go into labour. It will be his third child but their first together. A different world.

“Over the last few years of my life, my head and my feet are in the same place. I love that. All through my teens, wherever I was, my head was in a different place. When I was at home, I was thinking of getting out. When I was in school, I was thinking about the break. When I was in the club, I was thinking about what I would do after.

“Everything was about escaping. Always thinking about where I need to be or where I have to be or where I’m going to be. Instead of just being. And now, I love just being. When I run, I’m a fast runner. But when I walk, I swear to God it’s like a zimmer frame. Laura’s a fast walker and she’s always saying to me, ‘how can you be so slow walking when you’re so fast running?’

“And I just go, ‘when I walk, that’s exactly what I do. I walk. I just want to casually just walk along. When I run, I run with a purpose.’ She’s very brisk and me slow-walking kind of annoys her. ‘Will you come on?’ But if I’m walking, my head and my feet are in the same place. That’s what it comes back to. Just being. Connection. Presence.”

He doesn’t know yet what’s next. He knows boxing though and he knows all about the fighters who went on too long or hung in there for a last big night when they didn’t have to. Plenty of people want him to leave it now. Don’t think he doesn’t know that.

“All the work, the long roads, all the knockbacks and setbacks have all culminated in this amazing reward. Do I sail off now into the sunset? Just be happy? I can do that. And I think I would be at peace with it.

Hopefully, I can plant a seed in somebody’s mind in there. Because honestly, but for the grace of God, I could be … in there where they are

“There’s loads to ponder. I know the conversation. Even when it comes to the question of another fight — what is a homecoming match going to do? It’s nearly maybe just a personal thing, a big payday or whatever. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve got my reward already. Last Saturday was the pinnacle. It was the summit.”

Look at him now, up there on it. All the strands of his life, all the good and all the bad, all woven into one. On Thursday, he went to Portlaoise prison to tell his story. He thought about the inmates last weekend, the fact that they’d be watching. What he’d say to them.

“Hopefully, I can plant a seed in somebody’s mind in there. Because honestly, but for the grace of God, I could be f**king in there where they are. I’m no different to any of these guys. We’re all human, we’re all flawed. Some people’s flaws ended up with them being behind bars. I was lucky with mine.”

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times