New book gets to grips with the golden age of wrestling in Derry

‘Falls, Brawls and Town Halls’, a new book by Nick Campbell, recalls the glory days of professional wrestling in NI with a particular emphasis on Derry.

Friday, 11th June 2021, 12:54 pm
1970s... Giant Haystacks does his thing at Derry's Templemore Sports Complex.
1970s... Giant Haystacks does his thing at Derry's Templemore Sports Complex.

Mick Shannon, Andy McClea and Frank O’Donnell are just some of the names that conjure up memories of the ‘old grappling game’ in Derry.

Whether it was big nights below the stained glass windows of Derry Guildhall’s main hall in the 1950s or screaming audiences packed into Templemore Sports Complex in the ‘70s, professional wrestling has managed to etch itself a niche in the annals of local sporting history.

So popular were the events locally that some of the sport’s leading lights - Jackie Pallo and Giant Haystacks included - regularly featured in contests in the city. Even at the height of the Troubles - when TV audiences thrilled to the action on ITV’s ‘World of Sport’ - big names travelled to NI to entertain.

GRAPPLERS... Mick Shannon - known to his friends as Mickey Gallagher - tries to negotiate his way out of a headlock during a contest in the 1970s.

The immense popularity of wrestling in NI, particularly in Derry, is now chronicled in a new book which tells its story from the 1930s onwards. Author Nick Campbell - himself a local level performer on the Irish scene since 2014 - traces the story of the men and women who, as wrestlers, referees and MCs, entertained the masses.

Among those he turns the spotlight on is arguably the ‘grandee’ of pro wrestling in Derry - Mick Shannon, whose real name was Michael Gallagher. Born in Derry in 1937, Mickey would have seen the stars of Worldwide Promotions in the city’s Guildhall in the 1950s and would have trained with the Derry Wrestling Club at Andy McClea’s famed gym.

After several years in the Irish Army, the book reveals, Gallagher’s interest in pro wrestling was reignited when he discovered the Albion Street gym in Belfast and he began travelling there with a factory worker friend.

Choosing the surname ‘Shannon’ in reference to Ireland’s longest river, Mick debuted with the NI Wrestling Association in 1969 and, buoyed with confidence from the cards he’d featured on, helped organise the event at the Guildhall in 1970. Having Mick Shannon in Derry meant the city would host more wrestling going forward with frequent fixtures at the Marian Hall in Shantallow.

1960s... Andy McClea (second from left) pictured as Jackie Pallo - one of the greats from pro wrestling's golden era - signs autographs before an exhibition at Derry's Guildhall.

It was in the late 1970s that Mickey founded The Buccaneers Wrestling Club at the Marian Hall where he trained youngsters in the sport.

Nick Campbell recalls: “Mickey Gallagher was Derry’s last local level professional wrestler until the new millennium and, upon his passing, just a few weeks after his 83rd birthday in January 2020, he sadly took with him the last surviving first-hand account of the history of pro wrestling in the city.”

This history, of course, also includes the name of Andy McClea who, in the early 1950s, operated his own weightlifting gym in Derry.

As many of the weight-lifters became pro wrestlers, Andy McClea’s gym acted not only as a gateway into the grappling game but also as the city’s first dedicated space for pro wrestling practice outside of show days.

1980s... Mickey Gallagher teaching youngsters to wrestle at Marian Hall.

Striving for excellence in sports and fitness was, recalls Nick Campbell, McClea’s life and livelihood, so, unsurprisingly, he was also the standout of the Derry Wrestling Club and, in time, got to ‘mix it’ in matches with several UK/international wrestlers.

○ ‘Fall, Brawls and Town Halls: The History of Professional Wrestling in NI’, by Nick Campbell, is available to buy now.