BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Everybody wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.
Unless you’re a fighter. Then you always want to be Irish.
It’s good business, after all. Freddie Roach — who’s, in fact, of French-Canadian ancestry — will be the first to tell you, he sold a lot more tickets as “Irish” Freddie Roach.
This isn’t new, either. Perhaps you don’t recall Mushy Callahan, one of the first 140-pound champions, but you’ll admit it’s a better nom de guerre than Moishe Scheer, as he was born on the Lower East Side of New York City.
Boxing is a sport of immigrants. So maybe there’s some misguided romanticization for a time when they sprang forth from the steerage class, that holy trinity of white ethnics. Still, we don’t dwell on Jewish fighters. Or Italian ones. But the idea of the Irish fighter endures.
The Fighting Irish. Before they were a football team, they were a famous regiment — memorialized by Joyce Kilmer, himself a poet killed in battle.
Perhaps, then, it speaks to something ancestral.
So here comes Michael Conlan, 27, just 10-0, but already headlining his third consecutive St. Patrick’s Day card at the Garden (yes, albeit the small Garden) when he will fight Ruben Garcia (25-3-1). You’ve probably heard the story by now: having won bronze at the London Olympics, he was favored to win gold in Rio. Instead, following an epically bad decision, Conlan identifies the Olympic judges with his middle finger, and tweets at Vladimir Putin. Looking back, those acts were as profitable as they were profane. Seven months hence, Conor McGregor famously attends his debut, the first of his consecutive sellouts at the Hulu Theater.
Would it have all fallen into place if he were, say, from Azerbaijan?
But you don’t have to love Conlan because he’s Irish. There are other reasons.
What catches the eye in and around 93 Cavendish Street — a neat, narrow row home where the Conlan boys came of age — are those splashes of fluorescence every few blocks: the murals. Most of them remain as they were during The Troubles — the last iteration of a centuries-old conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. This being a Catholic neighborhood, those memorialized were Republicans: the hunger striker Bobby Sands, the Gibraltar Three, IRA soldiers shot by British special forces and the so-called blanket protesters, who refused to wear the prison garb of common criminals.
Protestant neighborhoods on the other side of the “peace wall” have their own murals, their own fallen heroes. To an outsider, it’s difficult to keep score, to know the martyred from the murdered, the victims from the villains. But taken together the murals tell a single story: a history of the dead.
While the Good Friday peace accords were signed in 1998, when Conlon was only 7, the family had already seen its share of trouble. Michael’s mother, Teresa, was hit by a rubber bullet. Her husband, John, who hails from Dublin, was regularly brought in for questioning. A British Army barracks on the corner of Cavendish and Violet streets didn’t leave the Conlans feeling very protected. What Michael recalls most vividly, however, was the petrol bomb.
“Seen someone going on fire,” he says. “I was probably about 9.”
Aside from murals, what Belfast had in abundance were boxing gyms. “In a five-mile radius,” Michael says, “there’s like between 18 and 20 clubs.”
Jamie, the eldest Conlon brother who is also a professional boxer, says “we’re a nation born into fighting, especially in the north of Ireland.
“A boxing club was a way to express what we felt inside,” Jamie said. “You don’t understand where you’re getting this aggression — this kind of raw, animalistic wanting to let your hands go. You don’t understand why you’re throwing punches.”
John Conlan, who had been an amateur fighter in Dublin and is now coach of the esteemed Irish national team, had his own take.
“I don’t think we’re an aggressive race,” he said. “I just think we understand that piece in the ring: that little piece, man-to-man, face-to-face.”
If Jamie had a crazy kind of courage, Michael — five years his junior — had something else: innate, unusual, a sense of the ever-changing distance in the ring, the calculus of combat. He had a head for it, too.
“He knew instantly how to evade punches,” Jamie recalls. “He understood it’s not about who’s the hardest or the strongest or the most aggressive … it’s about knowing how to twist, how to mentally open you up, and then I’ll hit you.
“I remember Michael sticking his tongue out at a kid. They were only 10. … There was a wee crowd, and Michael understood he had to get him wound up, [to] embarrass him. … Soon as the guy lost his cool, Michael knew he’d won. The guy tried to headbutt him, and by then Michael was just playing with him. You don’t see that every day.”
By early adolescence, Conlan was on his way to establishing himself as Ireland’s best-ever male amateur fighter. The wins and losses would eventually tally 248-14, by his own account, and include gold medals at the World Championships, the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games, not to mention the two Olympic appearances. It was a storied journey that took him from India to Ankara to Azerbaijan, but it was back in Belfast where he took most of his losses.
