Fighting to find Peace... When the McAuleys ruled the Paras

"My faith is very strong and very important to me," says former boxer Eamon McAuley
"My faith is very strong and very important to me," says former boxer Eamon McAuley

‘Coco rules the Paras’

Graffiti on the wall at Herbert Street in Ardoyne, north Belfast

INCREDIBLE stories come tumbling out…

“Sorry, am I talking too quickly?” asks Eamon McAuley.

“I’ve had low self-esteem all my life and sometimes I can be a chatterbox.”

No, not at all, just keep going…

It starts with ‘Coco’. In his younger years, Eamon was best known as “Coco’s son” and his dad was known as “the hardest man in Belfast”. He was shot by loyalists, he was shot by Republicans, he scrapped with Paratroopers, he was blown-up, stabbed, beaten and brutalised. But the man would never break, he wouldn’t lie down, not for anybody.

Fighting was in his blood. Irish eyes were smiling when his uncle Rinty won the flyweight championship of the world and his dad Harry won the Northern Ireland featherweight title over 15 rounds against Billy Donnelly in 1944.

A talented sportsman, Coco (his real name was Patsy) was Ulster champion as an amateur boxer himself but tickets weren’t sold for his most famous scraps, the ones that made him undisputed champion of the streets.

“My da was one of the hardest men to ever come out of Ireland,” says Eamon, who launches his autobiography Fighting to find Peace tomorrow.

“He was shot three times, he was blew-up; he allegedly killed a guy in London in a street fight. He had scars and stab wounds all over his body…”

Coco McAuley achieved legendary status for beating up soldiers of the British Parachute Regiment. One by one they had a go and had their wings clipped and then their regimental boxing champion was flown in from Germany to finally sort things out.

It’s urban myth now, but the story goes that Coco was walking home down the Old Park Road from a card school when the soldiers stopped him. He was pushed and harassed and then the would-be cock of the North “Judas-ed” him with a knuckleduster.

“My da done him,” says Eamon proudly.

“The Para had a knuckleduster on and he hit my da first but my da got up and filled him in. The other soldiers stood around and watched – they didn’t shoot my da, or hit him with rifle butts, or jump in. “It was a big thing in this district for morale but in their barracks at Flack Street they must have been exasperated that Coco kept knocking them out! After that they respected my da, revered him even.”

Fiercely independent, Coco marched to the beat of his own drum and the old joke was that ‘the Provos paid him protection money’. However, his refusal to take a backward step or bow down to anyone led him into trouble in a city teeming with gun-toting tough guys.

“My da ruled the town and when the Troubles broke out people joined organisations,” says Eamon.

“My da thought people were hiding behind those organisations to get at him and that did his head in. He hit a lot of IRA men and knocked them out and they tried to wipe him out in 1973 – they shot him twice in Pilot Street but they couldn’t kill him.

“He was shot again in the Avenue Bar (now the Sunflower) in 1988 by Loyalists and then the IRA beat his hands with a hammer because he was accused of pushing a Republican’s wife. That finished him.

“That’s only the tip of the iceberg but he lived a brutal, brutal life.

“He ended up an alcoholic. I didn’t have a great relationship with him for a long time because of the way he treated my mother but I never walked a mile in his shoes. When I stopped and looked back at all the things he came through, they were horrific.”

BOXING was in Eamon’s blood but football was his dream until he scored two goals in a trial game for the Northern Ireland Schoolboys and didn’t make the team. Disillusioned, he turned up at Sacred Heart ABC in the Old Park area of north Belfast in 1979 against his father’s wishes.

His talent was obvious from the start and he’d boxed at Sacred Heart for three years when his father decided he should move away from the city because, like many other young lads, he was “caught up in things” during the mayhem of the Troubles.

“I wasn’t involved in the IRA or anything but I was caught up in gangs and rioting and joyriding, sniffing glue… all that anti-social stuff,” Eamon explains.

“My da saw I had a bit of talent at the boxing so he sent me over to my uncle in Manchester.”

His uncle Gerard ensured that Eamon continued boxing and he joined the Cavendish club in Manchester and prospered. He’d moved to London’s Hogarth ABC and had turned down an invitation to box for England by the time he reached the final of the senior ABA championships.

The bill was shown live on BBC1 but a crowd of 10,000 paid in. Eamon ducked through the ropes at Wembley Arena on finals night hoping to become only the second Belfast man to win the prestigious ABA’s since Jack Gartland in 1928.

Who did he meet in the final? A paratrooper of course.

His opponent was Carl Crook, the Army boxing champion from 1982 to 1984 and a future British and Commonwealth champ as a professional. It was Old Park Road II, the McAuleys v the Paras, and the contest was a full-blooded tear-up. Both fighters had taken standing-counts before Eamon finished it with a sledgehammer right hook. McAuleys 2 Paras 0.

“Me coming from Republican Ardoyne, it put me under an awful lot of pressure and if I had lost I’d still be getting it cast up to me: ‘Aye, you let that Para beat ye…’ Talk about pressure!” says Eamon.

“But I knocked him out in two rounds and broke his nose in three places. It was one of the most exciting amateur fights you’d ever see.”

Among the millions watching on TV was a certain Barney Eastwood, a man who knew talent when he saw it. Eastwood wasted no time in making an approach and sent McAuley tickets for Barry McGuigan’s iconic world title victory over Eusebio Pedroza at Loftus Road, London in 1985.

