The first in a series of occasional articles on Boxing Heroes by Thomas Myler

For a small nation, there is little doubt that Ireland’s boxing heroes have punched well above their weight on the world’s stage.

Take Barry McGuigan. The politicians may have brought about peace on both sides of the border in the 1990s after many years of bombs, bullets and bloodshed. But a decade earlier, Barry played his part in reconciliation.
Billed as the ‘Clones Cyclone,’ McGuigan succeeded in bringing together north and south communities, Catholics and Protestants, and encouraged unity during the darkest days of the Troubles. As Ring magazine put it, “When Barry boxed, there was peace.”

On the night he won the world featherweight title from Panama’s Eusebio Pedroza in London on a hot summer’s night in 1985, he boxed under the United Nations flag of peace rather than wearing Irish or British colours.
It did not matter that Barry himself was a Catholic and his wife and childhood sweetheart, Sandra, was a Protestant.

Together they forged and strengthened the religious link. As he told me, “The Shankill Road was known at the time as a killing zone for Catholics. But in an extraordinary way, the Loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force would guarantee my safety and even gave me a personal escort.

“After that, the Loyalists formed a Barry McGuigan Supporters Club, making me welcome in areas where Catholics would have been terrified to set foot in.
“They had a profound effect on me, giving me the feeling in the ring that I could be a representative of the possibility of a united Ireland.

“The support I got from Catholics and Protestants was because the shadows run deep – and my fights felt a little like sunshine. Both sides would say, ‘Leave the fighting to McGuigan.’ You see, it was all entertainment. People loved to forget the Troubles for a while.

“The fact that I wouldn’t wear the colours of the Irish flag or the British flag or put on a sign that said this is what I represent was powerful. I thought it was a very mature and dangerous thing to do but I wouldn’t choose sides. People appreciated that.”

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own