Ring doctor Seán Donnelly looks back at a life spent outside the ropes
A LEFT hook right on the button was enough to convince Seán Donnelly that the noble art wasn’t for him.
“I played Gaelic football but when I went to Queen’s I decided to do the boxing training,” he explains.
“I was training for my first contest when I got pinged on the nose with great ease and that was it. It was only a wee clip but my nose was broken - it was enough to get me out.”
‘Out’ in terms of lacing up gloves, popping in a gumshield and stepping between the ropes maybe, but out of boxing? Far from it.
In fact, his journey in the sport had only just begun and wouldn’t officially end until January past after 43 years of dedicated service.
It was a voyage that took him to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, four Commonwealth Games (at one of which he took a starring role, but more on that later) and countless World and European championships.
Back home, far from foreign sod, Dr Donnelly became one of the constants of the local fight scene. Boxers came and went but through all that time he was an ever-present figure at weigh-ins and at ringside, trusted by trainers, fighters and family members alike.
And if ever he couldn’t make an engagement, his brother Martin would gladly fill the void. They became a part of the furniture until he decided to call it a day at the start of the year.
“I’m retired from everything,” said Dr Donnelly, who worked out of his practice at Carlisle Circus in north Belfast.
“It was a bit of a difficulty leaving but once you settle down to the notion that it’s all over, you just accept it.”
Still, he walks away with a lifetime of memories after a love affair first brought to life by the sight of Freddie Gilroy, a future patient, going hell for leather with John Caldwell at the King’s Hall in 1962.
The pre-fight frenzy, the fervour of a raucous crowd and, above all, jaw-dropping respect for the two Belfast men in the middle of the ring trading blows - he remembers every second of it.
Sat beside dad Joseph, a huge boxing fan, the 13-year-old was spellbound; hooked from first minute to last. It was a world away from his first-ever official engagement 12 years later.
With the Troubles at its height, criss-crossing Belfast in the early 1970s was an endeavour undertaken at your own peril.
Then as now though, the boxing fraternity possessed an innate ability to rise above political and sectarian tensions, as Dr Donnelly recalls.
“I started off at a wee club show down in Donegall Street, beside St Patrick’s School, and it was St John Bosco against the Highfield. John Bosco was essentially a Corporation Street/lower New Lodge club, Highfield was up in Ballygomartin.
“This was 1974, and you’re talking about kids from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds meeting at a time when the streets of Belfast were a rather fraught place. “It was very difficult in those days, yet at the end of the contests the kids threw their arms around each other and returned to their corner.
“Nobody said a thing.”
The more time that passed, the more his admiration for those involved grew.
From greats like Barry McGuigan to the one fight novice, boxing and the figures immersed in it opened his eyes to another world.
And while colleagues may have shied away from hitching themselves to the wagon, Dr Donnelly soon found himself a central cog in the wheel.
“Me and Seán came up together more or less,” says veteran Holy Trinity coach Michael Hawkins.
“He was very professional in everything he did - to give the time that he gave to the game, considering the line of work he’s in, is pretty special.
“Without medical people like Dr Donnelly and his brother Martin, you can’t run boxing. Between them they sorted out every weigh-in at every championship – that takes some doing.”
“Of course you enjoy the sporting aspect, but at the end of the day I’m a doctor,” added Dr Donnelly.
“I was the only one there who was working in their own professional capacity so I took it very seriously.
“I admire the boxers because they’re hugely brave, heroes every one, but also the coaches. Men like Gerry Storey, Michael Hawkins and the man who introduced me to boxing, Terry McCafferty.
“Boys like that take kids off the street. They come in and open up the clubs at about four or half four every day, bring in the wee ones, then the older groups. All through the Troubles, they provided a social service.”
Men like Hawkins, Storey and McCafferty knew the value of Dr Donnelly’s presence at ringside.
But so too did the nervous parents watching from the outside in who, despite constant reassurance, were naturally concerned for their child’s wellbeing.
A brief dalliance aside, Dr Donnelly steered clear of the professional game. In the amateurs, the modus operandi was to ensure both combatants were safe by the time the final bell sounded.
In the pro ranks, the rules of engagement are entirely different.
“The referees will allow the fighter to continue on and give him every chance to come back into a contest whereas in amateur boxing, you’re not supposed to get the boys hurt. Looking after the boys is the primary aim.
“If somebody was rendered unconscious in amateur boxing, it was seen as a failure, that the boys weren’t protected.
“But truthfully, I never saw any serious injuries. I saw a couple of really devastating knockouts and a few broken bones in hands and dislocated shoulders, but they were quite rare.
“Now, there’s a new regime involved in amateur boxing and their objective is to make the sport more attractive for investors and sponsors. It gets more attractive when there are things like knockouts.
“But a lot depends on the referee too. We came from a very British military background. The rules were all based on army rules and so therefore it was dictated that you listened to the referee and the referee was the boss.
“He was the officer in the ring and when he said ‘stop’, you stopped. The survival of our sport depends on them taking great care of the boxers.”
