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From one legendary boxing writer to another: Thomas Hauser reviews the latest book from Donald McRae, In Sunshine Or In Shadow

EACH new book by Donald McRae is cause for anticipation. In Sunshine or in Shadow is his 12th – and fourth about boxing. Like the previous three, it explores themes that go far beyond the sweet science. In Sunshine Or In Shadow focuses on a 13-year period during the time when Northern Ireland was torn apart by sectarian violence spawned by hate that claimed thousands of lives.

McRae’s telling begins on January 30, 1972 (a day known as “Bloody Sunday”), when 14 unarmed demonstrators were shot to death by British soldiers during a civil rights march in Northern Ireland. The march had been organized by Derry MP Ivan Cooper to protest a policy of internment without trial that the British government had introduced on August 9, 1971. Thereafter, “Loyalists” and “Republicans” unleashed random violence – often against innocent civilians -for political ends. McRae tracks the saga up until the night of June 8, 1985, when Barry McGuigan (a symbol of unity throughout Ireland) defeated Eusebio Pedroza in London to claim the WBA featherweight crown.

“These were the very worst years of the Troubles,” McRae writes. “The IRA were emphatic there should be a complete withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland. This demand was dismissed by the British government, and hopes of reconciliation had been replaced by increased intransigence on both sides. The Provisional wing of the IRA resolved to unleash an unprecedented campaign of terror. Yet I was drawn to them because, in this period, boxing saved lives and steered countless young men away from joining paramilitary groups.”

In Sunshine Or In Shadow views the Troubles through the prism of trainer Gerry Storey and four fighters – Charlie Nash, Davy Larmour, Hugh Russell, and Barry McGuigan – each of whom was trained by Storey at some point in his ring career. It explores the intersecting worlds of controlled violence in the ring and uncontrolled violence outside it at a time when life was often safer within the ropes than on the streets.

Storey, a Catholic, coached Ireland’s boxing team at the 1972, 1976, and 1980 Olympics. More significantly, he trained both Catholic and Protestant fighters at the Holy Family Boxing Club located in the heart of what was essentially a war zone in Belfast. The respect and admiration felt for Storey by both sides of the conflict was such that he was given what amounted to a diplomatic pass by each warring faction. Recounting a meeting between Story and Loyalist paramilitary leaders, McRae writes, “It was incredible. Many of the men in that room were used to ordering the murder of a random Catholic or planning targeted attacks on Republican communities. Yet they were embracing a Catholic boxing trainer whose family was linked to the IRA.”

Like Storey, Charlie Nash was Catholic. His brother was killed and his father was shot on Bloody Sunday. Over the course of his ring career, he held several regional titles and beat a faded Ken Buchanan in 1979 but lost in his next outing to WBC lightweight champion Jim Watt.

Davy Larmour (Protestant) and Hugh Russell (Catholic) fought two hellacious battles against one another in Belfast five months apart for regional titles. The first was contested on October 5, 1982. Describing the scene, McRae writes, “Catholics and Protestants were jammed against each other. The ongoing tension and violence between the two communities should have turned the beautiful old Ulster Hall into a tinder-box. Instead, it became a roaring sea of unity. People were bound together by boxing. There was no trouble outside the ring that night, no discord nor sectarian chanting, no blood was spilt and no lives were threatened. It was a shimmering miracle in the depths of the Troubles.”

Russell won a 12-round decision. After the fight, the two fighters shared an ambulance to the hospital where they needed dozens of stitches to close their facial wounds. They had endured the bloodiest fight of their lives.

On March 2, Larmour and Russell fought again in Belfast. This time, Larnour prevailed over twelve equally hard rounds. “The strangeness of a Protestant and a Catholic fighting in front of a crowd that mixed supporters from both sides of the divide rose up all over again,” McRae writes. “Gerry Storey had been right all those years. Boxing, for all its brutality and danger, was a force for good.”

As for McGuigan (a Protestant from Northern Ireland married to a Catholic woman); no man did more to bridge the divide between the warring sectarian factions in Northern Ireland than this slight 126-pound boxer.

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Barry McGuigan sparring in 1985 Action Images

McGuigan hailed from Clones in Northern Ireland, on the border with the Republic of Ireland. His water came from a utility in the north; his electricity from the south.

“It was a horrible, terrifying time,” McGuigan says of the Troubles. “You look back and think: ‘Christ Almighty, did our neighbors and friends really do such barbaric things?’ But they did. It happened.”

“As a statement of neutrality,” McRae writes, “McGuigan wore a dove of peace on his boxing trunks. He did not believe in terrorism, in the way in which both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries bullied and intimidated their own communities. He was sick of the bombs and the balaclavas, of the kneecappings and the punishment shootings. He had had enough of people being told what they could or could not do by hooded men who sometimes seemed to him to be no better than gangsters. McGuigan could say none of this in dangerous times. He knew that they could kill him in an instant. Far worse, they could kill his family and other innocent people around him. So he listened in silence to the whispers around him. But in his head, he was thinking of the hardcore militants and saying ‘fuck you’ to every one of them. He had lived, along with everyone else, for too long in the pressure cooker of the Troubles.”

“Boxing was accepted and given freedom of movement unlike any other activity because it had street credibility,” McGuigan told McRae. “Boxing has a hardness and a coldness about it. Unlike any other sport, you risk your life in the ring. And to get to the top in boxing you have to endure immense pain. Boxers often come from very harsh backgrounds, and the way they deal with adversity and hurt wins them massive respect with the paramilitaries. Boxing is a violent sport and it connected with these very violent people.”

