For a fleeting moment he helped a nation to see past tags, but all these years later, Francis Barrett tells Ewan MacKenna that life is still a fight for acceptance.
You can be sure he’d no longer make light-middleweight.
His white t-shirt is sullied from a day’s work. The stubble on his face is congregating like the bristles of a yard brush. But behind it all he’s the same Francis Barrett as, fresh from a day’s work, he pulls off that smile that’s somehow a cocktail of innocence and devilment all at once. It’s a throwback to the young fighter we all loved because he made us think this country might be growing up and made us realise it was better to look up to someone, not down at them.
These days, at 35, Barrett is driving lorries in north London for a living and everywhere he goes in this city there are the reminders as Olympic rings adorn each side of every street.
He gazes out at them like the kid who, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, carried the flag for his country 16 years ago. The best time of his life. But a fear of nostalgia and a yearning for the past are not why he’ll be escaping to Galway before they begin this time. If there’s one thing he hates, it’s traffic, and this place is bad enough at the best of times so he’ll go back to Ireland, do some fishing and make a return when the Olympic circus has left town.
“People wonder do I miss being an Olympian,” he says. “I’m too busy to miss all that, I’ve too much work to be doing but the phone’s been ringing with journalists all day. It’s brilliant. People wanting to talk about Atlanta. Like you.”
But you want to talk about so much more. About the journey, the destination, the return, the prejudice. About how he went to the Olympic Boxing Club as a child and asked coach Chick Gillen what it meant and wondered would Travellers be allowed at the Games and loved the answer of every colour and creed being accepted.
How not long after, a boy called him a knacker and how he tried to talk and not fight his way past it. “Don’t be calling me any names, it’s not right. I’m in the boxing club now and I don’t want to be sparring you. Call me that name again and I’ll spar you though.”
How he went to Atlanta in ’96 with the hope of getting “electricity for the site” and how he came home to find serving your country mattered little to some.
“I’d often be thinking now how time flies,” he continues. “They were great days but a lot of people who’d have been so happy for me have died since. Me being there, it made them proud as well. Especially the opening ceremony. I only found out I was getting the flag about an hour before it. Then I said, ‘I’ve to go to the toilet to have a leak’ and someone else tried to grab a hold of the flag. Pat Hickey came running into the jacks. ‘Francis, Francis, quick, it’s your moment.’ Brilliant.
“I was just gone 19. I walked out and looked all around me. ‘Jesus,’ I said, ‘this is lovely’. I was walking down the stairs and saw Bill Clinton waving and I clenched the fist. ‘Alright buddy,’ I shouted. Good times. And there was never any pressure about who I was representing. I’m a Traveller but I’m Irish. We are all Irish, just different cultures and there’s good and bad in everyone. Everyone isn’t a saint. But Travellers never asked was I representing them at any stage. I represented myself, my family and Ireland.”
From the smallest trailer to the biggest stage. When it turned out he had a natural talent his father went off and got the container from the back of a truck. Francis reckons it was about 20 feet long and 10 feet wide and his sister painted boxers on the side of it. Inside there was a heavy bag in one corner, a springboard in the middle while at the other end was a sheet of timber for him to skip on. Outside, with his brother Jimmy, he did pad work while on the grass they painted a ring and all the kids would come and spar. And Francis was tough. He’d keep coming. Then again, they’d all known that since his father told him to get a mule out of a neighbour’s garden as a child. At first the animal kept biting him but Francis wouldn’t back down. He tried to jockey it, was sent through the air and onto his head but still got up and finally got the better of it.
A metaphor for his life.
“At the time everyone was talking about Michael Carruth and there was a great buzz and sure we didn’t have a whole lot else so this was great. We had no running water, an auld toilet there with a tap behind it was all. My mother, I don’t know how she done it, she used to wash clothes in a bathtub outside. I don’t know how, to this day, she didn’t get arthritis. She did that for years to make sure we’d clean clothes to go to school and to boxing. The only bit of electricity we had, every evening at six the father would start the generator. We only had enough power to run a couple of TVs and lights and every so often the generator would break down. We’d spend half the night trying to fix it then.”
