Eamonn McCusker: The king of the Castle
Boxing took Eamonn McCusker around the world and let him rub shoulders with some of the greats of the Irish fight game but it was in the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge where he reigned supreme. Denis O'Hara writes...
EAMONN McCusker, a slick-moving light-middleweight of the 1960's, was the top attraction when his Banbridge St John Bosco club promoted a number of outstanding amateur bills in the Castle Ballroom in the county Down town.
A four-time winner of Ulster and Irish titles, and an Olympian, he was in his punching prime when his enterprising club coach, Barney Savage, arranged high-quality shows in 'The Castle'.
Yet McCusker might well have missed out on a distinguished ring career to concentrate on playing gaelic football.
McCusker revealed he had to make a big decision as a teenager.
It was either gaelic football or boxing, but not both, insisted Barney Savage.
"I was told by Barney it had to be boxing or gaelic football, but not both,
"The recent article, in The Irish News, about an old opponent of mine, Geordie Williams, being a gaelic footballer, hurler and boxer, had me thinking back to my young days as a footballer.
"I never took part in hurling, but as well as boxing for the Bosco club I played football for Banbridge GAC - affectionately known as Clanna Banna.
"I once played in a Down Junior team trial match at Newry. I didn't make the team.
"It was then Barney made me decide, so I quit the football and stuck to boxing."
The local idol was 'King of the Castle', and often had his international buddy, Olympic bronze and Commonwealth Gold medallist Jim McCourt of Belfast Immaculata ABC, on board to help headline the shows..
"I remember meeting Scottish international Jim Smith of Dundee in the Castle Ballroom, which was packed to the rafters,'' recalled McCusker.
"I boxed Smith in internationals, and also went to Dundee to meet him on a club show. I won all those contests. Smith was a strong wee man, a solid puncher, very tough.
"Jim McCourt had the 'flu and withdrew from a contest that night with another Scottish international, Wilson Burns. Frankie Downes was switched from a match with Martin Maguire of Dominic Savio, Belfast, to take a split decision against Burns."
Jim Scullion, co-trainer in the Bosco, remembers the halcyon days of The Castle bills: "Along with Eamonn, we had other local Bosco boys on the shows, including big Bob Peden, a double Ulster middleweight champion in 1967 and '68, and new heavyweight Charlie Clyde. Bob is now 80."
Scullion, a fresh 82, added: "Jim McCourt was a big attraction. I recall his terrific fight with his old Dublin foe, Frankie Downes of the Crumlin club. In those days the fans were queuing up outside the Castle Ballroom from 6,30pm.
"We had boxers coming in from all over, and that was down to Barney Savage. He was unbelievable.
"He rounded up financial support from the local business folk, who donated £5 a head, and then, in tuxedos, a representative from each sponsor would present trophies to boxers after every fight.
"After the shows, boxers and officials were taken to the Downe Shoes social club for tea and sandwiches.
"Those were exciting times. Barney had a great way with so many clubs in Ireland, London, Frank Hendrie of Dundee - all over.
"He was on particularly good terms with Immaculata club's trainer, Ned McCormick.
"We also had good relations with Dublin's Steve Coffey, who would send us great boxers like international welterweight Frankie Downes, Paddy Gilsen, Terry O'Brien, Jim McIntyre, Eddie Hayden.
"From the local clubs we packed quality, 18-bout shows in the Castle with the likes of Jim Montague and Frank and Terry McCormick from Belfast Star.
"Martin Maguire of Savio, international welterweight John Rodgers of Lisburn, John Conway (Holy Family), Roy Griffen (North End) and from the old Battenberg club came Wilson Watters and Davie Larmour.
"I can remember a great lightweight bout involving Ray Heaney of Clann Eireann, Lurgan, against Ray Ross of Ardglass, then with Russell YM Downpatrick.
"The three Kerr brothers, David, Norman and Trevor, and Ernie Scott and Jim Winters from Dromore, County Tyrone, also featured."
