Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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Boxing Record

Total fights: 35

Wins: 32

Wins by KO: 28

Losses: 3

No contests: 0

Titles

All Ireland Juvenile Champion 1976.

All Ireland Amateur Champion 1976

All Ireland Senior Champion 1978/79

Commonwealth Games 1978 - Gold Medal.

British Featherweight Champion 1983

European Featherwight Champion 1983.

WBA World Featherweight Champion 1985.

Awards

BBC Sports Personality of the Year 1985.

Texaco All Star 1978, 1982, 1983, 1985 (Supreme)

World Boxing Hall of Fame 2002.

RTE Hall of Fame 2004.

International Boxing Hall of Fame 2005.

Member of the Most Excellent Order
of the British Empire (MBE) 1986 (accepted 1994).

ITV’s Hell’s Kitchen Winner 2007.

BARRY McGUIGAN - THE CLONES CYCLONE
WORLD FEATHERWEIGHT CHAMPION BOXER

Silence swooped across the sun-drenched Monaghan field. The crowd drew their breath; the straw bails they sat upon inched a little closer to the stage. The band began to strum guitars and patter on drums. And then Barry McGuigan strolled into the sunlight, plucked a microphone from its stand and launched into 'Mustang Sally'. It was the Flat Lake Festival 2010 and, as the first couples began to shimmy up for a dance, everyone agreed that the Clones Cyclone sure is possessed of a mighty fine voice.

The singing thing is genetic. Barry’s grandfather James McGuigan, who came from Red Bog, near Draperstown, Co. Derry, was a ballad singer who frequently entertained the crowds at St Joseph’s Hall in Clones during the 1930s and 1940s. He found work as a railway man in Co. Tyrone, where he also found his wife, Mary McShane of Pomeroy. In 1923, the couple moved across the new border to Clones, Co. Monaghan, in the Irish Free State, where James worked as a signalman until the closure of the railway in 1960.[i]

Their son Pat McGuigan, Barry’s late father, became a household name across Ireland when he came fourth in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest with his ballad ‘Chance of a Lifetime’. The song went on to top the Irish charts.[ii]

Pat’s wife Katie was a daughter of Johnny Rooney, an egg factory worker from Clones, and his wife Josephine McCaul. Katie ran a grocery shop on The Diamond in Clones for twenty-five years, ably assisted by her father until his death in 1983.[iii] The shop is now a hairdresser’s salon run by Sharon, Katie’s eldest daughter.

Katie was working in the shop the night her son Finbar Patrick McGuigan conquered the world. Understandably she’s never been a great fan of watching other men pummel their fists into her son’s face.

But Pat was there. In fact, the whole world knew he was there because shortly before the match began, he sang ‘Danny Boy’ live from the ring at Loftus Road Football Stadium in west London.[iv] It was 8th June 1985, the night 24-year-old Barry McGuigan of Clones dropped reigning champion Eusebio Pedroza of Panama in the seventh round to become the World Boxing Association’s World Featherweight Champion.

Ireland erupted. The country needed heroes and the 5’6 mustachioed knock-out specialist from Clones was now the most popular Irishman to step into the ring since Rinty Monaghan back in the 1940s. Hundreds of thousands turned out on the streets of Belfast and Dublin to greet Barry and his wife Sandra upon their return from victory. That December he became the first Irishman to win the coveted BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

When asked what inspired him to box, Barry likes to quote Ernest Hemingway who described boxing as ‘the most honest conversation two men can have’. Barry is good at honesty. His triumph on the international stage took place at a time when the Troubles in Ulster were about as bitter and bloody as they ever were. But Barry himself remained defiantly non-political, repeatedly stating that his success was Ireland’s success, to be shared by all Irish people north and south of the border. His determination to reject religious divides was undoubtedly cemented by the fact that while he was a Catholic, his wife was Protestant. Perhaps the most outward display of his penchant for diplomacy was his decision to use the colours of the UN Peace flag for his shorts.

Barry’s boxing career began when he and some pals began sparring for fun in Clones. His father had some experience of the sport, having trained at the Clones Amateur Boxing Club. At the age of 12, Barry convinced his father to bring him to the Wattlebridge ABC near the border.

