There comes a time in every man’s life when he awakens to the heavy realisation that he will never be heavyweight champion of the world.
From that moment onwards, one’s life goes downhill. It is an almost universal phenomenon, save for one place. I refer, of course, to Dungiven.
We brought in the New Year with the Kevin Lynch’s ‘Fight Night’ in a jam-packed community centre. It was an extraordinary affair. “Showbiz with blood,” as the boxing journalist George Plimpton, once remarked.
I was compere for the evening (Rodney O’Neill insisted on a tuxedo and the whole getting ready to rumble thing) and I cannot remember the last time I had such fun.
There were four Derry City lads sitting together in the front row who almost expired with laughter as the proceedings unfolded. They seemed to think they were witnessing some sort of hillbilly health and safety nightmare. Softies from the city. Is it any wonder they’ve never won anything?
The first fight of the evening featured Patsy Kealey and Dungiven’s Mickey Moran (bearing the logo on his gown “There’s only one Mickey Moran.”) As the hundreds in attendance and millions watching at home looked on enthralled, Patsy made his entrance on a horse. Sadly, this hadn’t been rehearsed.
As the horse stepped onto the polished floor of the community centre, she immediately started to slither and within seconds, she fell to one side and Patsy was thrown into the crowd. Undeterred, they picked themselves up and tried again before abandoning.
“Next year we’ll put trainers on her Joe,” said Patsy as he stepped into the ring. Thankfully Mickey, his 52-year-old opponent, did not lose his focus.
Rodney – in the presence of the officials - had spoken to the boxers in the changing area beforehand reminding them that we were all comrades and that the highest traditions of the Gael should be observed. “If you connect with a man and he’s hurt, step back from him,“ insisted Rodney. “This is all about fun tonight. We’re all here in a good cause.”
“What a load of s...e” muttered one of the boys as we left the changing room. Rodney’s spirit of fun didn’t materialise. When the fighters came together for their final ring instructions, I cannot remember each and every word referee Liam Duffy said, but the gist of it was “Give the people what they’re here for lads. Get stuck in. I’ll not get in your road!”
Liam is a Foreglen man, which puts me in mind of a story about Gerry Roe, another Foreglen referee. In a match at St. Canice’s Park 30 years ago, Dungiven’s Andy Murphy got hit up the mouth by a Ballerin man, right in front of Gerry, who blew his whistle for a free and took no further action.
“Jesus sake Gerry,” said Andy after the free had been taken.”Are you not going to do anything about that?”
“You’re right Andy, it was a bad action. I allowed it but I’ll let you take care of it yourself.”
Absentionism is still alive
Thirty years later, this tradition of refereeing absentionism is alive and well in the Foreglen. Liam did not interrupt a single bout. If the fighter was still on his feet, it was a matter entirely for his own discretion.
The fights were electrifying. Eugene Kelly, current manager of the senior footballers and player-manager when we won the Ulster club title, fought against the much younger Peter Mullaly.
Like many of the boxers, there is no official record of Eugene’s many fights. As in, say, the history of ‘Billy the Kid,’ his record is known only through eye-witness accounts and stories handed down.
I was priveleged to be there at some of his greatest moments, those heavy fists consigning more than one contender to his doom. The battle of the Arcade, where as a young man he won via knockout after his opponent was put through the front window of the saloon, landing flat on his back in the Main Street like Squire Danaher in ‘The Quiet Man,’ is still remembered with awe in the town. As a result, Peter was careful as Eugene pursued him throughout the three rounds, a grin fixed on his face like ‘Dirty Harry.’ Two or three times the bombs came, but the younger man gamely stayed on his feet as the crowd went into a frenzy.
Liam McElhinney and John A. Mullan, two 48-year-old Dungiven legends of both codes, fought a marvellous bout. The contests until that point had been sledging matches between young fellows. As in the story of the old bull and the enthusiastic young bullock, the two veterans boxed with discernment and patience.
Ringside Judge, Paul McCloskey (the undefeated European light welterweight champion) scored this one a draw and no-one could complain. It says something about the community spirit that one of the other bouts on the card featured Liam’s son, Conor, who boxed entirely in accordance with the tenets of the 9th Marquess of Queensbury, winning an excellent bout against the plucky Ciaran Mackle.
But the performance of the evening came from Kevin Hinphey, who boxed like a professional against the very tough Kevin Niblock from St. Gall’s outpointing him with a really beautiful display. In fairness, the absence of a weigh-in may have helped Kevin slightly, his 6’ 3’’ and 15 stone contrasting marginally with his opponent’s 5’ 10’ and 13 stone.
The Main Event
The main event of the evening came with Mickey “The Peace Process” McGonigle taking on Gary ‘the Pappy’ O’Kane. Gary was escorted to the ring by the Dunloy Fallen Comrades Flute Band, who simply stormed the building with a massive sound as people squealed with delight.
Gary publicly announced that if he lost he would paint the new Lynch’s clubhouse for free. Mickey entered the ring dressed as ‘Braveheart.’ Twice the size of Gary, with arms like girders, Gary wisely decided to use the ring, jabbing and moving. Three or four times, Mickey surged towards him and the crowd went berserk, but the Dunloy man is a boxer and always escaped.
Afterwards, a huge buzz settled over the town. I adjourned with Eugene Hassan and Liam Duffy to the Arcade (front window long since fixed). Later, at around 3.00 a.m, myself and Eugene wandered down the town.
“Is there anywhere down there we could get a drink?” I said to a young fellow walking unsteadily up the main street.
“Beyond a shadow of a doubt,” he responded, pointing. He was right. In fact, when we went through the door, half the town was already there. “Same again Joe?” said the barmaid. “Two stout?”
“Yes please” I said, glancing at my watch. 05.15 a.m.
Dungiven. The rest of you must be jealous!