Mickey Diamond: Boxing champ, devoted father and gentleman
WHEN Mickey Diamond was crowned Ulster heavyweight boxing champion in 1951, it was a sensation in his native south Derry.
The Bellaghy man had to win two bouts on the same night to claim the title at a packed Ulster Hall and it seemed that half the parish were there to roar him on.
He became an overnight celebrity and news of his exploits reached as far as famed English promoter Jack Solomons.
They met and Mickey agreed to turn professional, appearing soon afterwards in a novices' competition in Earl's Court for a prize of £500 – enough, a disbelieving Mickey said, to buy a small farm back home in Ireland.
In June that same year he fought on the undercard when the great Sugar Ray Robinson dramatically lost his world middleweight title to British boxer Randy Turpin.
Mickey would go on to enjoy more professional success, while his popularity also saw him appear in many exhibition matches to raise money for parochial funds or charities throughout Derry and beyond, including a memorable open-air fight against Eric Metcalfe in Bellaghy in 1953.
However, despite his fame, he remained throughout an extremely modest man and seldom spoke about his sporting prowess. He preferred to talk about the achievements of others instead.
Although he would live most of his life in Dungiven, Mickey was a proud Bellaghy man born in Ballyscullion in 1929.
He was a farmer’s son and one of 10 children from a great sporting family which produced talented Gaelic footballers such as Lawrence, Tommy and Karl, an All-Ireland medallist with Derry in 1993.
His brother Peter was also a successful amateur boxer, becoming All-Ireland middleweight champion, while Mickey’s grandson Dr Joe Sweeney (Blackrock, Dublin) would be Irish cross-country champion three years in a row.
Mickey played minor football for Bellaghy in the late 1940s and early fifties as part of a very successful team that won many championships.
His connection to boxing began with the arrival in the parish of Fr Pat Kelly from Ballinascreen, who decided to start a club.
Fr Kelly had a good eye for talent and brought in experienced coaches to help his young charges, helping the club become one of the most successful in Ireland.
When the curate was transferred to Dungiven in the 1950s, he and Mickey were instrumental in setting up Dungiven Boxing Club, based for a time in the former 'B' hut at Ballyquinn Road.
Many famous tournaments were held in the village's Castle Ballroom, with clubs taking part from all over the island.
Mickey helped trained the boxers and the St Canice’s club is now known the length and breadth of Ireland and boasts many Irish and Ulster championship honours, most notably Paul McCloskey who went on to hold British and European super-lightweight titles.
It was at a dance at the Castle on St Stephen's night in 1951 that Mickey met Sarah Kennedy.
The daughter of a well-known poultry exporter based in Derrychrier, outside Dungiven, they married and settled in the town.
Mickey was a devoted husband and father and loved each of his eight children equally and was proud of all their achievements.
He was also a doting grandfather and would show them his boxing moves and tell them about 'catching the ball away above their heads’, as he had often done for Bellaghy minors.
Mickey was a very fit man, even in his later years. At the age of 80 he climbed Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo with his daughter Carmel, and he took part in many pilgrimages to Lough Derg, Knock and Lourdes.
He was a tremendous worker, travelling daily during the 1970s and eighties to Kilroot Power Station in Co Antrim as a steel erector. He would leave Dungiven at 5.30am and not return until well after 6pm, often working seven days a week to provide for his family.
Mickey also spent time working in Sudan, where he was involved in building a hydroelectric power station on the Nile. He was fascinated with the culture and customs of the country and often spoke about his time there.
Whenever he was travelling home, he would leave his work boots behind as the local workers had nothing on their feet.
He was also a very familiar face at the Castle in the 1960s and seventies where he worked on Sunday evenings to supplement his income – every penny counted when he had eight children to put through school.
Mickey was a remarkable man in every way: he was a true gentleman, very compassionate, and his legacy lives on in St Canice’s Boxing Club.
He was president of the club and in later years would often visit to see how the young people were doing, offering words of encouragement and praise and sharing his expertise.
They looked up to Mickey as a role model and his passing aged 93 on April 3 is a big loss to Dungiven, Bellaghy and of course his family – his beloved sister Jeannie Duffin and his dear children, Dolores, Michael, Carmel, Johnane, Concepta, JohnJoe, Louise and Paschal, as well as their spouses, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
May his soul rest in peace.