Forever punching above their weight


SPORTS CLUBS IN THE RECESSION:Like most boxing clubs, St Michael’s, Athy, is an enterprise that reaches beyond the ropes. The local people don’t only line out on the gym floor like the seven- and eight- year-olds doing sit ups on a Wednesday night but they are present in the roof and the floor, they are there decorating the walls and in the punch bags.

The storied walls of the gym tell of St Michael’s 50-odd year journey, the first accounts in the 1960s when a cousin came to current chairman and coach Dominic O’Rourke and asked if he’d get involved if the council started a boxing club. Dominic said no, he’d no time. They came back to him and asked to give one night a week, nothing more. He cracked and said “okay”. One night it was.

“A local man, Bill Philips, said ‘I’ll put a roof on it for you’,” O’Rourke recalls. “Seán, the man who owns the garage up the road, he did the floor. That’s how it started. Without community support and goodwill, we couldn’t have done it.”

Now it’s every night, all the time, a life born out of a request. It seems to be how boxing works.

In the ring is a lean 15-year-old, Willie O’Donoghue, working the pads with his coach. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat-tat. Rat-a-tat . . . His earring is flashing but it’s his movement that catches the eye.

“A natural,” says O’Rourke. When they allowed O’Donoghue into the ring the effortless grace was there from the beginning. His light feet and balance are nothing you can teach but in many other sports clubs a traveller probably wouldn’t be a prized member.

“We don’t turn anybody away,” O’Rourke says, sounding almost puzzled by the idea. In time, O’Donoghue may adorn the wall of the gym like Beijing Olympian Johnny Joyce or the four national senior champions of 2006, Eric Donovan, Johnny Joyce, David Joyce and Roy Sheehan.

Travelling community

The Joyce family, who travel in to the club from Mullingar, 60 miles away, are also members of the travelling community who have successfully pitched their tent in St Michael’s and made the club richer for it. David Oliver Joyce, John Joyce, Hughie Joyce, David Joyce, Christy Joyce and another Christy Joyce.

The club’s wealth has always been in the members, their success and their resilience. Not unlike any boxing club in Dublin, St Michael’s know how to hunker down and survive hard times. Boxing never got fat in the boom times and being naturally frugal seems part of their genetic material. Tightening belts, regulating the metabolism to meet the various challenges has been their survival mechanism from the day O’Rourke said “okay” to one night a week.

Back then it was local priest, Fr Laverty who was provider with his Community Club and the old parochial hall. Then they moved to a stone-walled grain house and put up their ring.

One day Dick Warner arrived into town off his boat on the canal while doing a series on the Irish inland waterways. They wanted to film the local boxing club, get a taste of the Athy sporting life.

“You should have seen the amount of shite we had to clear out of the way to make the place look half-decent,” chuckles O’Rourke. “Then they put lights on the ring and it looked fantastic.”

On the wall there is a picture of the inside of the old Grove cinema that stood in the middle of the town and where the club once staged an international boxing match against Canada.

“They ran a beach party in the hall the night before the show against the Canadians. When we arrived in the morning there was still tons of sand all over the floor,” recalls O’Rourke. “You just get to it.”

St Michael’s have always moved on and while buildings and temporary homes may have fallen away the people have remained. It once went defunct but never died. The Grove cinema has gone, replaced now by supermarket chain Lidl. Other venerable names followed the Grove, including the Irish Board Mills, the IBI Foundry and Peerless Rugs, all big employers in the area. Tegral, long time sponsors of Kildare GAA, have also drastically cut back their work force. Perhaps the biggest employer in the working-class town, the slimming down of Tegral trickles right down to the kids offering up their euros to go boxing.

“Yes, sponsorship is more different to obtain now,” says club secretary Willie Mahon. “Say we were running a show, when you go out to sell sponsorship for the program, it’s the people putting ads in that are basically sponsoring the event. That’s much more difficult. That’s the biggest impact.

