The Bull Run

Every year on the 6th of July, the festival of San Fermin starts in the small northern Spanish town of Pamplona. Popularised by Ernest Hemingway in his novel the “Sun Also Rises”, it is a week of drinking in the streets until midnight and most famously for the “encierro” or bull run that takes place every morning through its tightly cobbled streets.

I am a man who is naturally risk averse. An almost late tax return amounts to my brushes with danger for this year. However, at the age of 26, I had become obsessed with the thought of running with the bulls in Pamplona. The negative points against it were undeniable. It was unethical, letting distressed wild bulls run through the narrow streets of a Spanish town drunk on sangria and undoubtedly dangerous for the runners who were powerless the will of wild animals.

Yet, I remained desperate to do it, for reasons I am still finding difficult to articulate. Perhaps it is easier to justify foolish actions to yourself when you are 26 and your greatest responsibility is making sure there is enough beer in the fridge and you haven’t exhausted your overdraft too heavily. For once in my life, I wanted to take a risk. I persuaded my long suffering flatmate Michael from Sligo to come with me, and we boarded our Easyjet flight to Bilbao with hoards of American and Australian thrill seekers swapping stories about the worst goring they had seen on youtube the night before.

Pamplona is an unremarkable Spanish town. It is a reasonably sleepy place, with well kept buildings and friendly townsfolk. However, when San Fermin descends, it is transformed. Imagine the regular Ibiza crowd taking the wrong ferry and intending up in Portaferry and you will get some idea. Everyone, from the town drunk to tiny toddlers are dressed in white outfits with the ubiquitous red scarf or “panuelos”.

I had taken the liberty of buying our panuelos in a souvenir shop in Bilbao the day before. Using my rusty A Level Spanish the kindly Granny in the shop pointed me towards ones with a green and white design that looked becoming. It was only when we wore the scarves and were told by some haughty southern Spaniards lining the streets that we were promoting Basque separatism indadvertedly in a town that was a former stronghold of Franco’s government. An easy mistake to make.

The drinking and the dancing started in the streets from midday. Music was pumped from every shop, whether that was a drapery or a doner kebab stand. Traditional wine skins holding rough red wine were passed by locals to foreigners and back again. White shirts were stained purple by cheap sangria. A parade of giant figures that represent regal figures from all over the world danced through the streets to the sounds of traditional Basque music as the hours drifted rapidly.

We had resolved that if we were going to do the bull run, we were going to be sensible. The hostels in Bilbao were filled of horror stories of drunken runners getting trampled and gored by bulls. Conversations between bunk beds were largely concerned of stories of brutal injuries, some concocted and some undoubtedly real. We stopped drinking at 3am and joined the hoards of people sleeping in a field by the bus station. The jet of bitter red wine that a beautiful Basque girl had sprayed down my mouth was still warm in my belly when I fell gratefully asleep in the warm air, filled with excitement.

We woke up suddenly, freezing and disorientated barely an hour later. We were stone cold sober and dressed in only our thin t shirts and shorts as cold air blew through the field. To stay warm we walked the course for the run through the old town. The streets were emptying rapidly with people eager for their warm beds who could watch the bull run from the comfort of their balconies.

Rain had started to fall lightly on the town’s cobbles making them slippery when we reached the end of the course, and stumbled past the bull pen. In the dark, I peeped over the wall and saw the bulls. There were six of them, almost docile, quietly grazing with little idea of the madness that was going to happen a few hours later for all of us. They didn’t want any part of it, and by that stage neither did we.

We both sat for four hours behind the barricades in a mental wrench. Worst case scenarios were playing both of our heads. A bad injury was a realistic possibility, for what? A test of manhood that was now looking idiotic. Terrified animals with horns were about to sprint through slippery streets disorientated by masses of runners. Neither of us said anything. Both of us were secretly wishing the other would call quits on the whole operation, but neither of us did. Michael sat quietly taping his glasses to his forehead, and sat hugging my knees against my chest feeling guilty for persuading him to come with me.

The sun creeped up slowly, and the police ushered us into an area for the runners, there was to be no escape now even if we wanted to. Thousands of spectators lined the streets and balconies, looking at us curiously. We both knew a good goring would make their day, they hadn’t come to see a community fun run. The Spanish runners remained cool and calm, many of them were regulars. The man beside us calmly read the newspaper’s sport section that was to act as his sole defence against a bull’s horns in a matter of minutes. He  caught me starring at him. “Que pasa?” he asked. “Some advice would be great,” I stuttered. “Vale, ok, keep your eyes open at all times, this thing will be like a tsunami, do you know what that is?” We nodded. “I have done this run ten times, and it’s violent, extremely dangerous and crazy. If you get hit by the bull for god sake stay down and protect your head. Just stay down ok?” He hadn’t reassured us.

All the runners turned in one motion towards the statue of San Fermin and prayed for protection chanting the words loudly. The town reverberated with noise. I am a Protestant from east Belfast, but I crossed myself twice with the others, I needed all the help I could get. Michael and I had decided to separate from the outset. But it turned out we weren’t that brave, we couldn’t help sticking together. We wished each other luck and bounced on our toes trying to sense when the bulls were coming.

