‘The Murph’, Maghaberry and Medjugorje: In and out of the ring, the trials and tribulations of Tommy Tolan

Between the bombs and bullets in Ballymurphy, an infamous kidnapping from a Belfast bar and coming up against some of the world’s best in the boxing ring, Tommy Tolan has travelled a treacherous path. Now, though, life has taken a different course, as Neil Loughran finds out…

Former Boxer Tommy Tolan pictured at Gym Co in West Belfast.
Tommy Tolan's boxing career saw him mix it with some of the world's best - though it was beset by occasional chaos outside the ropes. Picture by Colm Lenaghan

OKAY folks, settle down, settle down - onto tonight’s sport round. Everybody ready?

Remember, no phones, no texting, no nothing. Okay, here we go, question number one…

Which Belfast boxer fought three men who would go on to win world titles AND share the ring with Mexican superstar Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez?

For double points, which Belfast boxer fought at Dublin’s National Stadium while awaiting trial in connection with the high-profile abduction of a well known dissident Republican?

I’ll give you a clue – it’s the same person. I’m looking out at a sea of blank faces here…

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of Tommy Tolan.

His career between the ropes may tick a few boxes for a decent pub quiz question, but his life? Oh boy. His life has the makings of a movie script.

Nowadays Tolan can be found giving thanks at Holy Cross chapel in Ardoyne six days a week. On Saturdays he attends Latin Mass at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Tolan fulfils duties as a Eucharistic minister, going out into the community to serve the sick and those unable to make Mass. He has run the Belfast marathon on a couple of occasions to raise money for the Sisters of Adoration convent on the Falls Road.

A few times a year he makes the pilgrimage to Medjugorje to pray before the Queen of Peace statue on Apparition Hill. It is here, in these places of worship, that Tommy Tolan is overwhelmed by a sense of belonging.

And it is here where he discovered a peace that, for so much of his life, was nowhere to be found.


“BALLYMURPHY was… mad. Mad. It could go from completely quiet, nothing happening, to total mayhem at the drop of a hat. Just like that, nought to 60. Insane…”

His eyes widen as he is temporarily transported down the decades, the gravel-soaked voice eventually tailing off with a shake of the head.

If it feels barely believable thinking back, that’s because it is. Tolan looks at his own children, and two grandchildren, and marvels at the lives they lead. Rachael is an Irish teacher, Tomas a classroom assistant, Fionntan an electrician and Eliza, a 12-year-old with a head full of dreams.

A different time, a different place.

Tolan’s mother Margaret was pregnant with Tommy when her husband, Paddy, was interned in October 1971. With four children already, the breadwinner of the house was now gone while the Troubles caught fire on the streets that surrounded them.

A street party was arranged for Paddy’s release in 1974. It was the first time three-year-old Tommy had laid eyes on his father.

“Apparently I was afraid of him,” he says, “I didn’t know him.”

The presence of British army soldiers was part of everyday life, if not a welcome one. Indeed, when a 12-year-old Tolan was chosen for a cross-community trip to Tiel in the Netherlands, one of the first questions put to his Dutch hosts was: “Where’s the Brits?”

“It shows where your head was, even at that age. You were indoctrinated, constantly going out the front door and seeing soldiers, tanks...

“We didn’t know any different, but it was something you were very conscious of.”

There were regular raids of their Ballymurphy Parade home – “wrecking the place” – but it was his uncle, also Tommy but better known as ‘Todler’, who was of most interest.

‘Todler’ Tolan was one of the so-called ‘Magnificent Seven’ Republican internees who escaped from the prison ship, HMS Maidstone - which was moored at the coal wharf in Belfast docks - before swimming to freedom.

“They were always after Tommy.

“Even when I was a kid, Tommy would come into the house. You’d see him stick his hand under the cushion and sit on it… a handgun.

“He’d be in and out in a flash, never hung about... then he was shot dead.”

‘Todler’ Tolan was killed by Official IRA gunmen on July 27, 1977.

A few streets away, kids gleefully celebrated the birthday of Liz Tolan, Tommy’s older sister. The sound of shots firing made their way to Ballymurphy Parade but, initially at least, those reverberations weren’t enough to interrupt the party.

“You’d constantly hear shooting in the Murph, or bombs going off. But then the front door went, somebody telling my da Tommy had been shot.

“We were all playing table-tennis in the house, messing about, then next thing, bang, everything was up in the air – like, what’s going on?

“The funeral was at my granny’s house, Tommy was lying under the window, the ‘Ra were there in full regalia…”

He covered his ears and ducked his head as shots were fired over the coffin outside. From that day “the whole dynamic changed”.

“Going to school, the Brits were stopping people, and if anybody mentioned Tommy Tolan, because I had the same name as him, they’d have hit you a slap.

“It got to the stage where I wouldn’t give my name - I’d give the wee boy up the street’s name, rhymed off his address, date of birth, everything.