Sponsor a page

“We’d have gone out and looked for maybe €100 to sponsor a page of the program, that sort of money. That’s more difficult. In fact it’s come to the point where you wouldn’t even look for it. I’m in business myself so I know it from two sides and I know how difficult it is for business people to sponsor events and justify it.

“You’d be hoping to raise a grand or fifteen hundred. That avenue is all but closed now. If you look at a town like Athy, which would not be considered very prosperous, businesses tend to be small family run so it tends to be hard for them. You don’t like even asking them.”

Their bohemian existence led them to the current gym, which was built from scratch about seven years ago. In a sense the club did benefit from the boom because State money was then flowing down more freely. The club took up a grant and then went to the Credit Union looking for €120,000. They got the money and for the first time they had a permanent home, just opposite St Vincent’s hospital out the Leinster Road.

Most of the initial debt has been paid off but the club must still pull in money from where ever it can. In boxing the green fees are the kids handing over their euros, the club sponsors are the parents and families buying the club lottery tickets. No amount is too small.

“There are roughly 50 kids in the club,” says Mahon. “It’s about €7 a week training fee and if it’s a family of two or three it’s a tenner. That’s basically how we do it. There is also the old story of if they don’t have it you don’t turn them away. You take less. We also have a lotto, which is not a major source of income because it’s a small club and we don’t have a broad base of sellers. That covers the ongoing costs of the club, the lighting, heating, the yearly fees, that sort of thing.

“We have public liability insurance through the boxing association and also insurance of the building as well. Those two together would amount to €2,000, €2,500 a year. That’s €2,500 we have to raise before anything happens. We have a gas bill to pay and water rates of €400 or €500 a year.

Pay back

“We are also trying to pay back the loan, which was part-funded by a capital grant. For that we had to get a Credit Union loan of €120,000. That was in 2004 and was to actually build the premises. Prior to that, the club had been operating out of various, donated premises.

“At the time we got around €380,000 in total State money. Then we borrowed the €120,000 and that was enough for us to build. We have the capital down now to in and around €30,000. We’re talking roughly about €20,000 a year or €400 a week to clear all the repayments we have to make on the various charges. We find that at the moment very hard going and we are not quite achieving that figure.”

It seems crass to measure a club like St Michael’s in a ledger. The spill-over into the community of both settled people and travellers is not only immeasurable but something in which only boxing really engages. The currency of other sports clubs in past years was not the principle of opening their doors to everyone but how many and how frequently they turned people away, their value perversely measured on how difficult it was to gain entry.

Winning titles

How all this has played out in St Michael’s has been 17 senior championship titles in the last 10 years and around 130 championships in total over different age groups.

Those senior titles now mean more than kudos for the club but are also a way for boxers to make a living. The sport is no longer amateur. A senior title may get a fighter on the Ireland team and from there he is within striking distance of the front door of the Irish Sports Council, who disburse grants to the elite boxers. The seven- and eight-year-olds may not know it but they are already on a career path.

“The big intake in the boxing clubs now, as far is I can see, is there is a huge intake from the travelling community,” says Mahon. “They are largely settled travellers but they still regard themselves as travellers. I think John Joe Nevin winning the silver medal was a big boost to their community. John Joe is seen as an idol now. He’s their first Olympic medallist. Travellers would look at John Joe, the kids especially, and say John Joe has done this so I can do it as well. They all want to do what he did.”

The impression in the lively gym is St Michael’s will winter out the financial storms, their instinctive frugality kicking in. Tales of Francis Barrett in training in the back of a lorry container in Galway or Katie Taylor with no toilet or showers in her gym until this year are stock-in-trade in the sport, yet it seems to have only grown stronger.

“Seven years ago people were much more inclined to put their hands in their pockets. They are probably still willing but not able,” says Mahon. “That’s a big difference.”

The important thing to understand is the wealth is where it always has been, in the natural resource that keeps walking through the doors, the 10-year-old punching the bags, Willie O’Donoghue lolling back on the ropes, a stroppy look on his face, the coach dishing out tough love about the arcane mechanics of boxing.

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