Travellers’ boxing exploits are one of our great sporting success stories… so why the scorn?

Posted on January 15th, 2018 by Dave in categoty Social

Andy Lee is the latest in a long line of world-class fighters who grew up in the travelling community, but do they get the respect they deserve?

Back in the mid-2000s, a group of travellers who were members of St Michael’s in Athy congregated in the scrapyard of a car park outside their shed-like gym. A little early for the night’s training session, there they spoke openly but with a lack of confidence due to the slings and arrows about their hardest battles.

At the time it was, perhaps, the foremost boxing club in the country yet their toughest fights, they horrifically said, tended to be outside of the ring.

David Oliver Joyce, who was just a bout away from making the last Olympics in London, mentioned the reaction to his winning a senior title as a teenager live on television. “You’d be walking down the street and people would be shouting, ‘You’re a good for nothing. Don’t think you’re more than you are, ya knacker’,” he said.

“In the schoolyard, lads would be bullying you all the time. If lads saw you they’d be over kicking and thumping you”.

His cousin, David Anthony Joyce, meanwhile would tell himself most days to “keep the hands down, keep them for the ring,” while he was abused. But even worse still were the mere children who had to learn at such nascent ages to cope with the hatred all around.

Tonight, Andy Lee will become the latest person from that same community that we will briefly embrace, pretending he’s one of us for 12 rounds, rather than one of them for the rest of his lifetime. It is as if our society extends an olive branch above our racism for the while it suits us to be united. But it is only ever temporary because once we’ve chewed upon their glory, we’ve always spat them back out.

Of course, there was a time when it was all going to be different, as a young traveller by the name of Francis Barrett went to the 1996 Olympics, but it turned out we merely duped him too. His was the heart-warming tale that was supposed to smooth over the gaps that we like to create, as his qualification for Atlanta was more about trying to get electricity for his site rather than winning a medal.

Tales emerged of how, as a kid, he had gone to the Olympic Boxing Club and asked Chick Gillen, the coach, whether travellers be allowed at the Games; he loved the answer of every colour and creed being accepted. Then we smiled when it emerged that, while on his way to carry the Tricolour at the opening ceremony, he saw Bill Clinton, pulled a boxing fist and waved and shouted, ‘Alright buddy.’ But then it was all over and he went back to, in the collective mind of Ireland, being a knacker again.

Meeting him in London a handful of years ago, he remained perplexed about how he was treated and remembered how in 1997,he went to a local bar 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’.”

Over the years, little changed and when he went to meet a businessman about putting on a fight night on in the city in 2009, he was stopped by bouncers based on what he was, not what he did.

“’Out here lads,’ I said. ‘I’m going to beat the s**t out of ye.’ I freaked out, got sick of it all. 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.”

But, of course, we do; and in bars and over dinners during this festive period, any talk will be of “them” followed by the anecdotes — never positive. We relish it and revel in it.

Last Christmas, for instance, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, the TV programme, centred on Rathkeale and zoomed in good and close on those humiliating themselves for fame, with grooms late and drunk to their own weddings and arguments spilling on to the streets later that night. Yet nowhere on television did you see any footage of Castleconnell, a town just 26 miles down Limerick roads, and a place where Andy Lee had brought home a brilliant and unlikely world middleweight crown.

Well-spoken, interesting, gentle and successful, that wouldn’t have bloated the stereotype and division we partake in almost as a pastime.

Lee tends not to speak much about his own background and it is completely understandable. Firstly, he doesn’t see it as a big deal and leaves that to us. Secondly, as with most travellers here, it can simply be easier to hide it away thanks to us. That is a great pity because for all our scorn as a society, no part of that society has done more in any sport than travellers in boxing. From Barrett to the kids in St Michael’s in Athy, to John Joe Nevin and Joe Ward and on to this evening, boxing and travellers is one of the greatest stories we have as a country.

Now, Lee’s first defence could add yet another chapter and if he does win, we’ll relish him waving our flag. But that will only last so long because after the final bell, when much of the country is done cheering, many would rather both him and his people weren’t a part of it, as their words will speak as loud as his heroic actions.