Eamonn Magee on being shot by the IRA, alcoholism and world titles
“I asked: ‘What it’s like getting shot?’ The IRA man said: ‘Like a hot poker going in your leg’”
Eamonn Magee: “I’ve been beaten with baseball bats, I’ve had my throat slashed, I’ve been kidnapped and exiled out of the country. I’ve been shot twice, I’ve been in prison and my son’s just been stabbed to death.” Photo: Getty Images
“I’ve had a beautiful wee life,” Eamonn Magee says soon after he has opened the front door in his dressing gown and cracked open his first beer of the day just after 11 on a Monday morning. The former boxer, who knocked down Ricky Hatton in 2002 and was a world champion when he won the WBU welterweight title, is cut and bruised from being attacked the night before.
Magee’s left hand is also swollen with an obviously broken finger making him wince whenever it brushes against his can of Carling. Such pain, however, is fleeting compared with the deeper hurt that runs through him in Ardoyne, the tough Republican enclave of Belfast, where Magee’s life has been scarred by violent sectarianism, tragedy and alcoholism.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” Magee says as he takes another slug of warm beer. His battered, 46-year-old face crinkles and the lump under his left eye looks even more like a purple mouse as he echoes: “I’ve still had a wee beautiful life.”
Magee is in trouble again because he and the writer Paul Gibson have produced a raw and riveting book which opens like this: “A book? Listen, I’ve been beaten with baseball bats, I’ve had my throat slashed, I’ve been kidnapped and exiled out of the country. I’ve been shot twice, I’ve been in prison and my son’s just been stabbed to death. Amongst all that, I was the welterweight champion of the world while drinking the bar dry and doing enough coke to kill a small horse every night. My life’s not a book. It’s a fucking movie script.”
The book has caused strife and he says he has been attacked on successive nights in Ardoyne. Exception has been taken to Magee detailing many horrendous incidents, stretching from Republican politics and sectarian violence to drink and drugs, and he shakes his head when I ask how he is feeling. “It’s more embarrassing when I’m fighting,” he says softly, licking his cracked lips. “Last night I was even talking to him while defending myself. I’m punching him and saying: ‘Fuck sake, what’s this about?’”
Magee waves his bust hand at me. “Who do you think came out the better?”
His husky laugh fades. “What is it? Pick on Magee week? I’m training fighters in the gym every day and one thing annoys me. We’ve got a new gym on the way and the guys that own the building don’t want me near the place. Because of what’s been in the papers [a tabloid ran a sensationalised book extract last weekend], and because of me telling the truth, they’re scared of people coming to shoot me dead. They say: ‘What happens if they shoot somebody else as well?’”
Will Magee return to the gym? “I’m busy this week but back next Monday,” he says, defiantly.
Could someone really walk in and shoot him? “What’s keeping them?” Magee says with a dark chuckle. “It’s not as if they don’t know where I live.”
I had felt calm when I took the call which told me about Magee’s latest scrap. My mood remained the same in the cab rumbling through the familiar streets of Belfast, passing the old Republican murals and the high Peace Walls which still separate Catholic and Protestant communities. I even felt okay when, after I rang the bell, two pit bulls next door leapt at the fence, barking fiercely. “They’re wee nippers,” their owner warned as he pulled the dogs away.
Yet it’s hard to feel serene now. Each time Magee’s phone interrupts us, with its Who Let The Dogs Out? ringtone, I scan his beaten-up face, wondering if it’s a call to tell him a paramilitary gunman is on his way. I don’t feel too hopeful at the prospect of Magee, in his dressing gown, and I talking our way out of trouble.
“Why the hell would you want to shoot me?” Magee asks. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
As a way of changing the subject I point to his beer. He has been drinking since he was nine and the book makes clear he is a high-functioning alcoholic but does he ever wish he could kick the bottle?
“I tried rehab,” he eventually says, pausing again with comic timing before breaking into the Amy Winehouse song. “And I said, ‘No, no, no!’”
I can’t help laughing with him before Magee continues. “I really did go to rehab and the only thing that fucked me up was that you’re not allowed TV. Not having TV was worse than no drink. You’re better off doing six months in jail.”
Beneath all his scars the internal wounds have not healed. Magee tells a chilling story of how, during internment raids in the 1970s, he and his three brothers would be turned out of the two beds they shared. British soldiers marched them downstairs and they had to kneel, hands behind their heads, while their photographs were taken for no apparent reason.
“Oh fuck, where are we starting?” Magee says as he remembers the impact that internment, detention without trial, had on Catholic families in the Troubles. “My dad was a through-and-through Republican and had a proper understanding of what the war was about. It wasn’t about bothering Protestants. The war was against the British army in Ireland. But my dad was a smashing man. The Brits imprisoned him in Long Kesh and the Irish Republicans had a bus run because in them days people couldn’t afford anything else. So we would take the bus up to Long Kesh. I was a wee nuisance and carried in letters which we’d written on cigarette papers. I folded them and hid them under my tongue.”