The first rocket went off, the crowd howled and whooped and the stampede surged through the streets. I looked wildly at Michael. Should we stay or should we go? We went. The second rocket went off and we knew the bulls were soon going to be at our heels. I was sprinting at full pace sidestepping Spaniards who wanted to touch the bulls. As we hit the town square Michael grabbed me and we were bundled into a crash barrier followed by hundreds of people.

We heard the clatter of hooves on cobbles in a steady rhythm growing louder and louder. Eight huge bulls steamed past us, a huge locomotive with horns powering through the streets blissfully staying in a steady formation, thankfully the bulls weren’t disorientated just yet. We pushed away from the crowd and followed the bulls at pace, joining the massed frenzy of people running behind willingly caught up completely in the madness with our hearts beating faster. A huge mental barrier was erected in the streets to stop a crush of people, slamming into us. We got past quickly, leaping over it and the policemen below and kept running.

A few more bulls ran past us, but they had little intention to cause harm and were slow and docile, and wanted to get out of the run as quickly as we did.  We ran together at a steady pace, constantly checking behind us and slaloming through the crush of people on the cobbled streets. The ecstasy of near safety proving incredible. We reached the bull ring and it was over in an instant. Strangers hugged us from all over the world. An Irish flag was put on our shoulders and we had our photograph taken. A little over 800 metres and it was over. We hugged each other deliriously, it felt great to be alive at that moment. A television journalist put his microphone over the barrier and started asking me questions in Spanish. I found myself unable to steady my shaking hands as I stuttered in Spanish that I would never do it again.

The television highlights were played out in cafes throughout the town. It had been a good run by local approximations. Runners young and old of every nationality played out their run to anyone who would bother to listen. Regular local runners called “los divinos” recalled their acts of heroism to their long suffering wives and girlfriends over double espressos. The newspapers were already waiting outside the hospital to interview the injured runners for the evening edition of the local newspaper.

Michael and I knew we had been lucky to get out with no injuries. Reports later that day confirmed that a Japanese man had been gored and the horn had nearly missed his neck, dragging him around the bullring like a toy. We had tickets for the bull fight that evening where the bulls that had run that morning would meet their death in the early evening sun. We sold them at the arena. We were physically and mentally drained. We slept the whole way back to our hostel, dreaming deeply of what might have been.

The Bull Run

Every year on the 6th of July, the festival of San Fermin starts in the small northern Spanish town of Pamplona. Popularised by Ernest Hemingway in his novel the “Sun Also Rises”, it is a week of drinking in the streets until midnight and most famously for the “encierro” or bull run that takes place every morning through its tightly cobbled streets.

I am a man who is naturally risk averse. An almost late tax return amounts to my brushes with danger for this year. However, at the age of 26, I had become obsessed with the thought of running with the bulls in Pamplona. The negative points against it were undeniable. It was unethical, letting distressed wild bulls run through the narrow streets of a Spanish town drunk on sangria and undoubtedly dangerous for the runners who were powerless the will of wild animals.

Yet, I remained desperate to do it, for reasons I am still finding difficult to articulate. Perhaps it is easier to justify foolish actions to yourself when you are 26 and your greatest responsibility is making sure there is enough beer in the fridge and you haven’t exhausted your overdraft too heavily. For once in my life, I wanted to take a risk. I persuaded my long suffering flatmate Michael from Sligo to come with me, and we boarded our Easyjet flight to Bilbao with hoards of American and Australian thrill seekers swapping stories about the worst goring they had seen on youtube the night before.

Pamplona is an unremarkable Spanish town. It is a reasonably sleepy place, with well kept buildings and friendly townsfolk. However, when San Fermin descends, it is transformed. Imagine the regular Ibiza crowd taking the wrong ferry and intending up in Portaferry and you will get some idea. Everyone, from the town drunk to tiny toddlers are dressed in white outfits with the ubiquitous red scarf or “panuelos”.

I had taken the liberty of buying our panuelos in a souvenir shop in Bilbao the day before. Using my rusty A Level Spanish the kindly Granny in the shop pointed me towards ones with a green and white design that looked becoming. It was only when we wore the scarves and were told by some haughty southern Spaniards lining the streets that we were promoting Basque separatism indadvertedly in a town that was a former stronghold of Franco’s government. An easy mistake to make.

The drinking and the dancing started in the streets from midday. Music was pumped from every shop, whether that was a drapery or a doner kebab stand. Traditional wine skins holding rough red wine were passed by locals to foreigners and back again. White shirts were stained purple by cheap sangria. A parade of giant figures that represent regal figures from all over the world danced through the streets to the sounds of traditional Basque music as the hours drifted rapidly.

We had resolved that if we were going to do the bull run, we were going to be sensible. The hostels in Bilbao were filled of horror stories of drunken runners getting trampled and gored by bulls. Conversations between bunk beds were largely concerned of stories of brutal injuries, some concocted and some undoubtedly real. We stopped drinking at 3am and joined the hoards of people sleeping in a field by the bus station. The jet of bitter red wine that a beautiful Basque girl had sprayed down my mouth was still warm in my belly when I fell gratefully asleep in the warm air, filled with excitement.

