Charlie Nash: the Irish boxing icon has had to deal with many hard blows in his life, the biggest of all was losing a brother, shot dead on Bloody Sunday
LIFE revolved around family and boxing when Charlie Nash grew up in Derry.
On a January Saturday in 1972, the two strands came together.
In the morning, Charlie was best man for his brother James at his wedding in nearby Donegal and that night he was ringside in Dublin to cheer on St Mary’s ABC clubmate Damian McDermott in the Irish Junior Championships.
The following day – January 30 - his home town was ripped apart by Bloody Sunday.
His younger brother Willie was shot dead and his father, Alex, was wounded in the atrocity in the Bogside in which the British Army killed 14 unarmed civilians during a Civil Rights march.
Charlie could easily have become another victim and if he had allowed his anger to poison his mind, the heinous crimes of that day could have spelt the end of his promising boxing career and robbed Derry and the north of a beacon of hope in the dark years of the Troubles.
Bloody Sunday took his brother's life, but Nash refused to let it end his dreams of becoming a champion.
THE Altnagelvin Hospital morgue was eerily quiet and cold, on that January Sunday night in 1972.
A row of bodies, each covered by a sheet, was laid out on the floor.
Nash, future Olympian, Irish, British and European champion and world title challenger, took in the scene, clinging to the forlorn hope that his younger brother Willie wasn’t among the dead.
A year apart in the steps-and-stairs Nash family of 14 children, Willie and Charlie grew up sleeping in the same bed, playing football together and boxing for Derry’s St Mary’s ABC.
Charlie made his way along the row of corpses, lifting each sheet in turn and taking in the lifeless face beneath it.
When he came to his brother there was a brutal finality. Any lingering hope of some misunderstanding, a case of mistaken identity, was gone. Willie was gone.
Several floors above, Charlie’s father, Alex, lay wounded s after being hit twice as he tried to go to Willie’s aid. In another ward, Charlie’s mother was critically ill. She had suffered a heart attack a fortnight earlier.
If it hadn’t been for boxing, Charlie would have walked with his brother and their father on the march for Civil Rights. When he got home from the boxing in Dublin, the blood on the streets was matched by the red mist of grief and anger that hung thick in the Derry air.
“I went to Letterkenny for Banty’s wedding and left about 4 o’clock to get a bus to Dublin to watch Damian,” Charlie recalled when we met in his home on Derry’s Culmore Road a fortnight ago.
“I got a lift home with Tommy Donnelly (the St Mary’s ABC coach) on the Sunday and on the way we heard 'trouble in Derry, trouble in Derry at the Civil Rights march'.
“Tommy left me off at our house at Dunree Gardens (in the Creggan) and there was a wild crowd outside, a massive crowd of people.
“When I went in I found out that my brother was shot and my father was shot as well.
“A neighbour came over and says: ‘Charlie I’ll take you over to the hospital’. I went to see my father in one of the wards and the policemen and soldiers were all round the place.
“I went to them and said: ‘Willie Nash, he’s supposed to have been shot’. They took me to the morgue to identify him.
“There was a line of bodies just lying on the ground with sheets over them. I lifted the sheets, one, two, three, four… I think Willie was the fifth or sixth body. He still had his wedding suit on and the blood was all round his chest but he was actually shot in the back – shot running away.”
Their father Alex was taking cover when he saw Willie collapsing as he ran from the shooting. He braved the gunfire to go to his aid and the soldiers tried to kill him too.
“My father had been standing behind the flats in the Bogside – people were in behind them because the soldiers were running towards them and shooting everywhere,” said Charlie.
“He had seen Willie dropping so he went out and as he went out he put his hand up… He was shot through his hand and then another shot grazed his body and he fell down.
“The soldiers came over to the bodies that were lying and chucked them into one of the Saracens – they took the hands and feet and threw them in – and away they went.
“A couple of days later Willie was buried but we couldn’t tell my mother (who was recovering from her heart attack) what had happened because the shock could have killed her. It was only a couple of weeks after Willie had been buried that she got out of hospital and we were able to tell her.”
