Even in the worst of times, boxing managed to squeeze its way between Belfast’s feuding halves, and Carl Frampton’s victory just adds another layer to the most remarkable achievement in Irish sport, writes Ewan MacKenna
‘I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.’
Frank Costello, The Departed
Many of the windows of the tightly-packed, red-brick terraced houses are covered in Union Jacks. It’s a similar story outside as a fluttering noise swoops down from the lampposts. On the walls, some of the less insulting graffiti involves silhouettes of the Queen’s head dotted on walls like a line of postage stamps. Welcome to the UDA stronghold of Tiger’s Bay where the taxi driver asks what you’re doing here with a surname like yours and where mere syllables spoken too loudly in a coffee shop are met by a sudden hush and stares all around.
There wasn’t a Union Jack on Carl Frampton’s window growing up though. Look out, and the nationalist New Lodge looked right back. That was the quickest way into the city centre but he never dared venture through because of the constant whispers. Instead, keeping on their side, boys were boys, Belfast style. That was until a 16-year-old friend by the name of Glen Branagh hung onto a pipe bomb a little too long one Sunday back in 2001 and blew himself apart. A member of the UDA’s youth wing, they claimed the explosive came from across the line and having enough of it all, Frampton fled to the nearby Midland’s Gym for sanctuary and solace.
Yet after all this, Frampton has just penned another chapter in the most remarkable story in Irish sport because, while such environments create great fighters the globe over, they aren’t supposed to create those who straddle and calm violent waters. Imagine a Palestinian and an Israeli, a Russian and a Ukrainian, cheering on the one fighter. But that’s what boxing here does.
Last Saturday, 16,000 from Tiger’s Bay and the New Lodge, the Falls and the Shankill, braved a bitter night and packed into a specially-built arena on the Titanic slipways to watch one of theirs win a world title. Most funding came from Stormont and the official line said it was an investment with the fight showing in over 90 countries. But in truth it was an investment in their own identity and maturity as the significance would have been lost on most viewing from afar. There were no anthems or colours, just pop music and pride. That fits the narrative of boxing in Belfast just fine.
In terms of social division, a sport like golf cannot relate to the angriest areas. In terms of cultural division, Gaelic games, soccer and rugby are about the identity of some, but not all. Crucially though, boxing has always taught a lesson too often missed by the working class on both sides – namely they’ve always had more in common with each other than with their own elites. Indeed Frampton’s own granddad who passed away recently once told him of a boxing match between Ireland and West Germany on the Shankill. The home team including Frampton’s current mentor Barry McGuigan wore green vests with shamrocks and were roared on by Loyalist paramilitaries.
Of course there are many boxing strands weaving their way between both extremes. McGuigan’s coach was Gerry Storey and it was because of Storey that Frampton, at 15, finally ventured beyond the acidic whispers and into the New Lodge so he could train at the Holy Family club. “You have this impression people will be out to attack you,” Frampton told me. “That them-and-us mentality is easy to pick up when you are surrounded by it. Growing up you’re like a sponge.” Yet Storey is just another great Belfast coach wringing sponges dry all his life. His club is just a small loft over the North Queen Street Social Centre yet in there he’s created champions. And created tolerance.
Years back, Storey once drove through the rattle of raging gunfire on the Falls. He pulled up at the gym, opened the car door and all went quiet. When inside, he heard the shots start up again and by that night, some boxers of his were stopped by soldiers. “He must be somebody. There was a full-scale battle with the IRA, but when that car made an appearance there was a ceasefire until he got into the club. He must be high ranking.” But he was simply respected. By both. He was even asked by the UVF Army Council to hold shows, gave prisoners from both wings his time in the Maze and all the while, back at his club, the rules have always been no swearing, no political talk and no jerseys. Just boxing, and its by-product of respect.
That McGuigan spent time in such a stable showed. And that spirit showed in many others too like Martin Rogan, a former Commonwealth heavyweight champion who, as a Catholic child, witnessed a loyalist hit squad leave steam rising from a fatal hole in a neighbour’s chest; was fired upon by a paramilitary sniper as a teen; was arrested as a young adult and had the handcuffs clamped so tightly they damaged nerves in his wrists; yet dragged fans and friends from even Protestant areas to his fights. Now, Frampton is just the latest to abide by that unwritten rule. In fact just like McGuigan who married a Protestant, his wife Christine is Catholic while Paddy Barnes was his best man.
All that made it so joyous to see him crowned champion but there was another, even more important thought, when witnessing his coronation. After the bell, he took his baby daughter Carla into the ring but she didn’t wake. “Someday though, wide-eyed and proud,” you thought, “hopefully she can realise that her generation benefited most from her father and his sport. As they are the fighting men Belfast can always be truly proud of.”
Sunday Business Post
14 September, 2014