We woke up suddenly, freezing and disorientated barely an hour later. We were stone cold sober and dressed in only our thin t shirts and shorts as cold air blew through the field. To stay warm we walked the course for the run through the old town. The streets were emptying rapidly with people eager for their warm beds who could watch the bull run from the comfort of their balconies.

Rain had started to fall lightly on the town’s cobbles making them slippery when we reached the end of the course, and stumbled past the bull pen. In the dark, I peeped over the wall and saw the bulls. There were six of them, almost docile, quietly grazing with little idea of the madness that was going to happen a few hours later for all of us. They didn’t want any part of it, and by that stage neither did we.

We both sat for four hours behind the barricades in a mental wrench. Worst case scenarios were playing both of our heads. A bad injury was a realistic possibility, for what? A test of manhood that was now looking idiotic. Terrified animals with horns were about to sprint through slippery streets disorientated by masses of runners. Neither of us said anything. Both of us were secretly wishing the other would call quits on the whole operation, but neither of us did. Michael sat quietly taping his glasses to his forehead, and sat hugging my knees against my chest feeling guilty for persuading him to come with me.

The sun creeped up slowly, and the police ushered us into an area for the runners, there was to be no escape now even if we wanted to. Thousands of spectators lined the streets and balconies, looking at us curiously. We both knew a good goring would make their day, they hadn’t come to see a community fun run. The Spanish runners remained cool and calm, many of them were regulars. The man beside us calmly read the newspaper’s sport section that was to act as his sole defence against a bull’s horns in a matter of minutes. He  caught me starring at him. “Que pasa?” he asked. “Some advice would be great,” I stuttered. “Vale, ok, keep your eyes open at all times, this thing will be like a tsunami, do you know what that is?” We nodded. “I have done this run ten times, and it’s violent, extremely dangerous and crazy. If you get hit by the bull for god sake stay down and protect your head. Just stay down ok?” He hadn’t reassured us.

All the runners turned in one motion towards the statue of San Fermin and prayed for protection chanting the words loudly. The town reverberated with noise. I am a Protestant from east Belfast, but I crossed myself twice with the others, I needed all the help I could get. Michael and I had decided to separate from the outset. But it turned out we weren’t that brave, we couldn’t help sticking together. We wished each other luck and bounced on our toes trying to sense when the bulls were coming.

The first rocket went off, the crowd howled and whooped and the stampede surged through the streets. I looked wildly at Michael. Should we stay or should we go? We went. The second rocket went off and we knew the bulls were soon going to be at our heels. I was sprinting at full pace sidestepping Spaniards who wanted to touch the bulls. As we hit the town square Michael grabbed me and we were bundled into a crash barrier followed by hundreds of people.

We heard the clatter of hooves on cobbles in a steady rhythm growing louder and louder. Eight huge bulls steamed past us, a huge locomotive with horns powering through the streets blissfully staying in a steady formation, thankfully the bulls weren’t disorientated just yet. We pushed away from the crowd and followed the bulls at pace, joining the massed frenzy of people running behind willingly caught up completely in the madness with our hearts beating faster. A huge mental barrier was erected in the streets to stop a crush of people, slamming into us. We got past quickly, leaping over it and the policemen below and kept running.

A few more bulls ran past us, but they had little intention to cause harm and were slow and docile, and wanted to get out of the run as quickly as we did.  We ran together at a steady pace, constantly checking behind us and slaloming through the crush of people on the cobbled streets. The ecstasy of near safety proving incredible. We reached the bull ring and it was over in an instant. Strangers hugged us from all over the world. An Irish flag was put on our shoulders and we had our photograph taken. A little over 800 metres and it was over. We hugged each other deliriously, it felt great to be alive at that moment. A television journalist put his microphone over the barrier and started asking me questions in Spanish. I found myself unable to steady my shaking hands as I stuttered in Spanish that I would never do it again.

The television highlights were played out in cafes throughout the town. It had been a good run by local approximations. Runners young and old of every nationality played out their run to anyone who would bother to listen. Regular local runners called “los divinos” recalled their acts of heroism to their long suffering wives and girlfriends over double espressos. The newspapers were already waiting outside the hospital to interview the injured runners for the evening edition of the local newspaper.

Michael and I knew we had been lucky to get out with no injuries. Reports later that day confirmed that a Japanese man had been gored and the horn had nearly missed his neck, dragging him around the bullring like a toy. We had tickets for the bull fight that evening where the bulls that had run that morning would meet their death in the early evening sun. We sold them at the arena. We were physically and mentally drained. We slept the whole way back to our hostel, dreaming deeply of what might have been. Image

Ulster Titans

Life is difficult for Ulster’s newest rugby team. The Titans gather in pitch darkness on a freezing November night to listen to their coach’s latest game strategy. They huddle closer, as it is difficult to hear with the whir of the rented generators that power their portable lights. For the last two years, the Ulster Titans have been training on a potholed piece of wasteland on the outskirts of Belfast. With no facilities or floodlights, the players have to be careful and hope they don’t collide with their team mates during their warm up sprints.

The players’ sense of humour shines through the adversity. The team captain Duncan Neill from Glasgow shouts that he is going to go get some patio heaters out of his car to help keep the biting wind at bay. I stupidly ask is he serious. “It’s a joke,” he says with studied patience. “We may be gay, but we’re not that gay.” The Ulster Titans are also Northern Ireland’s only gay sports team. The small matter of a lack of training facilities is a minor annoyance for the players. They are just delighted to be able to compete in the sport they have grown to love.

