The fighting Feeneys: Finding peace after Irish champion James follows in his grandfather's footsteps

Pictures on the wall. James and Michael Feeney with pictures of Jimmy (left) and John Michael (right) at Gilford Boxing Club. Photo: Hugh Russell
Pictures on the wall. James and Michael Feeney with pictures of Jimmy (left) and John Michael (right) at Gilford Boxing Club. Photo: Hugh Russell Pictures on the wall. James and Michael Feeney with pictures of Jimmy (left) and John Michael (right) at Gilford Boxing Club. Photo: Hugh Russell

EVERYBODY clapped and cheered when he came in. It was Sunday, April 27, 1975 and Jimmy Feeney, the new Irish senior featherweight champion, and his father and coach John Michael were out for a celebration with their friends at Bleary Darts Club, a little sibin out on the backroads between their native Lawrencetown and Lurgan.

Jimmy’s medal was passed around as the father and son told the tale of the Irish Championships in Dublin and how young Feeney had avenged his loss against Derry’s Damien McDermott in that year’s Ulster final to win the title 48 hours previously.

The craic was good, the drinks went down well.

John Michael was the proudest man in the place. He had been a boxer himself, he came through from Albert Uprichard’s Halls Mill ABC alongside ‘The Star of the County Down’, Robert ‘Bunty’ Adamson, and was a contender for the British title in the 1950s.

One of those fellas who could turn his hand to anything, he was also a brilliant horseman and was a groom, a show jumper, a jockey and Huntsman of the Iveagh Harriers.

What was next for his 18-year-old son?

The Commonwealth Games were coming up, the Olympics weren’t far away… No-one in Bleary Darts Club knew what the future held.

If they had every man in the place would have run for his life.

The murder of John Michael Feeney

THE beer went right through him and it wasn’t long before Jimmy needed the toilet which meant a trip outside. He left the table, weaved his way through the punters towards the side door and went out into the night.

He heard a car come up the dark lane. He heard it stop outside the club and, when he looked toward it he saw men, masked and armed, get out.

He heard the door burst open and then the gunfire began. Loyalist gunmen sprayed the first table they saw with bullets in a horrific sectarian attack that was later linked to the Glennane Gang.


The muzzle flashes, the screams of the victims in terror and pain… Jimmy jumped into a field and lay still until the gunfire stopped.

When he heard the car drive away, he made his way back into a nightmare.

What he saw and who he lost changed him forever.

His father lay dead and so did Brendan O’Hara and Joseph Toman. Another man, a Protestant, was wounded.

Jimmy ran to the nearest house to get help and then he buried what had happened deep inside him and rarely spoke of it again.

“He broke down crying one night when he had a few drinks in him he was talking about what happened to his dad,” says his son Michael.

“But he never told me exactly what he saw and I understand why.

“He never talked about it again”

The loss of Jimmy Feeney

LIFE was never the same. That night in Bleary was the end of Jimmy Feeney’s carefree youth. With his father gone, the family lost its provider and, as the eldest son, Jimmy took over his job with the Iveagh Harriers.

He hung up his gloves and they stayed on that peg for a year – a crucial year in his development as a boxer - and, although he made a couple of comebacks, he was never the same fighter.

Anger and thoughts of vengeance replaced the innocence of boxing ambition and he joined the Official IRA. He took part in an armed robbery near Limavady and was caught, arrested and sentenced to four years in jail. He did his time in Crumlin Road on remand and then the Maze.

“I think, with what happened to his father, he felt he had to do it, he had to get involved,” says Michael.

His daughter Gina was born while he was inside and he had to endure tough days and nights before he was released. He did his time but the stigma remained and everything he had career-wise in his life was gone.

Michael arrived and then his younger brother Paddy came along and Jimmy tried to get on with life but drinking steadily became an issue and his marriage broke down.

“It got to the stage where it was just too much,” says Michael.

“I always loved my Dad – he was my hero. I never said anything to him about it, or questioned him about it. We had a great relationship and he was always there if we needed him.

“I love my mum too, she has been a rock to us all especially myself, it was one of those things. With the demons that man had in his head, I can’t judge him.”

Bernard McComiskey, the head coach at Gilford ABC, managed to persuade Jimmy back to the club to do some coaching and, for a while, it worked brilliantly. There was focus and there was hope but then, in 2007, there was shocking news that Jimmy Feeney had taken his own life. He was just 51.

“He was the last man I thought would have done that,” says Michael.

“Nobody who knew him could believe it but the drink weakens you and I know that from my own experience with drink. I know where he got to, to that jumping-off point where you say: ‘I’ve had enough here, I’m sick of it, I’m no good and I’m better off out of here’.

“I think maybe too much had happened in his life. Whether it was the guilt… He always said he was fed up saying sorry and apologising to people. He was a proud man but the demons took over and it was all a ripple-effect from his father being shot.

“That night in Bleary was the defining moment of his life. He tried to get on and put it behind him but he was the one who was there. He saw what he saw and had to live with it.”

In the end, sadly, he couldn’t live with it.

Michael Feeney, from darkness to light

BOXING was in the Feeney family’s DNA and Michael and his brother Paddy both pulled on gloves as youngsters. But Gaelic Football was their sporting focus.

Their mother Brenda was one of the first women to become chairperson of their club - Clann na Banna in Banbridge – and having seen how her husband’s handiness with his fists seemed to attract trouble, she steered her sons away from boxing.

By the time Michael got to his early teens, he was immersed in GAA at St Colman’s College and with his club.

He was a MacRory Cup and Hogan Cup winner with ‘the College’ in 1998 and went through the Down minor and U21 teams en route to Pete McGrath’s senior side. He made his debut in the National League in 2000 against Kildare but a few weeks later got into a scrape playing for the U21s against Cavan in the Championship and was sent off.

