The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee is a remarkable, gripping and brilliant book. Magee is a well known figure in Irish boxing but has a relatively low profile outside of the boxing world (outside of Northern Ireland at least). My own clearest memories of Magee stem from his fight with Ricky Hatton who was then very much on the rise. Magee gave Hatton a scare and made him work exceptionally hard for this win. But I had no idea about Magee’s life or why his story might be more interesting that the traditional tale of a boxer who briefly held a minor world title but ultimately never quite fulfilled his vast potential.
Magee’s sporting life alone would make an interesting book. Preciously talented, he was denied a place in the Olympics due to internal politics and his refusal to participate in an unjust runoff fight. His professional career was hampered by his extra-curricular activities but he still managed to win a World title.
However it’s Magee’s personal life which make this story special. Magee was a child of the Troubles – the dark period in Northern Ireland’s history when sectarian violence was a regular feature of everyday life. Magee grew up witnessing his father being interned without trial, constant violence and the British Army patrolling the streets. As the book cover says he’s been shot, stabbed, exiled and jailed but he’s also been a world champion. His personality and circumstances drew him towards danger but boxing offered him an alternative path.
Magee’s life is the kind of story that would be unbelievable as a fictional tale. It is a compelling story filled with violence, tragedy and addiction but also love, victories and a lot of laughter. Gibson has done a great job shaping countless anecdotes and stories into a compelling narrative.
Magee is a difficult figure to empathise with. But you cannot read the book and not feel some sympathy for him. In many ways, the book is an attempt to explain who Magee is, why he is the person he is, and why he never quite fulfilled his potential. The book is brutally honest and does not shy away from the dark side of Magee’s character and deeds.
Reading the book I found myself wondering to what extent sporting talent makes us overlook a person’s flaws? Or at very least, make us look more closely at their background and try to understand their behaviour? Is it right to forgive a man’s sins simply because he has talent, charisma and a hard luck tale? Had he not been a world class boxer, Magee would likely have been dismissed by society as a violent troublemaker, a drunk, a gambler, an addict, and a womaniser unworthy of sympathy. His talents, however, make us consider him more deeply and this consideration leads inevitably to empathy.
Gibson spent a lot of time with Magee and seems to really care for him. Finishing the book, I can’t quite figure out how I feel. I cannot judge his self-destructive behaviour as we all face our different demons in our own way. However, the charges of domestic violence (and there have been even more since the book was published) go beyond self-destruction and can’t be accepted or forgiven by virtue of having a difficult past. I do feel tremendous admiration for what he achieved in boxing though. He is a man born with extraordinary talent, who achieved remarkable success despite his demons and his difficulties. A man who is a product of his time and place while remaining very much a unique character.
The book has received widespread praise and jointly won the William Hill Sports book of the year for 2018. Such praise and accolades are well deserved. It’s not an easy read, but it is gripping, engaging and emotional.