Many other young men and women who lost loved ones in the Troubles were consumed by anger and determined to take revenge. But for Charlie, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
“Naw, naw… No chance,” he replied when asked if he thought of joining the IRA.
“What would I want a gun for? I wasn’t going to shoot anybody, but a lot of people from Derry joined the IRA because of Bloody Sunday.
“For me, my family and my sport were the things I was interested in. It was a disaster what happened and there were 14 people died and 14 families that had to suffer the same as we suffered. What would joining the IRA have done for anybody? It wouldn’t have done anything for me because even in the boxing ring I felt I didn’t want to hurt somebody.
“I wasn’t going to get involved in anything that was going to involve shooting people or putting people in hospital and make other families go through the same thing that happened to us.”
Forty-six years after his death, he still misses his brother. Willie was a keen fighter too, the mirror-opposite of classic boxer Charlie, he liked to mix it and they sparred many a round.
“Och aye, I miss him,” says Charlie.
“When we were growing up I was in the same bed as Willie. I was at the top, he was at the bottom or we were beside each other. We were in a three-bedroom house and there was 13 of a family (one child died in infancy).
“He was a fighter. He was a go-forward, step-in, bang, bang, bang… I was a boxer, a counter-puncher and I used to spar with him quite often although it’s hard when you’re sparring your brother.
“Willie would have kept coming and I would have been moving around him jabbing, jabbing, jabbing… Och, he was a good fighter.”
In the days after Bloody Sunday, when the door opened at home or in the St Mary’s gym, Charlie would forgot, just for a second, and look up expecting to see his brother there. Then he remembered…
“I found it hard to concentrate,” he says.
“I was always thinking about Willie, me father, me mother…
“It wasn’t long after it that I had to go to Dublin to fight in the Irish Championships. I had all that to handle after what had happened.
“Bad things do happen and you have two choices: Either you get on with it, or you lock yourself in.”
Boxing, sometimes a lonely sport, was his rock and the Derry roads and the punch bags at the gym helped to focus his mind and perhaps absorb his grief.
He ran through patrols of soldiers before dawn and he made his way home through the dangerous streets from the gym long after dark. In between he worked as a printer.
A few weeks later he was back in Dublin for the Irish Senior Championships and no one could touch him. In the final, on April 28, he blasted out Christy McKenna in the first round to clinch his third title in-a-row and book his place on the Ireland team for the Munich Olympic Games.
The lightweight competition is always fiercely competitive but Nash had high hopes of bringing home a medal from Germany.
Commanding victories in the first two rounds set up a de facto final against Poland's Jan Szczepa?ski, the pre-tournament favourite at the quarter-final stage. Nash, upright, skilful and elusive, had his moments over the first two rounds but the Pole stopped him in the third and went on to win the gold medal.
Nash went on to fight at the European Championships in 1973 and 1975 – once again losing to the winner of both tournaments. When he came home in from the 1975 championships in June, he knew he had a decision to make.
By that time he was 25 years old and a married man with a family to support. Boxing took up a lot of his time and wasn’t paying any bills, so he felt like the final bell had rung.
“I got married in August 1973, a year later our daughter Julie came along,” he says.
“I was leaving Betty (his wife) to it and going to train, I was losing money because I was looking for time off work. When I came back in 1975 after the Europeans I thought: ‘That’s me retired’.”
Word quickly got out that Nash was hanging up his gloves. He hadn’t even thought about switching over to the punch-for-pay route when he got a phonecall from an opportunistic Belfast fight manager.
“Out of the blue from Gerry Hassett rang me and says: ‘Are you interested in turning professional?’
“I had never even thought of it but I said I would talk to him and he came down to my house from Belfast. He said my first fight would be for an Irish title and ‘I’ll guarantee you this and I’ll guarantee you that…’
“I asked him: ‘How much do I get for my first fight?’
“He says: ‘I’ll give you 500 pound’.
“I says: ‘Jaysus, that’s all right.’”
A week’s wages would have been around £100 at the time so Charlie shook Hassett’s hand and signed the forms.
The next chapter of his life began on a Saturday night in 1975.