When pushed though, there is one incident that springs to mind.
“I remember a big fella being knocked out cold. It wasn’t very often they were knocked out but he was knocked out and it took him a while to come around – [former Ulster president] Pat McCrory said to me after ‘you were sweating blood there’. He could see it in my face.
“But I was involved for a long time and I never, in all honesty, felt it was a dangerous pastime for amateur boxers. We had a good system of examining them from their very youngest days and keeping regular examinations.
“Most of the time I saw very little - I was just there.”
‘Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling,
From glen to glen and down the mountain side,
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,
It’s you, it's you, must go, and I must bide’
HAVING watched from the wings when the record stuck during Wayne McCullough’s medal ceremony in 1990, Jim Webb vowed the same fate would not befall him should he be fortunate enough to make it on to the podium some day.
The Belfast man was standing stage left in Auckland as Irish ex-pat Bob Gibson snatched the microphone after some uncomfortable shuffling of feet and worried looks while ‘Pocket Rocket’ McCullough stood, head bowed.
Webb returned home empty-handed from the other side of the world but returned to the Commonwealth Games four years later – this time to the Canadian city Victoria - for another crack.
And long before he even had his first fight Webb, by now 26 years old, had already struck a deal with the team doctor.
“With Wayne, some fella from the crowd came up and sang,” recalled the light-middleweight hopeful.
“Seán has a great voice, so I asked him before if he would sing Danny Boy if I won gold. I doubt either of us thought it would come to that, but he said he would anyway...”
As Webb progressed, what started as a dream slowly merged into reality. He was handed a semi-final walkover when world number three Rival Cadeau failed to weigh-in at the correct time, leaving just one more hurdle to overcome.
The other last four encounter between Samoan Bob Gasio and Scotland's Joe Townsley was a war, and Gasio was still showing signs of fatigue when he stepped through the ropes on finals day.
Webb used all his experience to box smart and secure gold, Northern Ireland’s second of the day after Neil Sinclair’s earlier triumph - and what happened once Dr Donnelly cleared his throat and lifted the microphone would later become the stuff of legend.
Midway through an emotionally-charged Danny Boy, the cameras focused in as Webb, eyes reddening, lips trembling, fought back tears until he could fight no more.
A packed auditorium was held spellbound, barely a dry eye in the house.
“I still get emotional thinking about it now,” says Webb. “I would never have believed I'd have been in a final, never mind winning gold.
“When Sean sang Danny Boy, it broke my heart. It was the proudest moment of my life, next to my first son being born.”
The Canadian Tourism Commission used the footage in their post-Commonwealth Games marketing material - an illustration of the strength of feeling that success in the world of amateur sport can engender.
Dr Donnelly is slightly uncomfortable with his role on such a high-profile occasion, keen not to take anything away from the crowning moment of Webb’s career.
“For Jim it was a great personal achievement, and he and I have a special relationship since then. We shared a great moment in his life – he won the gold medal of course, he was the star.
“But the Commonwealths were great because they were a friendly games and, of course, the Northern Ireland team always did well. The Olympics were much more difficult, but it’s wonderful, even though it’s corrupt.
“I remember Jimmy Magee talking to Michael Roche from Cork when we were in Sydney and he was beaten in the first round by a Turk. Jimmy said ‘Michael, if you played hurling you could be this year’s All-Ireland hurling champions and next year’s ex-champions, but you’ll always be an Olympian’.
“I just thought ‘Jimmy, that’s it. That’s the sacredness of the whole Olympic movement that the corruption can’t take away’.”
As he eases into retirement, Dr Donnelly is taking the opportunity to spend time with his family and revisit lost passions (the original M*A*S*H film was on before we spoke).
Finally completing James Joyce’s Ulysses features high on the agenda too, but boxing will never be too far from his thoughts, nor the people whose paths he has crossed through the years.
“I still see lots of the boxers out and about. I get a warm and affectionate greeting from them all, as I do from my patients, and I treasure that.
“They were all amateur boxers and we knew them well, I follow them avidly and I’m delighted to see them do so well. I hope we do get another Wayne McCullough or Barry McGuigan.
“I met Rinty Monaghan a way back and Freddie Gilroy became a patient of mine. There’s a community there, the boxing community, and they’re very tight-knit and respecting of each other.
“I was never in the ring so you could never feel that you were wholly in that group - you just looked on from the outside and admired them.”
It all began that night in 1962, father and son side by side at one of the defining nights in Belfast’s long and illustrious boxing history.
It was Joseph Donnelly who first introduced the young man to the sights and sounds of the sport, and fittingly it was he who came to mind at the side of a Sydney ring 17 years ago, a memory that will never be lost.
“I was sitting at ringside at the Olympics for the first time as the number one doctor for a contest, and at that point there were tears running down my cheeks because I was thinking of my daddy,” recalls Dr Donnelly.
“He was a great fan of boxing, and to think that I would have been in that position… he would’ve been very proud of me.”