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John McNally: The Man Who made Olympic History

[extracts from the Appletree Press title Legends of Irish Boxing published by Appletree Press]

Belfast’s John McNally’s place among the immortals of Irish sport was assured on the afternoon of 2nd August 1952, when he claimed the bantamweight silver medal for Ireland at the Helsinki Olympics. In doing so, he became the first man from these shores to win a boxing medal at a modern day Olympic Games. He achieved the breakthrough for Ireland and staked the nation’s claim among the elite of world boxing.
      His feat lit the flame on a glorious decade for Irish pugilism, which saw names such as Gilroy, Caldwell, Byrne and Tiedt follow in his wake to achieve Olympic glory in Melbourne in 1956. The anomaly today however is that the man who first put Irish boxing on the Olympic map is a largely overlooked figure. He has never milked the limelight of his achievement and remains an unassuming character in his native Belfast. His story is a remarkable one: a man who scaled the heights in sport and then hung up his gloves to use his musical talents to lead ‘The Freemen’, one of Ireland’s most popular folk groups in the 1970s. From battling boxer to principal banjo player, John McNally’s life has been one long, rich tapestry.
      Born in 1932 in Cinnamon Street in Belfast’s Pound Loney area, McNally first acquired a taste for the boxing game as a juvenile with the local Immaculata club. The Pound Loney district was a closeknit myriad of mill streets in the lower Falls area which has now virtually disappeared from the city’s landscape. Its toughness and poverty, as well as its community spirit, were renowned and it was a natural breeding ground for excellent boxers.
      As John explained, there was only one place in the area that a lad with an interest in boxing could go to learn the game.
      “I’m a Pound Loney man through and through and it was only natural that I joined the Immaculata club in Devonshire Street when I was quite young. I stayed there for a while but then there was a bit of a disagreement within the club and I was unhappy with a few things, so I left to join the St Mary’s club in King Street, where I went on to win an Ulster juvenile title.”

All was not plain sailing for McNally’s career. One episode whilst at school illustrated to him the primacy that the authorities felt that education should have over boxing. Having won the Ulster juvenile title, the progression to national honours was no foregone conclusion.
      “I was at the time a pupil at the Christian Brothers’ School in Hardinge Street but, due to my examinations, I was not permitted by the Brothers to go to Dublin to compete for the Irish title. That really upset me inside but I did learn the lesson in hindsight that there was more to life than boxing.”

McNally’s natural talent in the ring began to tell and by 1951 he had progressed further to claim the Ulster and Irish junior flyweight crowns. This achievement put him in the running for a place in the Irish Olympic team and the following year he duly won the Irish senior bantamweight crown and was picked for Helsinki.
      For a young man who had held an ambition to travel Europe, the Olympic Games in Helsinki were a world away from the hardships of post-war Belfast. A city which was recovering from the devastations of the war was a far cry from the opulence of the Olympic Games.
      “It was just a dream come true to represent my country in the green vest on a stage such as that and I was never so proud,” he said. “Literally, I found it hard to believe that I, a lad from the Pound Loney, had been picked and was going to travel to the Olympics in Finland. The honour was something I cherish and always will.”

The fifteenth summer games took place in Helsinki from 19th July until 3rd August 1952. The Irish Olympic squad went to the Games in hope rather than expectation. However, the eightstrong boxing team was made up of a virtual who’s who of Irish greats with Andrew and Thomas Reddy, Terry Milligan, Peter Crotty, William Duggan, John Lyttle and Kevin Martin competing along with McNally for honours. Fortune was on McNally’s side as he was awarded a bye in the opening round of the bantamweight competition. In his next bout, he was a unanimous winner over Alejandro Ortuosto from the Philippines.
      Next up was the quarterfinal where the experienced and fancied Italian Vincenzo Dall’Osso was waiting for the Belfast boy. While McNally was not expected to come through the bout, the Irishman was at the top of his game and felt very assured and confident. As he explained, a tough international battle prior to the games had put him in the right frame of mind.
      “In the warm up to the Olympics, I had represented Ireland against the American Golden Gloves Champions in Dublin,” he said. “I came up against a guy from New York called Jack Carabino and he gave me the hardest fights that I had ever experienced. He had one of the most vicious punches I had ever felt but I fought back with all I had that night to claim victory. After I had got the decision over Carabino, I felt so confident that I believed that I would be unbeatable in the Games.”

Follow the next part of John McNally - The Man Who made Olympic History

Extracted from the Appletree Press title: Legends of Irish Boxing by Barry Flynn.
Also available from Appletree Press: John McNally - Boxing's Forgotten Hero by Barry Flynn

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