In most parts of the world, highlighting the feats of a gay rugby team would be unnecessary. However, this is Northern Ireland. The Rainbow Project works as a support network in Belfast for gay and bisexual people and regularly helps men who have been victims of homophobic attacks. This summer, they reported that 39% of gay people in Northern Ireland alter their behaviour to avoid others knowing that they are homosexual. John O’Doherty works as an equality officer for the Rainbow Project and feels the achievements of the Ulster Titans should not be underestimated in a closed society like Northern Ireland. “The reality of Northern Ireland is that we still don’t talk about sexual orientation, homophobia is the last acceptable prejudice here, thankfully, the Ulster Titans are helping to stop some tired stereotypes with their rugby.”

The simple act of coming out as a homosexual in Northern Ireland remains fraught with danger; never mind competing as a gay team in the unforgiving basement of Ulster rugby. Belfast coffee shop manager Sean McEvoy smiles at the memory of setting up the rugby team. He had little idea of what playing rugby entailed and his limited sporting experience lay in schoolboy gaelic football. However, three winters ago, he became hooked on rugby. He is not sure why, but the collisions, the skill and the fraternal elements all helped. He watched as many games as he could, whether that was Bangor Casuals or Ulster at Ravenhill. Two years ago, after a few false starts, he got a core of gay men who wanted to play competitive sport in a safe and welcoming environment.

Sean is a persuasive man. He needed a coach for his inexperienced team and enlisted the help of a female work colleague’s husband. Former gym manager Noel Henry still remembers receiving the phone call from his wife two years ago telling him he was going to coach a gay rugby team. “My wife told me I was to come and help a bunch of guys who had set up a team and had no rugby knowledge,” he recounts. “Then she said, ‘oh by the way they’re gay’, and put the phone down.” He laughs at the memory. Like many husbands before him, Noel did as he was told. Besides, Noel is a rugby fanatic who was simply delighted to help a group of enthusiastic players, regardless of how limited their abilities were.

Their honeymoon season last year was a rude awakening. Noel could not hope to build moves into his game plan when his fly half didn’t know how to kick and his flanker sometimes forgot to pass the ball backwards. In their first full season last year, the Ulster Titans played 14 games, scored 30 points and conceded 976. The worst record in Ulster by a country mile. However, the results were insignificant compared to the respect they were gaining from Ulster’s hardened rugby heartland.

Trinity science graduate Níall Mc Meenan believes the team has used their sport to change attitudes. “We are simply trying to get respect out there on the field, if other teams can see how much we love our rugby; then maybe we have been able to change some minds out there.” The Titans love their post match pints. They normally take opposing teams back to a Belfast gay bar and get some Saturday afternoon karaoke going with a middle aged drag queen. The players from the small unionist fishing village of Donaghadee were some of the most enthusiastic revelers they have ever hosted.

This season, the team is finding it increasingly difficult to compete. They have received minimal help from the Ulster Branch and getting 22 men togged out every week is proving harder as the evenings close in. At training the Titans are preparing for what could be their biggest game of the season against the PSNI 2nd XV. The police are rooted to the bottom of the table, but the Titans’ coach is realistic about their objectives. “We will just try and score some points and enjoy our rugby out there.”

The skill levels of the Ulster Titans vary wildly. They have some talented schoolboy players and more complete novices who are just trying to catch the ball. The team is still chasing that elusive league win and has conceded some cricket scores already. The team scrum half Duncan Neill believes they have a long tough season ahead of them in Ulster’s Minor League. “We do have problems certainly, it’s never easy trying to get a new team off the ground, the gay community is generally supportive, but it’s getting hard to recruit players when we are doing so badly, on paper we’re awful, but it’s taking those small steps.”

The final whistle is blown, piercing the cold night air. The players gratefully gather the cones and trudge off the pitch. They have no shower facilities, so they climb into their cars caked with mud. Most players have little idea what the season holds in store for them. They simply play rugby for the joy of it. Sean McEvoy says things are improving, but he still wonders how some opposing players will react to his team. “In this country, we are great at making fun of ourselves, but I get the impression some opponents are on eggshells with us. You can imagine their coach yelling at them before the game not to make any remarks to the gays. You give and take abuse off the rugby field and that’s the way it should be. Beat each other up for eighty minutes and then come and party with us afterwards-that’s always been the name of the game.”

Paddy and Carl

By Jonathan Drennan

European super bantamweight title contender Carl Frampton hasn’t experienced the joy of a relaxing Sunday in months, and being at his home in Belfast, a city that observes the Sabbath like few others, his relief is palpable. Holding his baby daughter Carla with one hand, and writing a congratulations card for his trainer’s new granddaughter in the other, he looks forward to seeing a friend he hasn’t seen in a long time.

Paddy Barnes, Ireland’s light flyweight Olympic bronze medallist strides confidently into Frampton’s home gym in loyalist Tiger’s Bay and greets his old friend warmly. The talk immediately turns to who is currently the better singer. The two men fought four times as amateurs in fierce battles with Frampton winning three and Barnes winning one, but on the microphone, Frampton believes there’s only one contender. “Paddy finds it difficult enough to talk, let alone sing, I’m not saying I’d win X Factor, but I’m telling you I’d at least get into the judges houses.” Barnes and Frampton both laugh loudly. Their ability to laugh at themselves and each other has made their friendship into what it is today, one built on mutual respect and trust.

