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'They were fighters not killers' | How boxing united during the Troubles

Eoin Harte
Eoin Harte

11:38 12 Jun 2019


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Donald McRae was on Wednesday's OTB AM to talk about his book In Sunshine or in Shadow: How boxing brought hope in the Troubles.

The South African sports writer spoke about the healing effect that boxing had in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles and how it taught members from the opposing communities to respect each other.

“Unlike the gunmen or the politicians, the boxers gave opportunities for the community to come together.

“I find it bizarre as boxing is such a violent activity and yet it has this peace-making ability. You know, you couldn’t make it up,” McRae said.

McRae himself grew up in a divided society in apartheid-era South Africa and said that he saw many similarities between the two troubled countries at that time.

While boxing acted as more of a temporary reprieve from the tensions that troubled the North even members of the republican and loyalist movements made exceptions for boxing.

“I think the gunmen allowed boxing some latitude and allowed fighters to go from one no-go-zone to the other. They were besotted with boxing, they admired the hardness of the boxers,” McRae explained.

A story which stands out in McRae’s book is that of Charlie Nash, a famous amateur boxer, who lost his brother in Bloody Sunday.

The IRA approached Nash to ask him to join their ranks but Nash, a fighter not a killer, couldn’t see any good coming from joining the republican movement.

“Because he was the most famous man in their city he would have a huge impact.

“Charlie just said no and said ‘Why would I do that? Me or my family, if we kill someone else it would make another family suffer.’

“They’re punching the lights out of each other but extending the hand of friendship to each other at the same time,” McRae said.

Even in brutal fights between a Catholic and a Protestant, there was rarely any trouble in the crowds between the opposing sets of fans, McRae found.

“In 1982 there was a fight between Davy Larmour, who was a Protestant fighter and Hugh Russell, who was a Catholic fighter. They fought in the Ulster Hall the first time and it was a bloodbath of a fight between them.

“But their fans were there, the fans were peaceful, supporting their fighter but there was no animosity in this hall. But meanwhile, in day to day activity, they couldn’t mingle at all,” McRae commented.

Donald McRae’s latest book In Sunshine or in Shadow: How boxing brought hope in the Troubles is available now and has been described as an “outstanding and important book” by Andy Lee.

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