“I have no problem saying that we got involved in the resistance and standing up for the people of Ballymurphy. We were all like ‘let’s get tore in’. At Springhill, round at the junction, there’d have been murder, absolute mayhem.

“Honestly, I look at my own kids now and their upbringing, and it’s like night and day. They’re growing up with equality, which is brilliant... we were just born into the war here.

“That’s how you became involved in all sorts of madness.”

Tommy Tolan (left) with Darren Corbett, Paul McCullagh and Mark O'Hare
Tommy Tolan (left) with Darren Corbett, Paul McCullagh and Mark O'Hare

Boxing would become part of the daily diet too, though dedication was often dictated by circumstance as he became more deeply wedded to the Republican cause.

After watching the likes of Jim Braniff and Dougie Adams in action, back when Ulster senior finals night was broadcast on terrestrial TV, Tolan and older brother Patrick joined Corpus Christi.

“They were movie stars to us…”

That journey took him to St Agnes’s where, training alongside future world champion Brian Magee, Tolan would reach an Irish intermediate final before he “got caught up in the world again”.

“I was about 20, trying to keep the balls in the air all at the one time, trying to box, do what I was doing, trying to hold down employment too.

“I became an apprentice joiner and then the same thing again, I was away missing. I’d go AWOL for a few weeks, you wouldn’t see me. I’d go back in and the boys just said to me ‘listen kid, you’re bringing too much heat to the building site’. And I was away again.”

It wasn’t long, though, until the itch returned.

Running around Falls Park one day, he took a detour via Turf Lodge, knowing Brian Magee was now training at Holy Trinity. After a two-minute conversation with Harry Hawkins, Tolan was already plotting a return to the ring.

He has great memories of trips to Philadelphia and Waterford, as well as taking on club-mate Conall Carmichael in the 1999 Ulster senior final. Tolan lost on a countback and soon decided to try his hand in the paid ranks.

Mark O’Hare, a friend from Ballymurphy, was training with Paul McCullagh, who had helped the likes of Barry McGuigan, Hugh Russell and Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley during years spent at Eastwood’s Gym.

For Tolan, it proved a match made in heaven – even if his new coach’s words of wisdom took a while to land.

“Paul was an outstanding man, and a devoted Catholic.

“He’d have given us wee holy prayers… at the time I’d have been like ‘Paul give my head a holiday, would ye?’ I want to box and fight, and he’s talking to me about the Blessed Mother.

“But he would’ve been like a father figure to us all, asking how everyone was doing, talking about the future – ‘Tommy, get away from the madness, get away from all that shite’. He was always trying to guide you along the right path.

“We started training at 10 in the morning, Paul would’ve been to Mass at nine, and I remember saying ‘what?! Why do you go every day? You must have done some sins!’ And his answer was always the same - ‘I just love God’.

“But I was intrigued. Maybe it planted a bit of seed in me. Back then, though, the penny hadn’t dropped.”

In boxing terms, McCullagh was “light years ahead of his time” but, just four fights into his pro career, their partnership was put on the long finger as Tolan’s fighting days – inside the ring at least – came to a shuddering, and shocking, halt.


FEBRUARY 20, 2004. At around 5.45pm, four masked men wearing white forensic suits and gloves entered Kelly’s Cellars in Belfast city centre, severely beating dissident Republican Bobby Tohill before dragging him into a waiting vehicle.

Having been alerted by a member of the public, the PSNI intercepted the van on nearby Castle Street. Tommy Tolan - along with Harry Fitzsimmons, Gerard McCrory and Liam Rainey - was arrested and subsequently remanded in custody on charges of causing grievous bodily harm, unlawful imprisonment and the possession of items likely to be of use to terrorists.

In a wider context too, the blue touch paper had been lit. Secretary of State Paul Murphy faced calls to bar Sinn Fein from negotiations on the future of the Good Friday Agreement after PSNI Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, blamed the Provisional IRA for the abduction attempt.

The potential political ramifications were huge.

Although the IRA maintained that it did not authorise any action against Tohill, a subsequent Independent Monitoring Commission report concluded that the organisation had planned and carried out the attack.

Charges of IRA membership against the four men were eventually dropped but, while awaiting sentencing in 2006, Tolan heeded advice to go on the run at the first opportunity.

“We got rammed by the cops - they booted 40 shades of green out of me. One of them kicked me in the back and I thought he’d put his boot right through me.

“We were brought to Antrim custody suite, they told us Bobby had died, so you’re thinking ‘f**k me, here we go’. Not that we would have been talking to them people anyway.

“Anyway, after bail came the court date, we were told you need to go away for a while - this is too hot, don’t be about. The word coming down was we were going to get 16 years where, if you go away for a while, we’ll get you eight. So I said okay.”