McCusker said: "I went to the Immaculata gym for great sparring sessions with Peter Sharpe. He was an exceptional boxer, sheer class, and with a brilliant left jab.
"There were also spars with Spike McCormick and McCourt.
"For our Castle bills Barney also enlisted the services of young boxers from the Mac - Andrew McCormick, Jim Campbell, Paddy Moore, John Breen, Terry Hanna."
Jim Scullion recalled an outstanding show staged in 1969, a joint venture with the Crumlin club's Steve Coffey, who had a New York team boxing in the National Stadium.
To help share the overall cost Barney reached an agreement to bring the seven Americans to the Castle to meet a local selection.
"McCourt outpointed John Martin, and Terry Hanna beat Israel Rivera,'' said Scullion.
"The New York team won 5-2, with a flashy light-middle, Larry Carlisle doing the 'Ali Shuffle' against Paddy Doherty.
"Eamonn McCusker was retired then, but helped out in the corner for Charlie Clyde's winning debut against a Dublin opponent.
"The fight of the night was a light-heavyweight slugging match between American Donnie Nelson and mid-Ulster champion Ernie Scott of Dromore, county Tyrone.
"Scott wouldn't back off, even though conceding height and reach."
McCusker fittingly bowed out of boxing on a Castle show in late 1970, but confessed a majority points victory against Paddy Doherty of Ballyshannon was undeserved.
"I was given a home-town decision, as I felt Paddy won the contest,'' he declared.
"I was coaxed out of retirement for a farewell fight, but long out of training,
"I have to concede I didn't feel a winner, and on the way out of the ring I said to Paddy - 'Thanks for carrying me'. "That was the end of the boxing game for me.
"After contests against opponents, such as Geordie Williams and Paddy Doherty, in the Castle shows, I finally retired from the ring.
"I married, and moved to live in Lurgan. I took up gaelic football again, when I joined the Lurgan Clann na Gael club.
"I was in their Junior side when winning the Armagh Junior football championship. I still have that medal."
McCusker, who will be 75 in August, looked back with justifiable pride on his ring career: "Overall, I took part in close to 200 contests, including representing Ireland at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, also three European championships, and once for Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games.
"I never managed to pass the first series.
"I ran into fighters who generally went on to the final. In Mexico, I went out to Cuba's Rolando Gerbey, who lost to Russia's Boris Lagutin in the final.
"My first time in Europe was in 1965, in East Berlin. I lost to Pat Dwyer of Bootle, who, in turn, lost to eventual winner Viktor Ageyev of Russia.
"In 1967, I narrowly lost to Ageyev in Rome.
"In Bucharest, in 1969, I dropped a very close decision to another Russian, Valery Tregubov, who went on to win the title.
"It was the same close decision story in Jamaica, where I lost to England's Mark Rowe. Again this was a very tight fight. Rowe won the Commonwealth title."
McCusker dominated the Ulster and Irish light-middleweight division finals on four occasions.
"I could have had five Ulster titles. I was unable to defend the title in 1966, because I was floored by the 'flu bug. Barney urged me to enter, but I didn't.
"There were no other entries, and no competition for the championship.
"Barney harped on at me, that I could have collected the championship on a walkover, had I entered, made the weight, and turned up on the night at the Ulster Hall.
"In one of the four winning Ulster titles I remember meeting the 1966 Ulster junior champion Jimmy McConnell of Holy Family.
"In the IABA finals in Dublin Stadium my first of four wins was in 1965, beating defending champion Liam 'Ske' Mullen.
"I lost the title to Gussie Farrell, and won it back for three in a row.
"In 1967 I beat Willie Cullen in the final, then Terry McCarthy in 1968, and in 1969 it another win against Willie Cullen."
Those were golden days for the modest Eamonn McCusker, the King of the Castle and many more hallowed boxing venues besides.