Gerry Storey (75) trains both men and believes that their close friendship forged through boxing and smashing through political lines is a fine example of what the sport has done in Northern Ireland. “Paddy and Carl have had a special friendship that has gone back for years since they were kids, they always got on brilliantly. Carl is a protestant from a loyalist area, Paddy is a catholic from a nationalist area, but it never came into it. They toured the world together, they fought together and now they’re a symbol of all that’s good in this city.”

Paddy and Carl both sit down in the cramped office of Midland amateur boxing club to talk about their journeys that have seen them both circumnavigate the world several times over. An estimation of how far the journey has taken them is that the gable end of the gym in Tiger’s Bay now has a huge mural of Frampton in his Irish boxing vest replacing a paramilitary painting. Barnes also can barely walk through Belfast without being recognised by fans.

Frampton talks about the relative price of fame for the two friends. “We both get recognised quite a bit now, I suppose I like it, it’s better than not getting recognised isn’t it? I’d say Paddy gets recognised a bit more though because he’s a funny character when they see him on the TV and people love him because he says things he really shouldn’t.”

Barnes is certainly a character. Frampton’s upcoming opponent for the European title Kiko Martinez will almost certainly remember him from their last encounter. Shortly after defeating Bernard Dunne so brutally in 2007, Martinez arrived in Belfast to publicise his ill-fated fight with Wayne McCullough. “I stood outside the King’s Hall with three friends for his weigh in against McCullough and I shouted down to him ‘Kiko I’ll fight ye’ and he looked at his interpreter and told him to tell us he’d fight the three of us right there. We hopped in the car sharpish and drove off.”

Frampton and Barnes fought each other at the start of their boxing careers as children. Frampton was always the stronger of the two even then, while Barnes was the more aggressive and quicker. Frampton remembers their fights as wars. “I remember one of the fights in the County Antrim championships when we were kids, he used to have a different style, he was very aggressive, he used to bully you and in the first thirty seconds he came out swarming, throwing hundreds of punches to the point where he pushed me through the ropes. I still got up and beat him though.”

Barnes lost his first 12 amateur fights, but never thought of throwing in the towel on something he loved. “My losses get talked about a lot, but I never thought about quitting, I loved being able to box with my cousins in the gym, so I would have been doing it anyway, and they were close decisions. When I was 16 Carl and I both went to the four nations in Wales representing Ireland and that was it, I thought I’d won the Olympics at that stage, I just wanted to push on even further.”

Both men grew up in tough working class areas of Belfast surrounded by temptation, but boxing gave them a focus that kept them out trouble and focused on creating a better life for themselves. Frampton says, “People have this image of boxers as gangsters or villains. Can I ask you how many bad boys or gangsters get up at 6am to do runs, or starve themselves to death? It’s as disciplined a life as you can lead.” Barnes agrees, “I’ve been lucky with my boxing and this is one thing I wouldn’t like about Carl’s pro life as it’s a bit more lonely, you have the chance to make hundreds of friends in this game and some of the best people around.”

A constant theme of conversation between Barnes and Frampton is contrasting their current careers and swapping gossip from the professional and amateur games. Barnes has the world championships to prepare for in four and a half weeks in Azerbaijan and is lamented the fact that he is missing his friend’s biggest pro fight against Martinez in Belfast.

“I’ll be stuck in Azerbajian focussed on doing my best there, but I’ll be thinking about how Carl is doing as well. I’m incredibly confident he can beat Martinez, his style is made for Carl. He’s more skilled and smarter than Kiko and although it will be tough for him, I’ve no doubt he’ll do the business. I always want him to do well and this is a chance for him to show everyone how good he can be.”

Frampton has watched Martinez only three times, and hasn’t rung up Bernard Dunne for advice. But he knows enough about Martinez to know that the squat Spaniard with the Mike Tyson stance can ruin his promising career with one punch. “It’s the most difficult fight I’ve had yet, but he’s not going to surprise me. He won’t be boxing on the back foot, he’s going to come at me aggressively every round, but I really believe he’s custom built for me. I’m sparring better than ever before and feel fitter than ever for this fight.”

Frampton is currently living a monastic existence in his manager Barry McGuigan’s home in Kent where he trains full time in the six weeks leading up to fights. He is filled with admiration for McGuigan, but finds the time away from his baby increasingly difficult. “I am more focussed, people were talking about it, saying would it hinder my boxing, but it doesn’t, it just spurs me on. When times get tough in training which they do increasingly, I think of her, I want to have a good life for me and my partner and be able provide a good one for my child so I have to keep all that in mind when I fight.”

Barnes is also only too aware of the difficult nature of boxing that hits you hardest outside of the ropes. “I spend Tuesday to Friday in Dublin for training before snatching at time in Belfast, I hate living in Dublin, being away from everyone, but you do what you have to do, and my main focus at the moment is to push on and to do well at the World Championships and then we’ll see where that where that leads me.”

