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Butty tales are still recounted with wonder in Kilburn

Butty Sugrue was some man for one man.

It’s been 35 years since he passed away after apparently attempting to carry a fridge up the stairs of one of his pubs, The Wellington in Shepherd’s Bush, which was a surprising way for it all to end for someone who carried his reputation.

Sugrue is still best remembered as the man behind Muhammad Ali’s bout against Al ‘Blue’ Lewis in Dublin in 1972 and the shenanigans surrounding that episode were so many and so colourful that Dave Hannigan mined a book, The Big Fight out of it some years back.

Ali’s was arguably the most famous face in the world at the time but, though his stay in Ireland generated huge interest, the fight itself failed to draw the crowds and less than 19,000 people turned up to see history made flesh.

A good chunk of those present didn’t even pay which was, of course, a bit of tradition back in the day when hurling and football was the staple on the menu and Sugrue, whose organisation of the event seemed to leave something to be desired, ended up losing a reported £20,000 on the venture.

But there was more to the man born in Killorglin and christened Michael. Much more. His original claim to fame was as ‘Ireland’s Strongest Man’ and he travelled the length and breadth of the island living up to such a substantial boast as a member of Duffy’s Circus for whom he would perform prodigious acts of strength.

That talent for showmanship and self-promotion served him well after his relocation to London where he owned and operated the aforementioned establishment in Shepherd’s Bush as well as the Admiral Nelson in Kilburn and got to rub shoulders with some of the era’s showbiz royalty.

Photographs of Sugrue with Marlon Brando and Sophie Loren still survive on the internet, as do snaps of him balancing a man on his chair between his teeth. Yet another captures him digging said dental work into an almighty cut of steak that is decorated with a volume of food which would keep a small family fed for a week.

It’s no wonder they still talk about him in parts of north-west London and the old fables have been getting a good airing lately what with a number of Irish journalists, spectators and Paralympic sponsors staying in County Kilburn for the Games.

One time he persuaded one of his barmen to lay buried in one of his pub’s back garden for 61 days and another local legend has it that he once pulled a London Bus up Kilburn High Road with one hand while pushing a baby and pram with the other.

Such tales are still recounted with wonder but Kilburn has changed in the years since Sugrue was about.

The Admiral Nelson has long since fallen victim to the wrecking ball and numerous other Irish pubs have put up the shutters, as the diaspora diluted and the years moved on.

The area is a cultural melting pot these days.

The Irish presence may not be as ubiquitous as it was once was but it is still there and, as is always the case where the diaspora have gathered, sport is doing more than it’s bit to keep the old strands together.

It’s only two years since Kilburn Gaels won the London SHC and two of Ireland’s Paralympians competing here this last ten days, Ian Costelloe and Roy Guerin, will be feted by the local Kerry Association tonight in the Crown Moran Hotel, just a few pucks of a sliotar up the road on Cricklewood Broadway.

And yet the Irish axis has undoubtedly shifted.

Many among the latest wave of emigrants – one more familiar with hard drives than hard labour – now call Clapham their Irish Central and pubs like The Alexandra will ring to a cacophony of brogues as they watch the Republic take on Kazakhstan in Astana this evening and again on Sunday when Kilkenny and Galway contest the All-Ireland hurling final.

More than a few will stretch the evening out to its limits in The Swan in nearby Stockwell — a pub/club that is something akin to London’s version of Coppers by all accounts — where another generation of Irish exiles will no doubt attempt exhibitions of frivolity and bravado that would probably merit a nod and a wink from Butty himself.