Thus, McRae recounts, “The ragged cry echoed again and again when the sadness seemed unbearable: ‘Leave the fighting to McGuigan!’ Amid the kneecappings and the killings, people whispered this phrase to themselves. They were sick of the sectarian hatred and the incessant violence and so they said it in Belfast and Derry, in every forsaken corner of Northern Ireland: ‘Leave the fighting to McGuigan!’ The dove of peace on McGuigan’s boxing trunks could have been cloying. But instead, in a time of brutality and war, it gleamed with hope. It meant that you could support the Belfast-based featherweight from Clones whether you lived in the North or the South, whether you were a Catholic or a Protestant, a nun or a gangster, a man or a woman, young or old. McGuigan offered reason to believe in a world beyond the Troubles.”

“Why did I get such special support?” McGuigan says in confirmation. “The answer is simple. There was so much sadness and people were fed up. Boxing was an olive branch. That was the paradox. Peace be with you – and you were punching someone in the mouth.”

In Sunshine Or In Shadow showcases McRae’s art of painting portraits with words and recreating both time and place well. If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s that he assumes too much knowledge on the part of his readers.

In the opening pages, McRae writes, “This book makes no attempt to explore the roots of the conflict or to recount how the Troubles finally ended. That task has been completed many times before.”

But the Troubles ended more than two decades years ago. Many readers (particularly young ones) don’t have a frame of reference to put McRae’s narrative in. At one point, I took a break from reading to go online for a brief tutorial on the Troubles. It’s a tribute to the intensity of McRae’s writing that I chose to do so. But I shouldn’t have had to do it.

Beyond that, In Sunshine Or In Shadow offers McRae’s reliable brand of thorough research blended with clear evocative writing. One particularly moving chapter describes how, in the aftermath of the 1981 hunger strikes, Storey was invited into the infamous Maze prison to teach boxing to Republican and Loyalist prisoners on separate nights each week.

Billy Hutchinson (a loyalist paramilitary prisoner in the Maze) later told McRae, “We needed Gerry Storey. It did not matter that we were Loyalist prisoners and that Gerry came from the Republican side. We needed him to help our men exercise their minds and bodies. Gerry and boxing lifted us up.”

“There were no misgivings with Gerry,” Hutchinson continued. “There would have been if it had been someone else. But Gerry’s narrative came before him. We all knew his interest was boxing. But he was also interested in building people’s characters. It was not just about being a world or Olympic champion. It was about finding the best character in everyone, how boxing could build their confidence. He stayed away from sectarianism and boxing politics. There was always infighting and backstabbing, but Gerry rose above it. We noticed this about him, how he offered hope to everyone he met. How do you measure the depth of that hope? How do you measure the way that Gerry and boxing changed society for the better? You can’t. It’s too difficult. All I know is what I saw with my own eyes, and I felt it with every fibre of my being. He showed us a better way to live. The impact on us was profound. The fact that he moved between the Loyalist and the Republican cages made me think at first that Gerry was either very stupid or brave. But I soon realized he was the opposite of stupid – and he was more than just courageous. He was a genuine human being, and the goodness shone out of him. He was entitled to have worked only with the Republicans, who were his people. But he didn’t live life like that. He wanted to bring boxing to both sides. He never asked people about their religion or political affiliations. He just saw us as people. Other people came into the cages – politicians and the press. But they came with their own agenda. It was like they were visiting a zoo and they saw us as animals. But Gerry just saw us as people who belonged to his boxing club, which just happened to be in a prison.”

And lest one think that the political nature of In Sunshine Or In Shadow has led McRae to shortchange boxing in favor of political discourse, readers should take note of his description of Davy Larmour’s corner after round nine of his second fight against Hugh Russell.

“On his stool between rounds” McRae writes, “there was discord in Larmour’s head. He felt the sponges and swabs at work on his face as Maguire tended to his bloody skin, but he could not concentrate on his trainer’s instructions. It was as if his skull had split his brain in two. On one side, he heard an insistent voice telling him that he could not go on, he needed to rest, and he would feel better if he just sat on his stool and closed his eyes. A second voice reminded him that, when the bell rang, he had to get up and start all over again.”

Young men frequently take up boxing because the ring offers sanctuary from the violence that pervades their lives every day on the streets. Nowhere was that more true than in Northern Ireland during the time of the Troubles.

“This book does not claim that boxing changed the political landscape,” McRae acknowledges. “It would be a mistake to argue that boxing, or even Storey or McGuigan, altered the course of history.”

But McRae goes on to observe, “Boxing inspired people in Northern Ireland, from all corners and sides, to believe that another way of living was possible. In the strict confines of the boxing ring and the gym, a man’s religion and political persuasion did not matter when set against his courage, discipline, and skill. Boxing did not stem the Troubles or end the killings, but it offered shafts of light and hope. Fighters and trainers from opposite sides crossed borders and faced each other on equal terms. They respected and liked each other. And they were loved and even revered by both communities. They offered a template for the future. Men were killing each other senselessly while, inside the ring, boxers were able to find a purity of purpose in improving themselves and respecting their opponents. When people looked in amazement at how boxers ignored sectarian divisions, they saw acceptance and respect. It helped them believe peace and harmony would finally arrive.”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His next book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing  – will be published this autumn by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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