Boxing's in the blood in the Bone and Ardoyne
Liverpool John Moores' journalism student Sean Whelan explores the rich boxing history in the Ardoyne-Bone area, where boxers have punched well above their weight. The Irish News placement reporter also reveals a sporting success story involving his own family heritage .....
Boxers from north Belfast’s Ardoyne-Bone area have enjoyed extraordinary success both at amateur and professional level.
This, an area which has faced its fair share of tragedy throughout the Troubles, has always had a remarkable boxing tradition in which its community can take great pride.
British, Commonwealth, European and World Boxing Union titles are among the professional honours won by local fighters, with a further three Olympic bronze, European gold, Commonwealth gold, World Junior silver and 17 Irish Senior title wins recorded at amateur level.
Over for a week-long working visit to Belfast recently, I visited some of the brightly-painted murals in the area which pay homage to many of the fighters who have contributed to the community's remarkable success.
Fighters featured on the celebrated murals, painted 2015-2017, include the legendary Freddie Gilroy, Darren Corbett, Paddy Barnes and my own great uncle, Barney Burns (among the names listed on a mural in Ardoyne Avenue).
Barney Burns won three Irish Senior titles, fought for his country on 17 occasions and was the last person to beat Bunny Johnson at amateur level. Johnson would later go on to become the first ever black British heavyweight champion.
After moving to Birmingham in search of work, he began training at the city’s Small Heath boxing club.
During this period Barney, won three National titles and would reach an Amateur Boxing Association Championship final in 1968, where he would face Peter McCann.
Backed by a strong Belfast contingent inside Wembley Arena, Barney would ultimately go on to lose what was a tightly-contested fight on a split decision.
After boxing for Europe against America, Barney continued his attempts to become just the second Belfast-born ABA champion.
He reached the semi-finals of the ABA Championship finals, but was defeated by the late, great Chris Finnegan; an Olympic gold medallist, who is still regarded as one of the greatest boxers to come out of the British Isles.
It would take until 1985 for a Belfast fighter to win another ABA Championship with Eamonn McAuley, another esteemed fighter turned trainer, beating Carl Crook at Wembley Arena.
Since hanging up his gloves McAuley has taken a huge interest in the history of boxing and was involved in the planning of the murals.
McAuley, who’s grandfather Harry McAuley, was Northern Ireland champion, is immensely proud of the positive impact the boxers have made, often in the face of adversity.
“The area’s engrained with boxing and we’ve produced some great boxers down the years.
“The Ardoyne-Bone area is known as a ghetto, it’s been hit very hard by the Troubles, there’s been a lot of tragedy but the boxers have brought a lot of pride to the area.”
More recently two-time Commonwealth gold medallist Paddy Barnes has flown the flag for Belfast boxers.
The 31-year-old has won European gold and Olympic bronze medals, becoming one of the most decorated amateurs in Irish boxing history in the process.
All this success is particularly impressive when you consider the valiant Barnes tasted defeat in all of his first 12 fights as a young amateur.
McAuley, whose name also sits proudly on the Ardoyne-Bone Boxing champions mural believes people can learn a lot from Barnes’s story.
“If someone loses their first 12 fights, you wouldn’t blame them for thinking this game isn’t for me, but Paddy has persisted and persisted and look at him now,'' he said.
“It’s very inspiring, and shows how far you can go with hard work and persistence. Somebody will make a movie on him one day.”
Several other of the area’s fighters have also fought hard to create legacies that will rightfully be remembered for decades to come, thanks in part to the murals, the last of which was painted in 2017.
Eamonn Magee, who found himself in and out of trouble as a child, would go on to become a two-time Commonwealth light-welterweight champion.
In 2002, Magee lost on points to the rugged Ricky Hatton, the southpaw did however leave his mark on ‘The Hitman’, becoming the first person to knock down the WBU light-welterweight champion.
Darren Corbett, another great fighter, won several titles at amateur level before winning cruiserweight titles at both Commonwealth and International Boxing Organisation level.
The fighter known as the ‘Raging Bull’ also won the IBO Inter-Continental light-heavyweight crown in 1999.
Described by boxer-turned-promoter Barry McGuigan as an inspiration, Freddie Gilroy is another distinguished Belfast fighter featured on the murals.
Gilroy won bantamweight bronze for Ireland in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics before turning professional, winning British, Commonwealth and European titles during his career.
The boxers listed on the Ardoyne Avenue mural are Terry Magee, Hugh Gilhooly, Freddie Gilroy, Eamonn McAuley, Sean Brown, Harry McAuley, Paddy Barnes, Anthony Maguire, Barney Burns, Noel Magee, Pat Kelly, Darren Corbett, John Kelly and Eamonn Magee.
Like all amateur boxing clubs, and there are quite a few in the greater north Belfast area who have given great community service during often difficult and dangerous troubled times, the gyms in the Ardoyne-Bone area struggle to survive.
The Ligoniel club is another gym that has worked tirelessly in the immediate area down the decades.
The Ardoyne / Holy Cross club has also produced its fair share of champions.
Sadly, the famous Sacred Heart boxing club, where big Eamonn Maguire expertly coached generations of kids, has shut down in recent years, and it may prove difficult for aspiring young fighters from the area to emulate the success of their illustrious predecessors.
But if there’s anything that the fighters on the area’s murals prove, it’s that it will take a lot more than that to keep a Belfast boxer down for the count.