Neil Loughran: Why Jim McCourt's name will live on forever

Neil Loughran

Neil Loughran

Neil has worked as a sports reporter at The Irish News since 2008, with particular expertise in GAA and boxing coverage.

Olympic bronze medallist Jim McCourt, pictured far right, passed away on Tuesday
Olympic bronze medallist Jim McCourt, pictured far right, passed away on Tuesday

SOMETIMES sporting reverence requires nothing more than a name.

Jim McCourt is one of the rare specimens who falls into this category, his achievements in the ring, and affection for the quiet, unassuming personality outside of it, all bundled up in how people speak about him, much moreso than what is actually said.

Take Brian Kerr as an example. The former Republic of Ireland manager was retracing his Belfast roots for a 2019 Irish Times piece, names, places and far flung memories from ‘Buck Alec’ to Joe Bambrick up for discussion as he strolled from here to there.

But when the conversation turned to boxing, mention of one man in particular saw the Dubliner’s disposition change in an instant.

 “Jim McCourt!” he said, eyes narrowing with wonder as a warm smile spread across thin lips.

In that moment Kerr was transported back to Friday nights inside the National Stadium, smoke filling the darkened hall while he watched on, locked to his father’s hip.

Belfast-born Frankie Kerr had been a talented boxer in his own right, picking up a host of Irish titles before making his name on the other side of the ropes. Despite the successful path his son would forge in soccer, boxing was the father’s first love.

Frankie died when Brian was just 14, the bond cemented at the famous venue on South Circular Road still alive all these years on. Jim McCourt was a part of their story.

“I kind of knew him through my father,” Kerr told Michael Walker.

“He was this swarthy, compact, disciplined lightweight. I’d say ’64 was the first Olympics on TV in my lifetime, certainly on our TV. We saw McCourt in Tokyo.

“My father didn’t say a lot, but I could tell he liked McCourt’s style, his selection of punches.”

The Immaculata man was a counter-punching maestro. Pinning down a southpaw is hard enough at the best of times, never mind when they are fleet of foot and mobile of mind in equal measure.

It is with an almost exasperated laugh that those fortunate enough to have followed McCourt at close quarters attempt to articulate the control he could exert over the toughest and trickiest opponents.

“He was a nightmare to box - a total nightmare. If you were lucky enough to hit Jim McCourt twice, he made sure he hit you three times,” says Seanie McCafferty, a team-mate at those Tokyo Games 59 years ago.

“Jim was a computer before the computer started.”

Prior to the delayed 2020 Olympic Games, also in Tokyo, I met up with McCafferty and Paddy Fitzsimons, featherweight on that team. It was hoped that Jim could join us, but ill health made that an impossibility at the time.

Still they spoke fondly of their adventure in the Far East, and the 20-year-old who boxed his way to bronze – the only Irishman to do so between 1956 and 1980, when Hugh Russell mounted the podium in Moscow.

In Japan, McCourt beat Korea’s Bun-Nam Suh, Ghulam Sarwar of Pakistan and Spain’s Domingo Barrera to secure a semi-final showdown with Russian Vilikton Barannikov. That he did so having suffered injury in his first outing made that achievement all the more remarkable.

“I busted my left hand in my first fight,” McCourt told Sean McGoldrick in his book, ‘Punching above their weight: the Irish Olympic boxing story'.

“The team management didn’t want me to fight the Russian in the semi-final. I begged Paddy Carroll, who was in charge of the team, to let me fight. I was close to tears because if I was going to lose I wanted it to happen in the ring.”

Former Irish president Mary McAleese was a fan of Jim McCourt, having attended his homecoming in 1964
Former Irish president Mary McAleese was a fan of Jim McCourt, having attended his homecoming in 1964

The outcome of the fight remains a matter of contention still, with the Soviet star getting the nod on a 3-2 split decision. Years later McCourt received a letter out of the blue from Barannikov, admitting that the better man had lost that fateful day.

Yet there were no complaints, no cries of robbery, the Belfast boy instead left open-mouthed to find a parade through the streets of west Belfast organised upon his return.

“I was very surprised,” he told McGoldrick, “I thought I had let the people down by losing the semi-final.”

How wrong he was, with the presidential seal of approval coming his way decades on.

Attending an event for Irish Olympians at Áras an Uachtaráin, Mary McAleese walked along the line, speaking briefly with each. When arriving at McCourt, however, the Belfast-born Irish president needed no introduction.

“You know Jim,” she told him, “I bunked off St Dominic’s to go and see you coming home to Leeson Street...”

Less than 12 months after Tokyo - on March 6, 1965 - McCourt got a shot at the Olympic final that might have been when Poland’s Józef Grudzie, conqueror of Barannikov, travelled to Dublin.

McCourt kept calm amid the chaos, taking the last two rounds to claim a split decision victory, redemption of a kind assured.

“My father was there,” says Belfast boxing historian Barry Flynn, “he told me the foundations at the National Stadium almost came away that day.”

The same year McCourt took home a European bronze medal before, in 1966, claiming gold at the Commonwealth Games in Kingston. Yet while the likes of Fitzsimons and McCafferty would eventually move into the professional ranks, he had no interest.

Happy with family life at home, happy with his job as a joiner in an era long before government grants and High Performance, promoter Bert McCarthy’s bid to lure him to London was ducked like an errant jab. It was in the amateurs that he belonged, McCourt’s skill-set custom-made for three threes.

“Jim McCourt wasn’t a fighter,” adds Flynn, “he was a boxer; a supreme boxer at that.

“I think what made people warm to him was the fact he was so dedicated to his sport, a pioneer, had a deep faith. Jim was a very humble and unassuming man.”

And when it was time to go, after competing at a second Olympic Games in 1968 before missing out on Munich 1972, McCourt was happy to slip out the side door in the same understated manner he had entered.

Yet the reverence remained, and still does.

When Barney Eastwood was trying to smarten up Barry McGuigan’s work ahead of a third pro outing against Peter Eubanks in 1981, he took the 20-year-old up to St Agnes’s boxing club, where McCourt was helping out on the coaching end of things.

Barry Flynn was there, and can remember McCourt – 37 by then - removing his jumper, but still in trousers and a shirt, as he was pursued around the ring by the ‘Clones Cyclone’.

“Eastwood brought him up there to show McGuigan what defensive boxing was all about,” he said, “McCourt just gave him the runaround.”

Jim McCourt passed away on Tuesday at the age of 79. It is a measure of the esteem in which he is held that, within hours, Liam Neeson had reached out in search of an address to send condolences.

The Hollywood actor was an aspiring boxer with All Saints, Ballymena when McCourt was in his pomp – proof that, no matter what the world throws up, boyhood heroes live on forever. And so will the name of Jim McCourt.