‘In Sunshine or in Shadow: How Boxing Brought Hope in the Troubles’ by Donald McRae (2019)

A new book from Donald McRae is always something to celebrate.   If that new book is about boxing, then all the better.  Locate that book in Ireland and it jumps straight to the top of my want-to-read list.

McRae is one of the truly great interviewers working in sports media.  He has published over 1,000 interviews with the great and not-so-great of the sporting world for the Guardian and I’m yet to find one I didn’t enjoy.  His books have spanned a wide range of topics from sex work, to the trials of Clarence Darrow, to the South Africa he grew up in.  But he is never better than when writing about boxing with his book Dark Trade among the seminal works on the sport.

In Sunshine or in Shadow examines boxing during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, that deeply sad period when violence was a regular occurrence on the streets and over 2,000 lives were lost.  The book chronicles the lives of four boxers from different communities and, in particular., boxing coach Gerry Storey.

Storey is a remarkable man.  An incredibly successful boxing coach, his real greatness lies in his ability to operate across community lines during the Troubles.  He coached and developed young men regardless of their background and steered many away from getting involved in political violence.  He gained such respect from all sides that he had virtual immunity to cross community lines and put on boxing shows.  No story better illustrates this than the period he spent coaching both nationalist and loyalist prisoners in the same prison.

Storey rivals any coach of young men you can think of, both in terms of his sporting success and the uniqueness of his accomplishments given the environment in which he operated.  When asked why he turned down the chances of fame and fortune abroad, Storey asks what would have happened if all of the good men left the North.  Storey however is not merely a good man, but rather a great one who made a significant and lasting difference in the lives of many people.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on former world champion Barry McGuigan.  While McGuigan’s story will be better known than most of the others covered in the book, it remains remarkable.  Born in the Republic, McGuigan fought predominantly in Northern Ireland and represented the North in the Commonwealth games and the all-Ireland team at other international events.  This led to an unprecedented cross-border and cross-community appeal that stood as a beacon of hope for a brighter, less violent, future for the island.

The book also serves as a broad history of the key incidents during the troubles.  Ever person in the book had their lives significantly impacted by violence in some way, usually through the death of a friend or family member.  It serves as a stark reminder of the horrific role played by the British state and security services during this bleak time.  As Brexit rushes closer and the possibility of a hard border on the island of Ireland looms large, the story feels even more poignant.

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Sunshine

 

‘The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee’ by Paul D. Gibson (2018)

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 is 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 over says he’s been shot, stabbed, exiled and jailed but he’s all 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.

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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 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.  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.

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