The biting North Easterly wind was tearing at faces like emery paper trying to take damaged rust from the underside of a bad Volkswagen Beetle car. The snow dust was whipping around in eddies that reminded of the final episode of a Dracula horror story where Dr Frankenstein slips and slithers down a cobble-stoned alley in his endeavours to avoid recognition, writes Barrie Henriques.
The foot-fall into and out from the Watershed complex, dashed in numbers to or from the succour of a warm motor car, or an air-conditioned concourse as the numerous athletes ducked their bodies sideways to offset the full blast of the eddying snow.
The doors of the complex exploded piping hot air as we approached, and inside it was a bubbling, tunnel of undecipherable noise.
The iconic Godfather of Kilkenny City Harriers, Sean Lynch was surrounded by a bunch of smiling young female athletes, checking statistics, departure times, venues, meeting schedules and team selections.
Not too far away, the badminton team were readying a spot in the Basketball Arena for their training schedule. They had already netted off an area that would provide them with some five or six courts.
A quick glance through the plate-glassed doors of the swimming area told us that the water was boiling with activity as learners, competitors, water safety personnel and others vied for the limited number of lanes.
Through the windows, with their Christmas card vistas - the corners were idyllically decorated by the swirling snow - we could see some hardy annuals jogging, walking, speed walking, sprinting, and exercising in temperatures that would take the top of a parish priest’s egg without using a spoon.
But our observations were only passive.
We had come to appraise the progress of one of the original, and former great boxing clubs that Kilkenny had to
boast about - St Patrick’s Boxing Club.
Long before the years when Adam should have boxed the ears off that infernal serpent for testing him in the Garden
of Eden, the noble art of self defence ie boxing has so much been a part of the civilised world. Well christened as noble, and when the outer layer of the noble elements are peeled away, one meets layers of discipline, self control, courage, reliability, honour, glory, pride, and valour.
Honest and noble
I have always been of the opinion that boxers and racing people are the most honest and noble of all sporting personnel. Admittedly, I would be somewhat prejudicial in such an observation, but over the years I have found that both sporting elements are exceedingly courteous, and exceptionally meek and obliging.
They do not do the well-worn and permanently boring conversational dialect with every second syllable being either “obviously” or “it depends”. To a boxer it is two shades. Ditto to racing people.
I love watching boxers work.
The smells, the repetitive encouragement, the noise of leather on leather, the singing of skipping ropes, the Kalishnakov rat-a-tat of fist on speedball, the staccato encouragement of a one or two-word coach. And another thing about boxers - they can spot a chancer at a thousand paces.
One of Kilkenny’s proudest institutions, the St Patrick’s Boxing Club dusted itself down a few months before Christmas with a glittering array of superb boxing greats - Kenny Egan, Michael Carruth, Terry Christle among them, people like Chris O’Shaughnessy, Conor Phelan, Tommy Walton, Sharon McMeel and Alex Boyd.
The club, which was formed just a year after the war to end all wars, WW2 finished, experienced some tremendous years on the national stage of amateur boxing after its inception. It was very much a boxing club that featured in the lives of village people, or the James Stephens club and St Patricks De La Salle.
In fact, its base was the De La Salle school. Ber Scott (a pupil) told me of a time when a Br. Finian would take out the boxing gloves from the cupboard where they were stored and have a little boxing show in the classroom during school time.
Can you see that happening now? I don’t think so!
In conversation with former members, one does not escape from the deeds and achievements of the name Bateman, for instance. Jimmy, the hard journeyman, and Sean, the sweet moving artist, were superb pugilists. Seldom they met their equal, and they plied their skills wherever and whenever the
demand was greatest.
Members of the club won Irish titles in those days in 1951 and 1953. That was more than a creditable achievement when one considers that we were more than able to hold our own with the strongest nations in the world in amateur
Amateur boxing was absolutely flying at the time, and a mark of the level of competition abounding in the Kilkenny area was underpinned by an international tournament in Kilkenny between Ireland and Scotland, who also produced some tremendous scrappers.
The Coyne family (Tony, Joe, Jimmy) produced great fighters, as did the Gaules (Pat, Pete), Mickie Doherty, the O’Shaughnessys (Mickie, Christy), ‘Muggers’ Larkin and Leahys (Georgie, Mick, Murty), Mickie Dunne, ‘Buck’ Slattery, Andy Heffernan and Seamie Delaney were excellent exponents of the noble art of self defence in their time.
Chris O’Shaughnessy won Leinster and Irish titles back in the days, and history in a sense is repeating now that the main man in the revitalisation of the present St Pat’s club is Chris’s son, also Chris.
The club was still at the coalface of Kilkenny boxing, but in the early 1990s, a fire destroyed their premises and the
club, as a consequence, went into decline. Money was scarce and the enthusiasm of the few die hards was gradually sucked away.