He pounds his chest hard and tells you it doesn’t matter what facilities you have, it’s what’s inside that counts. But he’s already shown everyone that a long time ago. From that trailer to junior to the Olympics in 15 months. He recalls winning a box-off on a countback just to go to the Games and how the rest of the team came in and lifted him up and “it didn’t even cross their minds I was a Traveller”. His achievements saw politicians take interest in the conditions the family was living in and houses were built. Fr Ned Crosbie had him up in front of mass while Chick Gillen had him on his knees in his barber shop blessing him before he went. Galway Bay FM even paid for two of his brothers, Jimmy and John, to go to Atlanta.
“Cahill O’Grady went to Atlanta as well, we got on great. He’d grab hold of me in a headlock and say ‘Go way ya farmer’. And the brothers, the minute they landed in the stadium, this guy walked up behind them, tapped them on the shoulder. ‘Hey man, are ye two Travellers?’ Jimmy looked at John and said, ‘What’s going on here?’. This guy was an Irish-American Traveller. The boys had booked into a hotel but he went down, made them get their money back and brought them to his place. But the time I was in the Games, Chick was dying of cancer. They did a documentary and he was watching me fight and says, ‘He’s a great kid’. I always get emotional when I see that. The same when I see clips of me walking out with the flag. I get emotional. Every time.”
As for the boxing itself at those Games. Ah, the boxing wasn’t what mattered. He won his first bout and lost his second 18-6 but by then it was about more than sport. “I reminded myself I came from nothing, an old trailer on the side of the road and to get to the last 16 of the Olympics is a big achievement. I didn’t leave anyone down. My auld fella rang me and said ‘I’m proud of you son’. That was very emotional too.”
Some athletes struggle to cope with the silence after such noise. Not Barrett. When he came home, he was whisked off to London to get married and besides, there was plenty of work to be doing.
“A few said to me before I went, ‘You’ll be a changed man when you come back’. I said I am who I am, I’d never change. A year on one guy came up to me and said, ‘You are a man of your word, you didn’t change’. And why should you? There were enough activities around our place to keep my feet on the ground. We came back, the limelight was gone, back to that shed training.”
But others made sure he stayed grounded too. In 1997, a time when he didn’t drink, even if he barely does now, he went to a bar in Salthill with his brother and wife. “The bouncer said to John, ‘You aren’t coming in’. I said, ‘Why’ and they said, ‘You just can’t’. John went off his head a bit. I said, ‘Here, leave it, forget it. You fight for your country and that’s the respect you get’. But that’s a small minority. The rest are A1, all the people of Galway are top class, it’s just the bars.”
But that year, his own kept him grounded too. “McDonagh lads,” he’ll tell you. “They wanted me to get involved in a street fight. I didn’t want to as I was thinking of going pro and went down with my father out of the goodness of my heart to tell them.” There, one guy punched Barrett but got dropped. The same happened the second of them. “Then the first fella stabbed my auld fella and stuck a knife in my neck and stabbed me twice in the chest. My father was lying on the ground so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll fight, but give me a bit of fair play’. ‘We won’t ya bastard, we are going to kill ya’. I got about 40 stitches and a scar on my face. Worst of all, I thought when my hand was cut my boxing was finished. But life goes on. The priest came in and said, ‘Lads, bypass each other and leave it at that’. They got a suspended sentence, that’s the way the system works.”
What he loved most about the amateur game were the regular fights. On the week he beat Ricky Hatton in 1995, it was one of three bouts that week. But what he hated about the amateur game was the scoring and when he lost to Neil Gough and missed out on Sydney in 2000, he’d had enough. But the pro game turned out to be every bit as tough. When he beat Jon Honney in 2003 his reward was no more than satisfaction and a feed of burgers from a nearby McDonalds. Such food was his big weakness. That and a face that leaked too much and accounted for two of his three losses.
