by Brian Gabriel
A quiet, un-assuming man walked amongst the residents of Blarney village on a daily basis and not many people are aware that he had been an All-Ireland Champion Boxer, not once but twice.
His name was Finbarr O’Leary and he lived in Shean Lower all his life with the exception of a few short periods when he worked abroad. His grandfather and both of his parents worked locally, in the Mahony Bros., Woollen Mills. Born in September 1946, the youngest of three children, he had two older sisters. He attended Colthurst Blarney Boys National School where he said history was his favourite subject.
He had several sporting interests while growing up as a young lad, hurling being among his favourites at the time. He actually won an Under-14 Championship Medal playing for Blarney in the 1960 final against Carrigtwohill in ‘The Park’. He admitted he wasn’t much good at football and boxing soon became his priority. His interest in boxing grew because his father, Flor, who had been an ex-boxer himself, was always talking about boxing. In the 1950’s, he would get up at three or four in the morning to listen to the radio because World-title fights were usually held in America and there were no television services then.
Blarney Boxing Club, located in the T.A. Hall, close to his home was quite a good club in its day. Christy Madden from the Groves and Joe Bradley from the Waterloo Road trained many young boxers such as the Maddens, the Dwyers, Harry Quinn and others to All-Ireland success. Finbarr joined this club when he was about ten years of age. But sadly, shortly after he became a member, the Blarney Boxing Club finished up. Blarney Boxing Club did reform for a time in the ‘Tea House’ at the Gulley but unfortunately it did not survive.
The young enthusiast was now left without a club so he applied for membership of The Glen Boxing Club in Blackpool. The Glen Boxing Club, founded in February 1916, was located in a very small terraced house half-way up the cobbled-stoned Spring Lane, in Blackpool. It is the oldest Boxing Club in the country and a plaque was recently unveiled in Bishop Lucey Park marking its 100th anniversary
He was accepted and began training three nights a week. He cycled to the Glen Boxing Club in Blackpool to do his training, from his home in Blarney and back again, on his own, during the bright evenings. But when weather was bad or during the winter months, when daylight was short, his father would pay for the bus fare. Money was scarce and the bus-fare was dear, about 1s.9d return, which amount was hard to come by in those lean years. He says “I owe my father a lot for what he did for me.”
There could be twenty-eight or thirty boxers in the club-house at any given time with a very small ring in the centre.
Training was hard but very enjoyable. Only two fellows could be inside the ring at any one stage while the rest would be skipping with ropes or weight-lifting, sparring, using a punch-bag, getting footwork correct, doing exercises and much more. He also did a lot of out-door running and jogging around The Glen area.
Finbarr said he lost his first fight and lost about three or four fights in eight years. From age eleven to nineteen, he got 2 black eyes and a flattened nose but said “that’s all right too.” He never received any serious injuries.
Finbarr’s greatest achievement was when he won his two All-Irelands, in the Boys Class and in the Youths Class in the period between 1958/59 and 1960/ 61. He was also runner-up in a third All-Ireland. To get to this standard he had to win the Leagues, then the County Title followed by a Munster Title before he was eligible for the All-Ireland Title fight. He said “I won the Title fights and I got a great sense of achievement or what-ever you want to call it. There were several occasions, you would get this feeling, like when you would win a heat, the Counties, the Munsters and of course, when you would win the All-Irelands. That was as far as I could go then because it was all amateur.”
“We got prizes, little silver cups and the like but they were worth gold to us. It was a fierce achievement for a young fellow to get his name on the cup. They were great days.”
In 1961, he was nominated by the Cork Boxing Board and became the first Captain of a Cork Boxing Team. Winning his own bout, this Cork Team beat a Dublin Team by six bouts to five on a night to savour and remember in the Parochial Hall.
He became involved with the Cork Ex-boxers Association where he made some fantastic friends. He attended absolutely everything that they organised in association with the Cork County Boxing Board including boxing breakfasts where people were honoured for their achievements. It was something nice to do and helped pass away the time. Members of the 1961 team were honoured recently at a function and were all presented with a silver plate in recognition of that great success. In Finbarr’s honour, there is a perpetual cup, named The Finbarr O’Leary Cup, awarded each year and Finbarr said, “it goes too far in my eyes to be calling it after me!…I wasn’t that good you know; I was an All-Ireland Champion all right, I wasn’t a World Champion. But they did that for me and I am both humbled and proud.”
“If I had my time over again, I would go back to it, I wouldn’t change a single moment of it, not a moment, ‘twas that good to me. Boxing has been great to me. Outside the ring I met some beautiful people, honest and straightforward. I think it’s one of the greatest sports of all times, really. I still meet a lot of old foes and of course the ex-boxers who have remained friends and we chat a lot about old times. Boxing was in most of my life, I achieved what I could and basically, boxing and my life has been good to me.”
Unfortunately, several years ago, a disastrous fire occurred in Finbarr’s house and most of the medals, awards and photographs of his boxing career were destroyed.
“When I was young you would never hear of a woman winning an Irish title or even a girl boxing but women’s boxing is a big thing now. I wouldn’t be 100% for women or girls fighting, that’s the truth. Not because of putting them second best or anything but I think a woman would be open to getting hurt a lot easier than a man, you know what I’m talking about. Women are achieving, there is no doubt about that, there are four or five Irish titles gone to women from all over the country, with a few Irish Women Champions in Cork also.
Currently, 40 Irish titles have come to the County of Cork now, between the girls and the boys, so yes, the Sport of Boxing is after coming on big time, especially since Michael O’Brien took over Cork County Board Presidency, it’s come on by leaps and bounds, with many thriving clubs all across the county.”
Finbarr had his thoughts about the situation with the sport today and remarked: “It was and is a very, very, good learning curve for young fellows growing up and developing their characters and discipline. It gives them an insight into life that they just can’t go around beating up the world or things like that. I think it keeps the young fellows straight, with training 4 or 5 nights a week. They won’t be messing on the streets or throwing their weight around. It gives a young person respect for themselves and for other people.”
Michael O’Brien, President of the Cork Ex-Boxers Association, says “Finbarr went in to The Glen Boxing Club as a young guy and he showed tremendous potential early on. He had close enough to 100 competitive fights and he only lost four or five which is a phenomenal record and his personal boxing record is a fantastic achievement. He went on, eventually, to be a successful under-age boxer, and has been a life-long member and supporter of the sport.
Finbarr was always a guy who never squared away and he always fought his challenges head on and I suppose that was the hallmark of his character. His association with boxing has been long and enduring. He set out to achieve and he succeeded, and, as they say, “The Rest is History”.
The above item is part of a more in-depth interview recorded by me with Finbarr on Thursday 12th September, 2019.
Finbarr O’Leary – Two-time All-Ireland Champion Boxer sadly passed away on Sunday 1st December 2019. R.I.P.