He wasn’t alone. Conlan came of age with a generation that exchanged one set of troubles for another, drugs and booze.
“When the conflict was on, there were very, very little drugs in the neighborhood,” John recalls. “People got executed very quickly if they were antisocial. But when the conflict stopped, it seemed to quickly spiral out of control. … Young lads in the club would talk about being on four-, five-day benders.”
From age 13, Michael was doing cocaine, ecstasy and popping prescription pills. He’d often work out drunk, on vodka and Red Bull. It was a double life, carefully concealed from his parents and Jamie, or else they might cause him grievous bodily harm.
He won’t, however, concede that any of this had anything to do with seeing a man set on fire. “I just wanted to do what everybody else was doing,” he says. “I thought I was missing out.”
Maybe it was drug testing at the Commonwealth Games that started him toward sobriety. Certainly, it had something to do with Jamie, who recalls a night when Michael was out suspiciously late. A friend had spotted him drinking and let Jamie know.
The big brother got in his car, caught Michael at the aforementioned location, and began to unload.
“I gave him a slap. Actually more than a slap,” Jamie says. “I had to do it in front of his friends. To let them know, you can’t f— around.”
Then he drove his kid brother back to Cavendish Street and “beat him up and down the house.”
It wasn’t merely drugs and alcohol, though. There were other perils for kids from the north in the new millennium.
In the spring of 2008, Irish and English teams were set to meet at the Balmoral Hotel in Belfast. Kieran Farrell, a rough and aggressive fighter out of Manchester, seemed perfectly suited for Michael’s style.
“I was confident Michael was going to outbox him,” John says. As it happened, Michael didn’t outbox Farrell. In fact, he didn’t box at all. “He seemed to take punches willingly.”
Between rounds, he told his son he would stop the fight unless Michael began returning fire. He did, for a while, in a listless sort of way. Then he resumed taking punches. Suddenly, it dawned on the horrified father: “Michael wanted to feel pain.”
Afterward, Michael contemplated one of his rare losses and claimed not to care. Still, he wept as he said it. Turned out a friend of his had committed suicide.
“This was how he expressed his sorrow for the passing,” John says. “By letting somebody hit him.”
The way Michael heard, it had to do with drug money: “He didn’t know how to get out of paying these debts. Then, the only way he thought he could was killing himself.”
Chances are, if it weren’t drugs, it would’ve been something else. There have been more deaths by suicide in Northern Ireland since 1998, than there were from all the killings, assassinations and bombings during The Troubles. For all the horrors of that era, says Teresa Conlan, “There was a sense of community, a sense of belonging. And I think now that that’s gone. … There’s this loneliness. Depression sets in. The aftermath of what actually happened. … OK, you’re just supposed to be normal now?”
Michael stopped counting the number of friends he lost by suicide: “About 10…15…maybe more.” Wakes. Cemeteries. Funerals. After a while, he stopped going. He’d already spent enough time in the kingdom of the dead.
At 17, he came home with a tattoo: rosary beads and a crucifix around his neck, clearly intended to be seen. It was a religious marking, but it wasn’t political. It was an affirmation of who he was. And where he was going.
His father, recalling how difficult it was for Catholics in Northern Ireland to get work under the best of circumstances, was inconsolable. “You’ve destroyed your body,” he said. “You’ll never get a job.”
“I don’t need a job,” Michael said. “I’m going to be a fighter.”
So, what saved Michael Conlan?
That beating from his brother Jamie certainly helped. And the one from Kieran Farrell, too.
“Losing helped,” Michael says. “Losing brought me back to reality.”
So did the love of his parents.
The idea that boxing saved him is only partially true. As any fighter knows, no one can really save you but yourself. Outside of that, the best you can do is set a decent example.
Toward that end, Michael recalls the summer of 2012. He couldn’t have known what would lie ahead: the Garden, the bad decision in Rio, an American promoter cutting him a check. He’d just returned from London, 20 years old and despondent. The bronze medal seemed a great victory for everyone except Michael himself. It wasn’t gold, he thought. And then he saw something from the car: a burst of color on the corner of Violet and Cavendish streets, where the British Army barracks used to be.
It’s not a perfect likeness. But that’s not the point. Here was a fighter, but not a soldier. In West Belfast, Michael Conlan’s was the first mural its kind. In a kingdom of the dead, he was alive, full of ambition and possibility.
There’s reason enough to root for Michael Conlan.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.