The club was still attached with considerable pride, and a cross-over of interest with the James Stephens club. The St Patrick’s boxing club refused to go under. It did not wish to succumb to the death rattles of failure.
It was struggling, but as always in such depression, there are a few solid, dedicated men with a determination in their
hearts, and a never-say-die attitude. Chris O’Shaughnessy is one such. Conor Phelan is another. So too are Tommy Walton, Sharon McMeel and Alex Boyd.
Like the fabled Phoenix, the St Patrick’s club rose from the ashes of near extinction.
It got some help - not a lot, but some - to lift itself. The James Stephens club were hugely supportive. Councillor Martin Brett too lent a hand, but otherwise they were lefty to their own devices.
We spoke to their secretary, Conor. He took us through much of what you have read about the historical development, and the subsequent near demise of the club, and the great names that are synonymous with it. He was particularly conscious of the crossover between members of the James Stephens club and the boxing club.
The names, the names
“I mean, when you hear of names like Larkin, Leahy, Gaule and so on you can understand why the twinning of both was so important to both,” he said.
Who disturbed the ashes of the club to revitalise it initially, we asked?
“It was Chris really who got the ball rolling really. He spoke with me, because we had been boxing together in the same club, so we got our heads together and we were of the same mind that we always intended to get back to the sport that had given both of us so many good qualities and enjoyment, that we needed to put something back into the sport.”
You are affiliated to the IABA?
You have a premises?
You have tremendously impressive equipment?
You have a great number of youngsters training, and I presume they are not all present tonight?
“Yes we have, and yes you are correct too to the second part of your question.”
That is a strong run of yeses, but I presume that it was not as simple as your answers?
“Some of our solutions were a bit more complicated than others,” he continued. “The procurement of premises was a biggie really. It took us a long time to house the club, to give it a focal point. That was the biggest issue of all. I was a member of the fitness club here, and on a chance conversation with the Management here, we did a deal whereby we got the use of this present room, and also the use of the floor space.
“It is an ideal situation for us. Some of our boxers were people who were training upstairs in the gym, and who came to have a look. They liked what they saw, and now they are fully-fledged, very active members of the club.”
When one mentions the name Christle, one automatically thinks of the boxing Christle brothers. Not only were they champions, all three of them - they won three Irish senior titles on the same night in the National Stadium - but they are eminently qualified people in a variety of different fields of excellence.
Terry Christle is really Dr Terry, a medical surgeon/consultant. For those that would like reminders, their dad, Joe, was a champion Irish cyclist when you and I dear friend, would see the occasional pictures of the Ras Laighean, or the Ras Tailteann on the Indo or Irish Press.
Impressed by enthusiasm
When I put it to surgeon Christle (that’s Christ with an le, he smiled), that one assumes that surgeons would be into the field of repairing damage caused by boxing, rather than being in a sport that caused the damage, he smiled.
“I can see how one could empathise with such an observation, but we are still human beings, and we still have sporting instincts,” he opened, setting the tone. “For instance, how many Gaelic footballers are eminent surgeons, or how many rugby players are likewise endowed, so why not boxers? We were all into boxing from an early age, and we all loved it.”
Why involve himself with this club?
“I was impressed with the enthusiasm of Chris O’Shaughnessy, and the lads with him who were giving their all towards the rejuvenation of a club with a great history,” he replied. “They are ticking all of the boxes in my view. They have a decent number of people, boys and girls, turning up for the training and the key really is that they continue to do so
with impressive regularity and enthusiasm.”
Dr Terry pointed to a poster of Katie Taylor on the wall of the gym, and eulogised about what a tremendous role model she is for the youngsters.
“They are in awe of what Katie achieved,” he continued with enthusiasm. “They are very conscious of her demeanour in the public eye, and they very much admire how she presents and represents herself when the cameras are rolling. She is the biggest motivational factor that boxing has at the moment around the country.”
We asked Dr Christle to convince the mammies and daddies that boxing could be good for Johnny or Brigid.
“I would say to them that boxing is one of the most controlled sports in terms of physical examination, and evaluation of individuals who have been in a fight where they have been knocked down, knocked out, or over-matched,” he said when he took up the challenge. “As you know all boxers must get a license to box, and medical testing coupled with procedures like MRI investigation is mandatory. It is the only sport that demands such procedures.”
Terry went on to underline the most important element of boxing being the art of self defence.
“Our primary instruction focuses very much on self defence,” he continued. “We coach that primarily, and when the basics of self defence are taken on board and practiced with regularity, we then take it further by coaching the art of scoring.
A tough sport
“Boxing is a tough sport, but it has changed too over the years. But it is very strictly regulated from an entire raft of
necessities,” he told us.