He then advanced to the Smithborough ABC in Co. Monaghan where he proved himself an exceptional amateur. In 1977, the sixteen-year-old won the All Ireland Juvenile Championship. The following year he won the Ulster and Irish Senior Titles, and a Gold for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton. In 1978, he captained the Irish boxing team at the Moscow Olympics, controversially going out in the penultimate round before the medal stage.

In 1981, Barry’s professional career began in Dublin when he knocked out Selwyn Bell in the second round. The following year, he won eight fights, seven by knock-outs. However, amongst those he knocked out was Young Ali, a Nigerian boxer who subsequently fell into a six month coma and died. The tragedy pulled Barry into a psychological dark cloud and he strongly considered retiring. ‘It was a very difficult time’, he says, ‘and it took a long time to get over it. But I didn’t have any other form of income. I had dedicated my whole life to boxing and I had to make a choice and that choice was to continue boxing.’

He returned to the ring in 1983 and won five fights in a row. He won the European Featherweight belt in November that year knocking out Italian Valerio Nati in the 6th round.

He gradually worked his way up the world rankings during 1984, winning five contests in a row by knockout. The following year, he became world featherweight champion when he beat the legendary Pedroza who had held the Title for over seven years.

After two successful defenses in Belfast and Dublin, Barry’s reign came to an abrupt end in the blazing Las Vegas sunshine when the Texan boxer Stevie ‘Super Kid’ Cruz beat him on points over fifteen rounds on 23rd June 1986. Barry was rushed to hospital after the match with severe dehydration.

Defeat, poor health and the sudden death of his father prompted him to take a two year break from the ring. He returned in 1988, beating two former world title challengers, but retired permanently when loosing on a cut eye stoppage to former European Champion Jim McDonnell in May 1999.

Barry’s compelling story provided the inspiration for the 1997 Jim Sheridan-directed movie, ‘The Boxer’. Barry spent two years training the film’s star Daniel Day-Lewis to professional fighting standards and choreographed all the fight scenes. ‘The Boxer’ was nominated for three Golden Globe Awards.

In the 21st century, it is arguable that Barry is as well known for his mashed potato and his band as anything. Few boxers have cultivated a more diverse post-ring career. In 2007, he was crowned winner of ITV’s hugely successful ‘Hell’s Kitchen’. He currently works as a boxing commentator for ITV and writes a weekly column for the Daily Mirror. He tried his hand at acting, appearing in the movie ‘Malicious Intent’ in 2000. His band frequently appears at the Flat Lake Festival near Clones and has also performed at the Albert Hall with Paul Carrick, formerly of Squeeze, and Mike and the Mechanics.

In November 2009, he launched the inaugural “Barry McGuigan Boxing Academy” aimed at helping young people achieve their academic and sporting goals, and seeking to encourage students struggling to stay in the education system. The academy pairs off with the Professional Boxers Association, an organization he founded to support the welfare and education of boxers who become so obsessed with becoming a champion that, when they fail, they are left depressed and abandoned. He urges upcoming boxers to work on their other skills and master a trade to ensure they have something to fall back on.

Barry lives in Whitstable Kent with Sandra, his wife of 29 years. They have four children, Blain, Danika, Jake and Shane. In 1997 Danika was diagnosed with Leukemia. With the aid of the CLIC (Cancer and Leukemia in Childhood) Sargent nurses, she completely recovered. Along with Gary Lineker and Eddie Jordan, Barry and Sandra are both active patrons for the children's cancer charity ever since. ‘It is immensely gratifying for us as they helped save our daughters life’, he says.

FOOTNOTES

[i] James McGuigan worked on the railway at Donaghmore in the south-east of Co. Tyrone. While here he met his wife Mary McShane who grew up outside Pomeroy, Co Tyrone. They first lived in a small cottage on the Mullnamoy Lane before moving to O’Neil Park. James worked on the railway in Clones as a signalman until the late 1950’s and passed away in 1967. His wife Mary passed away in 1981.

[ii] The presenter pronounced his name wrongly as ‘Pat McGeegan’ and it stuck.

[iii] Josephine passed away 1979. She was from Scot’s House.
[iv] On 13 June 1986, Barry’s father sang the American national anthem before the world middleweight championship bout between Carlos Santos and Buster Drayton in New Jersey. His son’s reign as world champion ended ten days later.

 

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.