The recent fierce and wretched rioting in Belfast this summer reminded everyone that underneath a confident future, there is an ugly undercurrent of intolerance that bubbles over the surface with alarming frequency. Both Barnes and Frampton grew up near to interface zones and realise that boxing helped them escape a life of ignorance.

Frampton says, “I was watching this documentary the other night and there was a guy who fought for Gerry in the Troubles, and he said something that stuck in my head, if you can fight well, it doesn’t matter what side of the community you’re from, the people of Belfast will come out and support you and I’ve never come across sectarianism in this game.” Paddy nods silently and says, “it’s simple, in boxing it’s just not an issue, without boxing I wouldn’t have known Carl and lots of other friends like him, so I’m delighted I had it growing up.”

The interview over, Frampton straps his baby seat into his car ready for a rare trip to see his grandfather before going back to England. Barnes almost shyly wishes him luck for his fight against Martinez. Both men are confident that greater things await both of them. For Frampton it could be a world championship belt, for Barnes it could be a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics in London. Their trainer Gerry Storey has a saying he is fond of repeating, “sport can change the world”, with two of his most famous protégées about to face the biggest fights of their careers, he could be right.

Image

RB McDowell- my 96 year old friend.

RB a life well lived

 

In terms of encountering a legend, it was a little underwhelming. I had just left school for Trinity and saw a scruffy old man with holes in his overcoat on Dublin’s Grafton Street. Nothing particularly ominous and unusual there, he could have been a busker. But I noticed that he was wearing a raggedy scarf from my school. Concerned that a pensioner from the same part of the world as me had fallen on hard times, with the naivety of youth I offered him a chocolate bar. He politely declined but asked me my name. His name was RB McDowell and little did I realise then, that I was starting a unique friendship.

 

When I met RB McDowell he was in his early nineties, and was still working every day in Trinity’s library on his academic work. For well over half a century, he had lectured history in the university and retirement couldn’t stop his zest for knowledge, it just gave him more time to study obscure topics he found fascinating. At school or university, memories are often shaped by special characters. RB McDowell could claim to be one of those. He has two books written about him by hundreds of contributors basking in their memories of the man. For many, years after leaving university he became a symbol of the best days of their lives.

 

RB was born in Belfast in 1913, he attended Inst and was proud to have done so. He wore his school scarf most days and still had the school crest displayed at a jaunty angle in his ramshackle rooms in Trinity. Ironically for a man who lived until his late nineties, he told me his school years he was considered too frail and sickly to do sport, although he made up for it by burying himself in libraries and developing his life long passion for history that was shaped at school.

 

After school, he made the short journey to Dublin which was to become his home for most of his adult life. Despite his self proclaimed horrendous hand writing and ability to digress at every opportunity, he gained a first class degree in Trinity, before proceeding to a PhD. He became a lecturer in Trinity in 1945, after a brief, and rather unhappy period teaching in an English public school.

 

For those who didn’t go to Trinity, it’s hard to convey the esteem in which the man was held. With his distinctive Anglo-Ulster brogue and eccentric dress, he was loved by students and respected immensely in his field of study. He devoted his life to academia. In my friendship with him that lasted throughout my student years, he would excitedly tell me about the latest papers he was working on and could be found in the library most mornings with a diligence that would be alien to most of us slovenly students.

 

He had lived the best part of his life in Trinity in his own rooms, but in later years he had resided in a nursing home in rural County Kildare. I went to visit him there only once, shortly before leaving Dublin two years ago. In a nursing room filled with sleeping and docile pensioners, RB was propped up with three pillows writing furiously while balancing three heavy academic tomes on his lap. He spoke as rapidly as his fountain pen: “Ah Drennan, delighted to see you, just have to get through these foot notes and then we can talk properly.” The fact that he was 95 at the time, sums up RB McDowell’s life. He spent his years doing something he adored, and Trinity and RBAI should be justly proud to count him amongst their number.

 

Jonathan Drennan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ulster Schools’ Cup

By Jonathan Drennan

 

For three short months, squads of teenage rugby players go through an experience that may never be rivalled for the rest of their lives. They exist in a bubble where balancing studies, family and friends is a constant experiment of trial and error. The margins of their homework jotters become filled with idle doodles of set plays and statistics that reflect their journey to the summit of the schools’ cup.  St Patrick’s Day becomes embossed in their brains as their chance to play in a televised final at Ravenhill in front of a capacity crowd.

 

The schools’ cup experience in Ulster is one that is shared not only by the players, but by classmates, teachers, coaches and alumni who revel in its ancient tradition. Whole school communities get swept up in the hysteria that accompanies a run to the final. For Brian McLaughlin, it was the stepping stone that launched him into the coaching stratosphere by leading Ulster to a European Cup final. For former schools players of different generations, Luke Marshall (21), Roger Wilson (31), and Jack Kyle (86) it remains a vivid memory of an incredible time in their rugby careers. 

 

Brian McLaughlin, in his new role as head of Ulster’s academy, is driving from Belfast to Ashbourne in County Meath on a freezing morning to watch Ulster youth v Leinster youth. It is far removed from the manicured playing surfaces of Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium, but it is from these players that McLaughlin still derives a huge amount of joy and satisfaction.

