22 February 2009 – By Steve Wellings
A giant picture of Rinty Monaghan hangs on the wall of Ligoniel boxing club and it’s certain that if the Belfast ring legend was still with us today, he would approve of the setup at this North Belfast club.
The excellent facilities were the first things to catch my eye as I was happily shown round when I dropped in on a chilly late January evening. The backbone of Ligoniel is not an overnight success story but rather a tale of continuity, with a team of dedicated people coming in at least three nights a week for well over 20 years. Club treasurer Eddie O’Neill is an imposing figure who commands respect as he operates the fire door entrance/exit keeping track of the comings and goings, which are frequent. A jovial character whose years of voluntary service and devotion are evident, Eddie was initially asked to help out and ended up staying on just a little while longer than he had originally intended.
“I’ve been involved 33 years now and I’m the treasurer of the club. This building used to be an old school then it was a youth club and eventually a boxing club. We’ve kept it running through thick and thin, through the Troubles and now there’s another generation coming in. There’s some that have come through the years and their grandsons’ are here boxing now, but it doesn’t matter who walks through the doors good or bad, they’re all the same to us and we treat them equally.”
But what inspired him to get into the boxing club? He laughs and points a finger, “He did! Sean McAuley. He asked me to come down and give him a hand for two weeks two weeks is not up yet, that was 33 years ago! If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t be here.”
The main man, Sean McAuley welcomed me over to where he was pushing young Nathan Gorman through the pain of a medicine ball and explained how the club’s history and his own have evolved together: “36 years I’ve been involved here,” he says without a hint of fatigue. “The club was established in 1971 and I came a year later to box myself, which I did for about four or five bouts. The trainer at the time was assassinated during the Troubles and even though I wasn’t very enthusiastic at first I was approached to take over as coach. I took it on and since 1972 I’ve been doing it until now.
“We’ve had good and bad times, even with half a wall and half a floor, water pouring in through the ceiling in a one hundred year old school we kept going! We’ve had to dig into our own pockets during the early times to keep things moving, and patching up the roof and sticking down floors just to have a place running. Recently we got in touch with the Sports Council and it cost 240,000 to put the club in the state it’s in now.”
And what a fine condition it is in, with crisp white walls, adequately stocked equipment and male and female changing facilities, including showers. This is only on the ground floor as up the stairs there is a second fitness area with another ring and more boxing apparatus for all ages and genders.
“I’m confident that we can produce more champions now that we have the improved conditions,” added McAuley, “so much so that we have girls’ facilities and special programmes in order to boost their enthusiasm and get them involved. Katie Taylor and the Lord Mayor are due down for a special day soon.”
The main ring is never empty as fellow coaches Joe McArdle and Paddy Magee patrol the boundary, working pads and offering nuggets of advice on technique and position to enthusiastic fighters. The desire on the faces of a cluster of bag pounding hopefuls is evident, and the affect this club has on keeping the adrenalin of the youngsters in a controlled environment speaks for itself. Sean McAuley advocates this approach.
“By just being here on a voluntary basis for the local community, when there’s a high standard of unemployment and people hanging around streets, can mean a lot. You can see the kids here tonight are disciplined and under orders and they know not to mess about. It can be seen as the back end of nowhere a bit here, but recently things are turning around, starting with Steve Collins coming last December and opening the revamped club.”
Eddie O’Neill agrees, “You can see the effect this club has on the community; it keeps them all off the streets and gives them somewhere to go. If this wasn’t here then where would the kids all go? This way it gets them in two nights a week and gives them something to do.”
Of course not every member needs kept off the streets and the benefits of using the bags, pads and sparring as a form of keep-fit can also be as a great stress relief. Welterweight James McPeake has been using the gym since he was seven years-old, “I’m 27 now, so it’s a long time,” he says after brushing up his jab/right hand combinations.
“Muhammed Ali is my inspiration and I like Ricky Hatton too. Favourite Irish fighter is Steve Collins, the Irish warrior.”
What Eddie said about Ligoniel seeing generations of boxer’s coming in rings true, and the amount of family combinations within the club is striking; one such link is Sean and his son Mark McAuley who is also heavily involved.
“Boxing has always been in the family,” he told me, “I’m 30 now and I’ve been coming since I was six years-old when my dad first brought me down so I’ve been on and off ever since. I boxed since I was 22 but now I’m just training and getting into the coaching side of things. Some nights you can’t move in here or find any space at all so it’s handy having facilities upstairs as well so you can go up and do a bit of skipping or work in the second ring doing some sparring.”
As if dad’s influence wasn’t enough, Mark still holds some past greats in high esteem, “You can’t look past Ali and then Duran and Hagler during that great middleweight era. Steve Collins and Barry McGuigan for the Irish side, along with Rinty of course.”
And full circle back to Rinty, looking on as the lights shut down and Ligoniel ABC closes for another night.
“The future is looking rosy and the foundations are there to breed some Irish champions,” concludes Sean McAuley. “After three years by 1975 I was here training the kids, turning the lights on after coming in early, getting the heating going, organising spars and then locking up after me, all without a hand.”
“Then he came along,” he points at the tall figure marshalling the door. Eddie O’Neill smiles and chips in, “We’ll keep going. The lifeblood of Irish boxing.”
I couldn’t have put it better.