He was suspended for three months and never kicked another ball for his county.

“I played for Down and I’m proud of that,” he says.

Years later he bumped into Pete McGrath. He thanked him for giving him a chance with Down and apologised that he hadn’t made more of the opportunity.

McGrath smiled and told him not to worry: “You’re one of hundreds,” he said.  

THERE’S something about how Michael Feeney handles himself that tells you that he knows what darkness is but, somewhere along the road, he has seen the light.

He’s 42 now and hasn’t touched a drink in 15 years.

Naturally quite shy, alcohol was a factor in his life from his teenage years and he struggled to control it. When his father died he got on the wagon and for two months he managed to out-run his demons but they eventually caught up with him.  

“I knew drink had contributed to my da’s death and I said to my mum: ‘That’s me finished with it’,” he says.

“Little did I know that I had no power over that. Two months after my da died… BANG. I hadn’t grieved and I needed drink to grieve my da’s death. I would have bottled everything up same as him.

“So I started drinking again and I cried and I grieved and my mum and everybody else basically just let me go. I had to go where I had to go.”

He remembers the last day he drank. In the horrors after a four or five-day bender, he was at the end of the road. As he gulped down his final drink he knew the game was up.

“I hated myself,” he says.

“The guilt was rotten, it was terrible and I knew something had to give. I was in behind an old factory and I remember getting down on my knees and asking for help. I said: ‘I’m beat, I’m totally beat and I need help’. I’ve always had faith which has carried me through dark times and I asked my Da and God for help. I haven’t taken a drink since that day, something just came over me. You could call it a spiritual awakening maybe and I got off the drink by the grace of God.”

James Feeney, a chip off the old block

THE third of Michael’s three children, James, came along after his daughters Grace and Hope.

Those Feeney sporting genes had been passed down and young James was a precocious talent with a ball at his feet or in his hands but the moment he put a pair of gloves on, the reflexes, movement and punching ability of Jimmy, the grandfather he never met, were obvious.

During the Covid lockdown, Michael began working with him regularly.

“I could see natural talent in what he was doing,” says Michael.

“The way he was moving. I knew from taking him on the pads and feeling his punches there was a natural ability.”

They trained together for a year and when the world returned to normality, the amateur boxing tournaments returned with it. Bernard McComiskey, Karl McCluskey and the other coaches at Gilford ABC worked with the youngster and Michael asked another local boxing man, Sean McKay, to work with him too. The hard work began to bear fruit.

James won the Nine-County Ulster Novices and the Belfast Cup and Michael brought him to hurtlockers like Holy Trinity, Gleann and Dealgan where the sparring was fierce. He won the Armagh-Downs by walkover, then had two fights to win the Mid-Ulster tournament.

A walkover win in the final of the Ulster championships meant he qualified for the Irish Championships and followed the footsteps of his grandfather to Dublin.

“Representing Gilford Boxing Club… James Feeney…”

Feeney? The name rang a bell in some of the old heads in Dublin. After John Michael’s murder, a generation of Feeneys missed out but now the family name was back.

“When my da won that Irish title he was one of the best featherweights in Ireland but then he disappeared, he vanished,” says Michael.

“He was 18 when he won the seniors, he should have been fighting internationals, he should have been in the frame for the Olympics but he never did because of what happened.

“His talent was wasted and he just vanished but now the name was back. People in that stadium were going: ‘James Feeney? Is that anything to Jimmy Feeney from the 1970s?’”

“I told them: ‘That’s his grandson’.”

Feeney in the blue corner

THE National Stadium is no place for sentimentality and it can be a daunting place at the best of times but James settled quickly. He won his quarter-final unanimously and stopped his opponent in the second round of the semi-final.

Michael was a bag of nerves by the time his son skipped in his corner and was introduced to the crowd at the National Stadium for the final.

He needn’t have worried. His son’s feet moved with a natural fluency and he let his hands go. The gameplan was clear, his movement was precise and he attacked and countered off the back foot brilliantly over three rounds.  

His dad sat at the back of the stadium watching through his fingers, willing him on with whispered prayers.

Our Father who art in heaven…

“I was looking at it thinking: ‘He’s done well there, they can’t give that against him’ but you get nothing easy down there. The first round he won it easy, the second round was closer, the third round he definitely won it.

“Once the final bell rang I ran down to the ring, I didn’t see how he hadn’t won it.”

Hope sank when ‘split decision’ was announced and then the MC called out the result: ‘Put your hands together for the winner…

(Tick-tock, tick-tock… probably the longest couple of seconds in Michael’s life)


“I just broke down; I screeched my eyes out,” says Michael.

“I’m normally not an emotional person but the relief, the whole effort… I was thinking about my father, if he’d been alive I would have got him to train and mentor James and he probably would have pushed me out of the road to do it anyway. But my da isn’t here so I had to fill that role.

“There was a lot of hard work in it, so much could have went wrong and good boxers have gone down there and not got decisions. I’m still on a high thinking about it.

“If only I could bottle how I felt…”

Young James, the star of the show, didn’t realise the effect his win had on the entire Feeney family and his grandfather Jimmy’s many friends.  

“The family has experienced so much tragedy and this was a good news story,” said Michael. “Everybody has got a lift from it and the child doesn’t even know that. I have to mention his mother Catrena and her family as well. There were a few bumps along the road and she supported me with James from the get-go and her family have attended most of his fights.

“It was a proud moment for them and there’s something at peace in me now. I know my da was looking down and he would have been so proud.”

That night James returned to a hero’s welcome in Banbridge. There were fireworks and celebrations and friends and family, neighbours and clubmates waiting for him.

Everybody clapped and cheered when he came in.