Tolan headed for Dundalk and stayed in Bray for a period, even training in the same gym as a young Katie Taylor. But it would prove a temporary arrangement as Tolan made the decision to go back to Belfast.

“I would never have given myself over to the enemy for anybody, but I knew the risk I was taking.

“Then the next morning we were heading back to Dundalk with my mate and his brother, past Sprucefield, heading towards Newry, when a cop car came behind us...”

Despite initially escaping the officers’ notice, a scar on his neck eventually gave Tolan away.

A six year sentence became three-and-a-half years in Maghaberry before his release in 2010. There was no great moment of revelation inside but, having done stints in solitary confinement for fighting - three weeks straight at one point - Tolan’s outlook gradually evolved.

“In jail, I got to know what makes me happy, what makes me sad, what makes me angry, what makes me jealous. I know the triggers. I know if somebody’s trying to put me down, or belittle me.

“When those triggers come along, I know how to deal with it. Was jail all bad? Absolutely not. I got to know me. I knew to cherish my wife and kids more. Jackie’s a diamond – she was paying the mortgage, putting clothes on the kids, feeding them… she had to go through a lot.

“But do I regret what happened? It would be different if there was any shame in going to jail for that. Absolutely not. Not at all. Sacrifices had to be made, and I made them.

“But I’m very conscious now of making up for that time. Everything I have now, I would give to her in a heartbeat.”

Tommy Tolan took on future world champion Rocky Fielding in a super-middleweight bout at Liverpool's Echo Arena in 2011. Picture by PA
Tommy Tolan took on future world champion Rocky Fielding in a super-middleweight bout at Liverpool's Echo Arena in 2011. Picture by PA (PA)

There was unfinished business elsewhere too.

Despite a five-year absence from the ring, a 34-year-old Tolan went straight to Paul McCullagh upon his release. When McCullagh decided to take a break from training, Tolan hooked up with good friend Gerard McCafferty. The show was back on the road.

Tolan’s fearless attitude saw him fight all the way up to cruiserweight, almost three stones above his natural middleweight - including in his comeback bout against the highly-rated Michael Sweeney.

McCafferty had warned him that, entering this stage of his career, viewed by promoters as fodder for up-and-coming opponents, it might pay to exercise a bit more caution once the bell sounded. Tommy Tolan, though, only ever knew one way.

“I wouldn’t have give a bollocks. Not a second thought.

“The plan would’ve always been game on, let’s go. I knew I had the thunder in both hands to put their lights out with one shot. The bigger the better - bring it on.”

Although he lost out on points to Sweeney, a devastating left hook inflicted a first defeat on JJ McDonagh, opening the door to bigger and better paydays. Tolan later went to war with three future ‘Canelo’ opponents, Rocky Fielding, Billy Joe Saunders and Callum Smith.

Then there was Liam Williams, Luke Keeler, Callum Johnson and Paul Smith, all of whom fought for world belts, while the likes of Eamonn O’Kane and Tony Jeffries arrived in the pro game as decorated amateurs.

Tolan lost them all but, on each occasion, went down swinging.

“I fought the best in the world, most of the time I got maybe a week to prepare, other times I only got about three days. My fitness was sound, I’d have been training twice a day - I was never too far away.

“But in terms of getting into camp to prepare for a fight? No. The main thing to do was to make weight.”

A run of six straight wins brought Irish, Celtic and Maltese belts, and marked the end of a rollercoaster career. But the money earned through boxing was used wisely, helping set up his Tolan Security firm, while plans are currently afoot for the beginning of a celebrity bodyguard business.

Faith, though, is at the centre of it all, to the extent he laughs when recalling his inquisition of Paul McCullagh back in the day.

“Now I’m the one who goes to Mass every day!

“When I came out of jail I went to confession, and the priest says ‘kid, you’re too much for me,come back tomorrow and we’ll start where we leave off’.

“He gave me absolution - I ended up going for five days. He says to me afterwards ‘you’re the reason I became a priest - you’re sincere in what you’re saying, and if you’re truly sorry, that means you’ll never do it again’.

“The weight on my shoulders, knowing I had God’s forgiveness, it was gone. I go to Mass every morning because I know that what I feel is real – that it’s genuine. I wouldn’t really evangelise with many people, it’s something I hold close to my heart and it stays there.

“Now, I’m not a happy clapper, I’m a man’s man. I do the door and, if I see an injustice being done I’ll right it. But to this day I’d be truly thankful for everything that has happened in my life, because it brought me to this point where I’ve never felt stronger, mentally or physically.

“I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had, the people I’ve met… growing up in Ballymurphy, okay, we maybe didn’t go and do too many GCSEs or A-levels, or go on to university, but there’s one sure thing, the people I would know, in terms of life skills, they’d be A-star students.

“You learn how to read people quickly, and to know when somebody’s bullshitting you – if somebody’s pishing down your back and telling you it’s raining.

“I wouldn’t change any of that.”