Beacom's '100 Ulster Sporting Legends' book will spark debate over festive season
PULL up a stool and let the debate begin. At least, that’s what we might be doing in ordinary circumstances, if oul boys could still drain pints at the bar and argue the toss on St Stephen’s Day, or if we weren’t too busy critiquing hand hygiene standards and making muffled noises behind masks to hold a proper coffee shop conversation.
Thankfully, through it all, we still have sport. We still have talking points and arguments that can rage for hours and still go unresolved – even VAR can’t make black and white of lines that have been blurred for decades and more.
This is where an offering like Steven Beacom’s ‘100 Ulster Sporting Legends’ comes into its own. It is the kind of book my mum would urge me to give my dad as a birthday present, rather than at Christmas, for fear of losing him for the entire festive period. Sorry mum.
Fermanagh native Beacom, a well-respected journalist on the local beat, was once of this parish before availing of the Bosman rule to transfer to the Belfast Telegraph during the Nineties. After so many years at the coal face, therefore, he is well placed to cast an eye back over those who merited inclusion in a century of greatness.
That task, as he found, was easier said than done, having arrived at 232 names following months of intensive research. The breadth of the sporting interest in this complicated place made the task of whittling that back all the more difficult, but what remains is a unique celebration of ability and achievement.
“Northern Ireland, the North of Ireland, Ulster, the Six Counties, the different names for this little piece of land we live on reflect the divisions in the minds of its people. Divisions which, over the last century or so, have often been nurtured by some seeking to consolidate their own power bases,” writes Beacom in the opening pages.
“These divisions have seaped into many aspects of life but, through it all, one area that has been a beacon of light against division and strife is sport. And what a beacon it has been…”
The list of names, as you look through it, is a timely reminder of the talent that has been produced, with huge stars like George Best, Rory McIlroy, Carl Frampton and Tony McCoy leaping from the page.
Yet the real joy here is delving into the backgrounds and the careers of those whose names might ring a bell but nothing more. Somebody like Mike Bull for example - the Bangor man, educated at St Malachy’s College in Belfast, who would become the best all round male track and field star the North has produced.
Or Margaret Johnston, next up after the great Jennings in alphabetical order, and her journey from the church hall to the top of the bowls world. Then there’s Thelma Hopkins who, in 1956, became the only athlete to set a mainstream athletics world record in Ireland when she cleared 1.74m in the high jump event at Belfast’s Cherryvale Park.
Of course, everybody will still have their own areas of interest that draw them in. For some, it’ll be straight to Peter Canavan, Terence McNaughton, Caroline O’Hanlon, Paddy Doherty and so on. Or Pat Jennings, David Healy, Gerry Armstrong, Steven Davis, Elisha Scott. Alex Higgins and Denis Taylor.
And that is where the debates will rage - how did he get in and AN other didn’t? Beacom might be well advised to stay off Twitter for a while to avoid being asked for his workings out.
You could get lost down so many different avenues here but it was probably the boxers over whom I cast the closest eye, Beacom’s book doing justice to the sport’s illustrious history here.
There’s a place for our own Hugh Russell among the pantheon of greats alongside the likes of Frampton, Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan from the current crop, while Jim McCourt, John Caldwell, Freddie Gilroy, Barry McGuigan, Wayne McCullough, Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley, John McNally and Rinty Monaghan are all rightly recognised for their remarkable achievements in the ring.
Another man who quite rightly made the cut was Jimmy McLarnin, the Hillsborough-born welterweight often referred to as Ireland’s greatest fighter but also, oddly, and perhaps owing to the passage of time, sometimes overlooked because his family emigrated to Canada so early in his life.
One of 12 children, he found he could use his fists as a 10-year-old “when other kids attempted to take over the street corner where he sold newspapers”. After that, there would be no going back, with McLarnin inducted into the prestigious International Hall of Fame in 1991.
This review barely skims the surface of the stories and tales told inside these pages, never mind the blood, sweat and tears that went into celebrating a century of greatness. So pick up a copy and find out for yourself - you could even grab one for your dad while you’re at it.
‘100 Ulster Sporting Legends’ is available in larger branches of Tesco, local bookshops or online from www.cottage-publications.com or amazon.co.uk