For most Catholics living through the Troubles, an invitation to a meeting with the leaders of the main Loyalist paramilitary groups would have meant one thing: violent death. But when Gerry Storey got a call in the spring of 1972 requesting the pleasure of his company at just such a gathering, he didn’t go into hiding, nor did he take up arms. Instead, he got in his car and drove from his part of Belfast, the Catholic side, to the Loyalist Shankill Road. Nervous certainly, but also determined to find out what these men, the heads of the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, wanted. He had nothing to hide, he reasoned to himself, and therefore he would be OK. Remarkably, he was right.
When Gerry arrived at the meeting, he quickly discovered that rather than put a bullet through his head, the gunmen on the other side of the table wanted to talk boxing. Gerry was well known in Belfast for running the Holy Family Boxing Club, a gym in the Catholic New Lodge area, that welcomed Republicans and Loyalists alike. Amid the blood, sweat and heavy bags, sectarianism was replaced by the sweet science, and the Protestant paramilitaries wanted to let Gerry know that they were aware of what he was up to, and were happy for it to continue.
His gym, and its non-sectarian policy, also had tacit approval from the Republican leadership, and so as the carnage of the Troubles unfolded, an extraordinary sub-plot played out.
“These paramilitaries saw boxing as a noble endeavour and had a kind of sentimental view of it,” says Donald McRae, the South African author and sports journalist whose superb new book, In Sunshine or In Shadow, tells the story of Gerry and the Holy Family, and the boxers from both sides of the divide who came through its doors, such as the legendary Barry McGuigan, a Catholic who trained there as an amateur.
“It was McGuigan who helped me understand it,” McRae adds, as we chat outside a café on a sunny but chilly spring afternoon in the gleaming development behind King’s Cross station. “These gunmen admired boxing because of the violence of it, and they felt a kinship with these other violent men. If Gerry had been a football or tennis coach, they wouldn’t have allowed it.”
McRae is an award-winning author of 12 non-fiction books, including three about boxing (Dark Trade; In Black & White: The Untold Story of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens; and A Man’s World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith). He is also the best sports interviewer in the business, writing regularly for the Guardian, and it was after he interviewed McGuigan in 2011 that an idea sparked for what would become In Sunshine or In Shadow.
“Living in South Africa during Apartheid, we heard so much about the Troubles, and Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers,” he says. “The situation in Northern Ireland seemed to echo the situation back home, so it has always been in my mind.
“I came to England in 1984. McGuigan won the world featherweight title in ’85 [against the feared Panamanian Eusebio Pedroza]. I had always loved boxing, but that was the time my interest in the sport became quite deep. When I met him in 2011, we hit it off and he said I must come to Belfast. He gave me a tour of the city, and it was fascinating and chilling at the same time. It made me think, there is something here to write about, and it kept coming into my head.”
McRae resisted the idea of doing a book solely on McGuigan, who married a Protestant and whose triumphs united both communities. Instead, he wanted to tell more than one boxing story from the Troubles era, and there was one in particular that jabbed away at him. When he heard about how this man called Gerry Storey, a genius boxing coach who had, for an extended period in the early 1980s, gone into the Maze prison twice a week to train both Loyalist and Republican prisoners, he knew he had to meet him. After doing so for the first time thanks to McGuigan, he realised that Gerry and the Holy Family would be at the heart of In Sunshine or In Shadow.
“Gerry’s time in that prison affected him deeply and I think he does feel that it was an incredible thing that happened,” McRae says. “After Bobby Sands and nine other men starved themselves to death, both sides were at their lowest and the commanders of the Loyalist and Republicans felt they needed something uplifting, so they turned to boxing. Gerry couldn’t believe how they were shouting over the walls to each other, co-operating over the equipment he was leaving there.”
Compared to most sports, boxing is littered with more than its fair share of chancers, scoundrels and lunatics, but McRae soon found that Gerry, who is still running the Holy Family in his mid-80s, is undoubtedly one of the good guys.
“He is just one of the most modest and self-effacing men, but has done stupendous things – and is still doing it right now,” says McRae. “I asked some of the boxers if they had ever seen a darker side to him. The only thing they could talk about was his strict discipline in the gym. Forgiveness is his ethos. He’s as close to a saint as I’ve ever met.”
In Sunshine or In Shadow posits boxing as an antidote to the mayhem of the Troubles. Catholics and Protestants flocked to McGuigan’s bouts (“Leave the fighting to McGuigan” was the popular slogan of the day) and the boxers themselves found in their sport a means of escaping the madness that had torn their city in two.
“The fighters I spoke to were all so keen to get across the idea that boxing was without prejudice,” McRae tells me. “I’m sure there was some, but generally it didn’t matter where you were from. When people are being shot in the head and family members are being blown up, they got to the gym and it was a peaceful place, even though it was full of people punching each other.”
The need for respite from the horrors of the Troubles was more acute for some than others. One of the most affecting parts of the book is the story of former European lightweight champion Charlie Nash, whose brother Willie died in the Bloody Sunday shootings.
“It took a long time to get Charlie to open up, because it’s enormously painful for him to talk about Bloody Sunday,” McRae explains. “For our first 15 interviews or so it felt like we were skirting the subject, but then it all started coming out.”
The book ends on a hopeful note – hopeful for the younger generations growing up today in Northern Ireland. Yet McRae admits that events that have transpired since his book was completed show that, while there is more sunshine than before, long shadows continue to be cast.
When the news came through that only one of the soldiers responsible for the Bloody Sunday massacre would face prosecution, McRae spoke to Nash’s son, who told him the family were devastated, but the fight for justice would go on. Add to this the death of journalist Lyra McKee, shot dead in the streets of Derry in April, and clearly Northern Ireland still has a way to go before it can put its blood-drenched past behind it once and for all.
These days, boxing may lack the popularity to unite people as it did in McGuigan’s era, but just as the violence and injustice continue to play out, Gerry Storey still remains. Still running the Holy Family gym, preaching his message of pugilism and peace.
In Sunshine or In Shadow is published by Simon & Schuster