Magee opens his mouth to show me how he did it but, sitting in his dead father’s house, I’m upset by his memory of how, once his dad had fallen out with the IRA and been banished to England, he snuck back into Ardoyne and was hidden away in his attic. Magee, his mum, Isobel, and his brothers lived in fear of his dad being discovered. They hid him in the attic for 18 months – which contributed to Magee Sr’s acute depression and alcoholism.
“I didn’t get over that,” Magee says. “My mum would have a wee drink and dad would sit in there all night. I’d go in and slip him a tin or a fag. Nobody ever knew he was there.”
Later, when Magee had become one of the most accomplished amateur boxers in Ireland, his father saved his career. Magee had joined the IRA’s youth wing because he loved the mayhem of rioting but he also began taking and dealing drugs. An IRA punishment shooting usually entailed being shot in the kneecap or worse but his dad reminded the paramilitaries that Eamonn was fighting in the Irish championships.
“If my dad hadn’t stepped in they were talking about me getting the six-pack – elbows, knees and ankle. But my father convinced them to only give me one bullet.”
How did Magee feel waiting for the knock on the door before he took a bullet in his calf? He shrugs. “It had to be dealt with. I knew it was going to be a flesh wound so hurry the fuck up. When he took me down an alleyway I asked: ‘What it’s like getting shot?’ He said: ‘Like a hot poker going in your leg.’”
Who Let The Dogs Out? thumps again on cue. Magee shuts down his phone and I say it’s incredible he still won the national title a few months later. “I won but there was blood streaming down my leg from the gunshot wound.”
Magee is a hard and sometimes violent man but between the ropes he was a slick southpaw who boxed with artistry. “I never bullied anybody in my life, so you can rephrase that,” he says quietly when I mention his violent infamy. “I went to the gym because I’m the baby of four and my brothers all were boxers. After a couple of years I’d see wee openings. Bing, bang. Soon as I started learning how to hit him before he hits me it was a hell of a lot easier.”
Magee’s best year in the ring was in 2002 when he knocked out Jon Thaxton, a very good pro, to secure a crack at Hatton’s WBU light-welterweight title. He still drank six beers every Saturday night while training. “It was a wee prize at the end of the week but I was well prepared for Thaxton. With the Hatton camp, life was a party.”
He would drive around town late at night, visiting bars and clubs, with Magee v Hatton logos splashed across his Range Rover. Three senior IRA men paid him a visit. “I don’t know why they gave me another warning. I wasn’t doing anything wrong apart from drinking and driving – and that’s nothing to do with the IRA. They told me to concentrate on training and stop partying. The main guy shook my hand and said: ‘Best of luck when you fight Ricky.’”
On the night of the fight, Magee was seen smoking a cigarette outside the Manchester arena. He smiles at my bemusement. “I started smoking aged 11 so in a fight, at the end of each round, I’d be coughing [Magee imitates a charming phlegm-ridden cough]. Whatever came out of my mouth would have knocked you out. But a smoke before a fight opened my lungs.”
It clearly worked in the Hatton fight because, in round one, Magee knocked down his celebrated opponent. “It was the worst punch I ever threw because I landed it after 40 seconds. Bam! But he’s 10 years my junior so of course he’s getting up when still so fresh. I wish I’d landed that punch later.”
Hatton sealed a close decision but Magee won the vacant WBU welterweight title by beating a journeyman in Jimmy Vincent in December 2003. He retained his world title until May 2006 but he only had two fights in that troubled time. Magee had fallen out with a respected figure in Republican circles and, in a gruesome attack in 2004, his left leg was clubbed to a pulp. He suffered a compound fracture of his tibia and fibia, a shattered knee, and a punctured lung. They called him the Miracle Man when he returned to the ring.
Magee’s legs stick out of his dressing gown and the lumps and scars provide graphic proof of that terrible beating. “It still gives me pain,” he says, balancing a beer on his knee as he studies his left leg. “The doctor thought I’d never walk again but I was in the gym a year later.”
I suggest we leave the house and go for a walk around Magee’s neighbourhood. Rather than waiting inside for a knock on the door, we will be less exposed to any stray visitors. Magee agrees but, first, we remember his son who was stabbed to death in May 2015 – by the jealous ex-husband of his girlfriend. Eamonn Jr was so different to him, studying engineering at university while also boxing, and the grief becomes too much. Magee starts to cry, a muffled ache falling from his mouth as tears roll down his face.
I say how sorry I am and Magee squeezes my hand only to curse the pain in his broken finger, before wiping his eyes. We talk about his book and, of the title, he says: “The Lost Soul was beautiful. My mother called me a lost soul and she was right.”
Magee goes upstairs to get dressed. When he returns, wearing a hat straight out of Peaky Blinders, he almost looks dapper. The old fighter sinks the dregs of his beer. We walk outside and Magee takes me on a tour of the murals. Afterwards he hugs me in the street, calling me a gentleman and a scholar, even if I can’t stay for a lunchtime drink. Magee lifts his broken hand in a stately wave as my taxi drives away. I check my recording in the back of the cab and Magee’s ghostly voice echoes again as we drive through Belfast: “I’ve seen things not many people have seen but if they hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be the man I am today. So I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m more than happy with my wee life.” – Guardian service