“I have always loved working with young players, it’s where I learnt about the game of rugby. Of course I miss Heineken cup games and the buzz you get off the crowd, but working with young people gives me an incredible passion still, and that started at school.”

After a one year appointment at Kilkeel High School, McLaughlin went on to take unfancied  Lisburn school Wallace High to their first final in 1989, this brought him to the attention of the province’s then sleeping giant, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI),  who hadn’t won a cup in 22 years when he was appointed in 1992.

 

McLaughlin was tasked to bring success to the school, and did so, winning his first title within three years and ending a drought. He feels this start at Wallace and later RBAI was crucial in helping him learn the game in its entirety from a coach’s perspective.

“When I started coaching, you’ve got to remember I was a young guy, I didn’t have anyone telling me how to coach, and schools rugby gave me an incredible opportunity to express myself and do it my way, I found out things along the way, some right and many wrong, but it was a quality time and I was exceptionally lucky to start out in this way.”

 

For many players, the schools’ cup has an irresistible allure, reunions for cup final teams happen every March, expats return from Canada, the USA and even Australia, to reminisce about their day at Ravenhill. Some of the slightly younger generation who now have children and mortgages make do with covert weekly viewings of their well-worn VHS copy of the final, memorising the sketchy commentary as precious prose.

 

McLaughlin also believes his experiences as a player for Regent House in Newtownards helped him become one of the most successful schools’ coaches in Ulster. “I remember losing against (Royal School) Armagh in the final for Regent, although it was a loss, it started a very special relationship with the cup. I understood the tradition and the allure that it had for the players, you want to create an incredible experience for the boys.”

 

As the years of the cup have progressed, so has professional rugby. For some schools, this professional approach is mimicked as they work towards a win that will live long in the memory of the school body. Ulster Number 8 Roger Wilson was coached by McLaughlin at RBAI and won the cup twice under his tutelage. His memories remain  happy , but he understands the sacrifices needed.

“I played three seasons of schools’ cup rugby and was lucky to win it twice, but I was never under any allusions, it was really hard training with a lot of pressure and intensity. It’s not necessarily pressure from the coaches, but pressure gradually rises from outside the squad, not just in the school, but the media hyping you up as favourites, it just builds and builds until the final”.

 

For a schoolboy rugby player who is serious about making the final line-up for his school’s campaign, the sacrifices remain enormous. Early morning weight sessions, lunchtime scrum sessions and after school training are all supplemented by the need to actually study once in a while. Wilson remembers nearly falling asleep on his dinner plate as homework loomed.

“The training was regimented, but then you got enjoyment out of it, knowing the buzz it was creating around the school. I remember virtually everything, all the games and the scores, and winning it was incredible. Even after so many years as a pro, the win in that competition is right up there for me”.

 

His Ulster teammate Luke Marshall is a new breed of schools rugby player, who used the cup as a shop window for his talents, earning him a professional contract. He went to Ballymena Academy, a school with a proud rugby tradition that produced David Humphreys. However, the school have always felt isolated from the alleged Belfast big three of Methody, Campbell College and RBAI. Playing as an underdog in the cup gave him motivation that helped him in his professional career.

“Going to school outside of Belfast, you have this motivation to prove yourself in the cup against these big schools. It was a huge motivating factor for all of us, coming from Ballymena we always seemed to be written off, but that kind of thing only makes you want to get to Ravenhill even more.”

 

Unlike Wilson, Marshall never experienced winning a final, but he came close, reaching a semi-final. “Playing for Ulster was what I grew up wanting to do, but playing in a schools’ cup final was always something I dreamed about. It’s a special thing. You are playing beside boys you have grown up with and sat in maths with, it’s special. Then you’re trying to get to Ravenhill, you are playing for your school and all of your classmates.”

 

Unlike the Belfast schools, Marshall confesses that Ballymena had a more laissez-faire approach to training. “The most important thing for me about schools’ cup rugby is that I enjoyed it, that’s the crucial thing. We didn’t do many weights and we trained only a few times a week, but then after school it all got a bit more serious, and you miss those days sometimes.”

Jack Kyle could lay claim to the title of the greatest rugby player to have played for Ireland, but sitting in his beautiful home in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains, he remembers his time playing in the schools’ cup for Belfast Royal Academy (BRA) vividly as some of the happiest days of his life.

 

“I remember playing for BRA so vividly, it was a great time in my life. I started playing at full back for BRA in the schools’ cup in my first year on the first xv, then something happened and one of the sport masters decided we were short at out-half, so they put me there and that’s where I stayed for the rest of my rugby career.

 

The schools’ cup was a huge event, the very thought of getting to Ravenhill as a boy to play in the final was so exciting. Of course, I never got there, the closest I came was getting beaten by a good Coleraine (Academical Institution) side. I remember distinctly being in tears after that game, the first and only time I ever cried after a game, but that’s how much it meant.”

 

Kyle smiles when he is told about the training regimes today’s cup teams go through; for him the cup was played in the Corinthian spirit. “It was a very leisurely thing really, but what a wonderful time, travelling all across the country to Portora, Ballymena and others. I just think of it as so many good times.”