Later that year, McAuley signed a contract guaranteeing him a £6,000 signing-on fee and a grand for each of his first eight fights. None of Eastwood’s fighters – not Dave Boy McAuley (no relation to Eamon), nor Paul Hodkinson, not even McGuigan, got a signing-on fee and that shows how highly Eastwood regarded him.

“They all thought I was gonna go places,” says Eamon.

“The gym was churning out champions left, right and centre. It was an amazing time, an amazing gym and Barry was the reason I went pro, he was my hero and is my friend to this day.

“It was a magical time here. Carl Frampton, who I respect and love, came close to rekindling those days. This city was Barry-mania, he had incredible support and he tapped into an era of hopelessness because there was murders here every day. The place was dreadful and he gave it a great lift.

“Everybody got behind him – I remember he used to have to come into the gym with disguises on such was the fanaticism. He used to come into the gym with false beards or hats and glasses because he would have got mobbed going around the town.”

Because of his well-publicised fall-outs with Eastwood and more recently Frampton, McGuigan is not as well thought of now as he might have been but McAuley still counts the ‘Clones Cyclone’ as a close friend.

“I can only speak from my own experience, Barry has always been wonderful to me and I could name a lot of boxers he has been very helpful to,” he said.

“I’m a big fan of Barry’s and I always will be.”

BELFAST boxing guru Bobby McAlister once told Eamon he was the best of the brilliant bunch in Eastwood’s Gym and he admits his reaction was: ‘Tell me something I don’t know’.

He was confident, talented, had rich experience from his amateur days and he was in a gym that produced champions, so why didn’t he get a title shot? Why didn’t he kick on to become a world champion like the men around him?

Coulda, shoulda, woulda… Eamon won six in-a-row as a pro but losing to an unheralded Londoner called Andrew Furlong at the Ulster Hall was a setback he never really recovered from.

“Everybody gets beat at some point in their life but I took it very bad, it destroyed me,” he says.

“Me and my da didn’t get along but he was in the dressingroom when I got beat.

“I was inconsolable and he was there to hold me in his arms. We hadn’t spoken in years and that was a very poignant memory. When I needed someone to comfort me, he was there.”

A man of many layers, Eamon believes that becoming a vegetarian affected his energy levels at that crucial stage of his career and contributed to some poor performances which ultimately brought it to a premature end.

“I’ve a great compassion for animals so I became a vegetarian around 1987 and in those days there was nobody in Ardoyne I could turn to and ask for advice – I was almost on a one-man crusade,” he says.

“There were nutrients and vitamins I wasn’t getting through not eating meat so I lost my strength and I lost my power and my confidence.

“I lost a lot of weight and there was a couple of fights that I wasn’t impressive so I packed it in. If I could turn the clock back I would do things different but you’re judged on what you’ve done, not what you could have done.

“At the same time, I wouldn’t change a thing because that’s the way I am, I’m actually a vegan now and I’ll die a vegan. I look back on old boxing videos of myself and I’m so gaunt and skinny, I ask myself why it took me so long to realise that I wasn’t doing the diet right.”

These days Eamon passes on his experience and knowledge to the kids at the St John Bosco club. It’s another family trait - his uncle Sean has been coaching in Ligoniel ABC for 50 years now.

“You wouldn’t see me a lot on the circuit, I don’t really do corners, but I’m in the gym all the time training the kids, doing the pads with them and trying to inspire them,” says Eamon.

“It’s insignificant how many champions you produce compared to steering them on the right path in life. We have a suicide epidemic, we have a drug epidemic and when the kids are in using our facilities they’re not out taking drugs or drinking or what-not.

“We’ve had kids who have turned to us because their mate has committed suicide or someone in their family has committed suicide. Boxing coaches are unsung heroes, they’re not just coaches, they’re mentors, motivators, father-figures, counsellors… More power to them all."

HE wasn’t long out of his bed when we talked. For the past 30 years, he’s been working as a doorman at various Belfast nightspots. Over three decades, three punches have been swung in his direction and, as you’d imagine, they all missed.

But he’s been dodging blows of one kind or another throughout his life. He wanted to be a world champion like his great-uncle Rinty and spent years in the wilderness after that dream died. It took him years to recover and find new meaning in life but the good news is that he got there and nowadays he’s a happy man who has found inner peace through God.

“My faith is very strong and very important to me,” he says.

“But I’m never complacent, I’m always on my guard because the Devil’s always there trying to snatch you away.

“I’m involved in Cursillo, it’s a three-day pilgrimage for Christ. We go to Benburb, Crossgar and other places and it’s been a wonderful experience. That’s what’s kept my faith really going – I’ve served God on about 20 Cursillos.”

Writing has been a mental pilgrimage and his literary journey led him to compile his life story, the aptly-named Fighting to find Peace. It began as a hobby: his top 10 tennis players, his top 10 middleweight boxers… Then his stories became popular reads in the Ardoyne community magazine Horizon.

“I would write and write and write and then rip it up, throw it in the bin and get another notebook,” he says.

“I found great joy in writing, I found it therapeutic and comforting and the book came out of that. “Really, I wanted to write about my da, I didn’t want him to be forgotten because he is a west Belfast legend and I was only ever known as Coco’s son in Ardoyne.”

Fighting to find peace? Some things are worth fighting for.

Coco taught him that.

Eamon will be joined by some special guests when he launches ‘Fighting to Find Peace’ (foreword by Barry McGuigan) tomorrow at Crumlin Star in Ardoyne at 3pm and everyone is welcome. The book is available online and from bookshops.