“But I loved the pro game. I love when you are in a fight, you’ve eight rounds done, there’s more to go. People used to say to me why I didn’t do much of a warm-up. I told them I’d be warm after the first round.” But after fights came hard and quick early on, they then slowed.
For a guy that was getting up at four to run, doing a day’s work and hitting the gym each evening there needed to be more so he went in to promoter Frank Warren and said he wanted to buy out his contract. “I thanked him for what he did and gave him £5,000. Five grand doesn’t come easy to me but I wasn’t going anywhere.”
For a while there was talk of a European title fight in Pearse Stadium but only once did he get to fight in Ireland. “That was the one thing I didn’t do in my career, got back home to fight. I never got the opportunity. That was my downfall. When I went with Mick Hennessy, I said bring me to Ireland, I’m as popular as Ricky Hatton is here. It never happened. After a while I got pissed off. It wasn’t money though. I’d go to Jim Evans’ gym, I was thinking about a comeback and he said if I’d have gotten a hold of you as a young lad I’d have turned you into a champion. But after my last fight in 2005 I said enough is enough. I’d done it from 11 to 28, that’s a long haul. Some guys don’t know when to stop but they have nothing else to do. I can operate machines, drive diggers. I learned trades and wasn’t going to be a journeyman.”
After all he did and didn’t do, there’s one story that’s perhaps the most saddening and maddening when it comes to Barrett. Three years ago, he decided to try his hand at promoting and with his nephew Collie a decent but too small of a heavyweight, he said he’d put on a show in Galway.
He received a call from businessman Keith Walker regarding the venture and found out he was in town. Outside a bar, they met, Barrett initially declined to go in but Walker convinced him to at least have a water.
“Next thing the bouncer says, ‘You can’t come on’. I kept asking him for a reason. Eventually he said, ‘Because you are wearing runners’. ‘Okay, fair enough, what’s the difference between me and these three fellas behind me, they are all wearing runners.’ ‘The difference is you are not coming in.’ I took off the jacket, there were three bouncers and I was going to slap the head off them. ‘Out here lads,’ I said. ‘I’m going to beat the shit out of ye.’ I freaked out, got sick of it all but Keith came out, put his arms around me and took me for a walk. He’s from Leeds and didn’t think much of Ireland after that. In England they don’t care who you are, money is good enough.
“The worst thing though is when Travellers decide to have a drink, and get a good drink and a fight breaks out and windows are smashed. That does them no favours but you can’t paint everyone with one brush. Just bar the ones that caused the trouble. I tried to keep my head down, that time I was going to leave it and my brother said, ‘This is happening too much, you need to stand up and bring these people to court. You weren’t drinking. You were trying to bring some extra money into Galway.’ So I brought them to court, when I did that they threatened me but I knew I wasn’t in the wrong. They settled the case beforehand, I got a written apology and the mayor even apologised.”
His show went ahead and even after all that he decided he wanted it to exhibit the multiculturalism of Galway. Between fights he had a settled girl singing, a Traveller girl singing, some African immigrants break dancing. But just 500 turned up in Leisureland and he struggled to break even. For that reason it was a one-off.
You ask if he prefers London because this is a melting pot of all sorts and he doesn’t stand out. He says he likes both here and Galway and is happy as long as he doesn’t have to sit still for too long. You ask if he’s any regrets and he says none whatsoever. You ask what’s next and he says he has four children now so to put food on the table and keep finding a day’s work is what matters most and what makes him happy in life.
“I like to be out and about, I like to get a shovel in my hand. People say why do this sort of work, you are an Olympian, you carried the flag. But the simple answer is I love it. I’m not interested in anything else, I was always rough and ready, I’ll be like that til the day I die. I’m not one of these lads who’ll wear a suit and work in an office. It’s just not me.”
And as he gets ready to head back to the site he now lives on, you ask what is him? “I’m old dirty boots,” he smiles with that same look of devilment and endearing innocence. “I’m like a lot of Irish here, trying to earn a few quid to survive. I’ve never been any different, ever since I was a kid. A lot has happened between then and now but I’m still the same Francis Barrett after it all. I’m still old dirty boots.”
21 July, 2012