 

The schools’ cup is a journey. For some players, it is the final destination in their rugby careers. For others, it is the start of bigger crowds and even tougher training regimes.  Yet nothing can ever replicate the experience of the cup. Through the adversity of defeat and the joy of victory, this ungainly large wooden shield with a battered cup attached to it continues to capture the adulation of Ulster schoolboys. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Made in Chelsea

By Jonathan Drennan

 

Carl Frampton approaches a boxing ring in his training gloves with the same nonchalance as an office worker pulling up their seat at the start of the day. For Frampton, the Commonwealth super bantamweight champion, boxing is what he has known since he was a young boy growing up in Tiger’s Bay in Belfast. The fact that he is living and training in more salubrious surroundings of neighbouring Chelsea means little to him, boxing rings are the same everywhere, he is here purely for business.

 

For Frampton is an exceptionally organised young man. He has already plotted and planned the majority of his wedding details in October in tandem with his best man Olympic bronze medalist Paddy Barnes. This may help to explain why he finds it difficult to explain why he has expected Kiko Martinez to fight him twice, and both times has been forced to get a new partner for the big dance. “I laugh it off to be honest, the last time he pulled out he gave us ten days notice, until he’s standing in the ring in front of me I won’t believe it will happen, if he wants to be taken seriously there’s no way he can pull out this time.”

 

Shane McGuigan and Frampton have developed an almost symbiotic relationship. McGuigan trains Frampton, leaving his Dad Barry to handle the management of Carl’s career. The fact that he is living and training in more salubrious surroundings of neighbouring Chelsea means little to him. Boxing rings are the same everywhere and he is here purely for business. Working to Frampton’s preferred soothing soul music from Sam Cooke, they work on the pads, building up to a steady rattling rhythm, until the final crescendo of the last thumping rounds when the Kings of Leon builds them into a lather of speed and sweat.

 

The final bell rings in the gym, work is over for another day for Frampton. He holds out his glove for me and asks me politely can I untie the intricate knots that Shane has created. Sitting on the ring apron, Frampton confesses that he is feeling a bit of pressure. “I feel a bit of pressure now and again of course, people in Belfast expect me to win world titles, and we’re not there yet, we’ve got a European title to take care of, but that (pressure) is a good thing, and it’s a driving force for me and I perform best under pressure.”

 

Frampton’s mentor Barry McGuigan famously made the King’s Hall in Belfast his adopted home filled with vociferous fans roaring him to victory. Frampton hopes that the Odyssey Arena. “The King’s Hall used to be the mecca in boxing in Northern Ireland, but I want to bring the big title fights and nights back to the Odyssey. We need some good news back home.”

 

Frampton is the product of a newly open-minded Northern Ireland that has been smothered recently by renewed fighting on the streets. He understands that he has become a role model for both sides of the community.  “It’s a hard one, I don’t want to be big headed, but you get people looking up to you, from both sides of the community, a lot of little kids especially who are involved in boxing, they see me as a hero which is strange for me, things at home have been worse than in a long time, I just hope things can get back to normal.”

 

Growing up in the predominantly loyalist area of Tiger’s Bay, Frampton was introduced to boxing at the Midland club which stood near to his home. Boxing has been his passion, his sport and finally his livelihood. Does he ever worry at 25 that he could lose his hunger in the fight business? “When I was 15 or 16, I was making flyweight, I remember killing myself to make the weight, I never did it right, I didn’t know the things I do now I suppose. I remember being in bed close to the weigh ins, unable to swallow I was that dehydrated, I was choking myself, but now it’s my career, I would rather get do this than a 9-5, it’s a short career and I want to get in, win titles and get out.”

 

In chic Chelsea Frampton cuts a conspicuous figure. His tightly muscled compact body is enveloped in the replica shirt of his beloved north Belfast team Crusaders, contrasting with a female pilates class who have come in for brunch at the neighbouring delicatessen. He misses his fiance and two year old daughter, and confesses his ultimate fears. “I don’t want to be big headed, but I think I’m a far better fighter than Kiko Martinez. Any fears in boxing you might have aren’t from getting a dig to the head, it’s about getting humiliated in front of your family in the ring against a guy you know you should beat.”

 

Frampton is fully aware of the dangers of Martinez. A keen student of his profession, he watched Bernard Dunne’s crashing defeat at the hands of the Spaniard. “I watched it, but I think it flattered Kiko a bit, it happens, he came flying out of the blocks, Dunne got hit and couldn’t recover, and that just happens in boxing sometimes, you just have to prepare yourself against it as much as possible.”

 

After 140 rounds of sparring, Frampton is looking forward to a quick weekend trip back home to Belfast before he returns for more work in London. A trip to Seaview to watch his beloved Crusaders has been struck off the agenda. “I’m looking forward to giving Christine a bit of a break and looking after Carla, so I think the football will be getting skipped, I’m not too sure it would go down brilliantly. I’m always looking forward to these breaks, they’re what keep you going in these 10 week camps. I just want the fight to come sooner, the waiting is the hardest part.”

 

His mentor Barry McGuigan walks into the gym to escort Frampton to an awaiting packed schedule. The warmth between the two men is noticeable and immediate. McGuigan understands clearly what it’s like to be far from friends and family preparing for a fight with the hopes of the nation resting on young shoulders. Happily, it is a burden that Frampton wears lightly.