We spoke of the impending gear change issue. He had mixed feeling about the pending changes where it is conceivable that headgear will not be in use at the Brazil Olympics, or even the Europeans.
Dr Terry has the distinction of being Irish middleweight champion in 1980, and his studies took him to France in the same year, where he won the French title to add to his three Irish crowns.
He is hugely impressed with the work being done in St Patrick’s.
“It is testament to the hard work of Chris O’Shaughnessy, Ciaran and the coaches,” Dr Terry continued. “This was always a hotbed of great boxing, and when one hears the names of former greats, it is not surprising. The lads are doing a super job, and I love their attitude towards the youngsters.
“There is fairly strict code of conduct being enforced, and that I like also. It is not all about winning titles, more about character building, and in that regard, the lads here are doing an excellent job.”
The name Dowling came into focus as we broke the conversation. Terry Christle is a great admirer, and a boxer that had come under the influence of the Castlecomer man in the Crumlin boxing club, where Mick was a highly-regarded coach.
“He had a very impressive boxing CV, and he could articulate about it with great conviction,” he felt. “He certainly was a terrific coach, and latterly, he is a very convincing analyst on boxing matters in front of camera.”
Sharon McMeel, a Ban Garda in Kilkenny is a valued member of the coaching staff of the St Patricks BC. She is Child Protection Officer as well, but it is her calling to be involved with the physical training of the youngsters, especially the young girls that focuses her attentions.
The numbers, especially, are extraordinary given that the club is still very much in a development cycle, very much in the infancy of its development.
Was Sharon McMeel surprised with that stat?
Bought into ideals
“It is truly gob-smacking really,” she felt. “When I come in on the training nights it would feel that a double-decker bus had arrived. There would be youngster, some as young as seven years of age, getting ready to train.”
What is it about boxing that there is such a magnetism?
“To be absolutely fair, it comes down to a code of ethics, coupled with a code of discipline, instigated by Chris thatis responsible,” she felt. “It is a kind of two strikes and you are history, and I feel that the youngsters in particular have bought into it unconditionally.”
As a mother, would she allow her daughter to join a boxing club?
“ Undoubtedly,” she answered, quick as a Lionel Messi pass. “Of course you cannot rule any mishap in or out, but Chris and Conor are so switched into all options, and probabilities, that it would certainly be less than possible if we had situations like that happen here.”
Does she enjoy what she is doing?
“With an emphatic yes,” she answered, and she was gone to a situation that needed immediate attention.
We met a couple of young champions in the making.
Donal O’Leary is from Sion Meadows and he just loves his boxing. He is a pupil in Gael Scoil Osori. He is 11 years of age.
He was boxing for the 36kgs Leinster championship in Royston recently. Having beaten a Wexford opponent earlier, he doubled it up with a great win against a boxer from the Dalgan club in Co.Louth.
However, he bought a corker in his next bout in Christy Nevin - remember the name - from the Portlaoise club. There was only a brace of points between them at the finish. But it was great experience for the young Pat’s lad.
We also spoke to Soirse Meaney, who lives on the Callan Road. She too is schooling in Gaelscoil Osori. She is attempting to win a Leinster title at 38 Kg in three weeks time.
Her favourite sport?
You guessed it - boxing.
Her favourite sports personality? Katie T!
Eventually we grabbed the leader of the pack, Chris O’Shaughnessy.
Measured and careful
As you would suspect, Chris O’Shaughnessy’s love of boxing is endemic in his family tree. His father was involved, of course, and his uncle Mickie (RIP) won the club’s first national title in 1951.
Chris’s first fight was out in the Clara Hall over 26 years ago. Mr Tom Walton was in his corner. We spoke of elements within the club that has taken it down the road at an alarming pace.
“Our expectations were measured and careful,” he assured. “We didn’t want to stick our heads too far over the parapet. We needed to crawl before we broke into a trot. The James Stephens club, and their officers like Tommy Lanigan were very helpful and afforded every convenience that was in their power towards us.
“They were fantastic. When we opened our doors here on the first training Saturday last August, we had about 12 youngsters interested. Presently our numbers have swelled in excess of 40. Our training nights are Monday, Thursday and Saturday morning.”
There seems to be great interest among the youngsters?
“We are happy to allow youngsters at seven years of age to come in and see what we are doing,” he revealed. “We allow them to find their niche, and see if they will like boxing. There is no pressure, and certainly no competition. Who knows what the future holds for them and our club.
“But at the moment the place is absolutely buzzing, and we couldn’t be happier. It has exceeded by a distance the wildest dreams of Conor, Tommy Walton, Alex Boyd, Sharon and myself,” he beamed.
One left the Watershed arena with a real good feeling about the future of the newly revamped St Patrick’s boxing club. They are doing great work down there.
Their enthusiasm is absolutely infectious, and bodes well for a successful future. Watch this space!