'Johnny Whitehead used to stand there at the side of the ring... he'd announce ‘no smoking in the auditorium' while standing there with a fag behind his back'

He is the voice of the National Stadium on amateur boxing's big nights and, as Neil Loughran finds out, Peter O'Donnell has some special memories of the place...

Peter O’Donnell at National stadium in Dublin during the Irish elite finals. Picture Mark Marlow

AS both boxers stand either side of the referee, it is the judges’ hands in which their fate rests – but it is the voice of Peter O’Donnell that delivers the all-important verdict, dictating delirium or devastation from the microphone.

On the big nights in amateur boxing it is O’Donnell’s familiar Donegal accent that echoes around the National Stadium, while his warmth and friendliness have become a feature of the South Circular Road venue too, just as it has been at championships across Ulster for decades.

“Och, I’d have done all that about Donegal and Derry. I was up here a few different times and if there was no-one to MC, somebody would’ve said ‘there’s a man there’ll do it’, and it just went from there,” he smiles.

“Sean Crowley was the secretary of the association for a long time, and he would’ve had a very distinctive voice - when you were coming up the street towards the stadium you could’ve heard Sean, he just had this big deep voice. You knew he was the man on the mic.

“He was a great man for the job, a big gentleman, and then Al Morris took over from him. I enjoy doing it; you would make mistakes the same as every other man, but nothing too bad so far, touch wood.

“I can have no complaints.”

It’s over 30 years since he first started coming down the road to Dublin, and O’Donnell laughs as he recalls straining his eyes to see the action through the wall of smoke that filled the windowless arena.

“It was near every man was smoking,” he says.

“Johnny Whitehead used to stand there at the side of the ring with his black blazer and silver buttons, and he'd announce ‘no smoking in the auditorium’ while standing there with a fag behind his back.

“But there’s some great memories here. I’ve been coming to the stadium since 1988 when the club in Raphoe formed; Danny Ryan was our top man at the time.

“He won the senior title in 1993 here, knocked out Denis Galvin in the second round and went on to box in the Commonwealth Games. He won five or six Irish titles at different grades so he gave us something to go on, but that night was special.

“For your club to win a senior title in only its fifth year, it’s a nice thing to have.”

There are special memories too of Jason Quigley’s rise to stardom, the Ballybofey man lighting up the stadium on many an occasion as he made his way through the ranks.

O’Donnell is still a staunch supporter, and has followed the middleweight prospect every step of the way on his unbeaten professional journey thus far.

“It was lovely to see Jason Quigley winning here.

“I’d have known his father [Conor] very well when he was boxing for Twin Towns, he won a juvenile title, then Jason was boxing with Twin Towns before they started Finn Valley. I knew him from he was a kid and I refereed him when he got his first Donegal novice title down in Raphoe back in ’04.

“But when you look back, there’s some great character about this place, and there’s some great characters have been in it. That’s why it’ll always be the home of Irish boxing in my eyes, when you think of the boys who have come through here and performed in that ring there.

“You’d always know when you see a special talent - when wee [Carl] Frampton was in there, you’d have said ‘here’s a boy here if he stays with it’, the same as wee [Wayne] McCullough. Great wee men, and there’s still plenty more coming through.”

Watching the rise of fellow Donegal native Jason Quigley has been a particular source of pride for Peter O'Donnell. Picture by PA

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