From the States to Shanagarry: a sporting life less ordinary

Maurice Walsh. Picture: Dan Linehan

Where to start with Maurice Walsh?

The American football career in the outer reaches of the New York Giants club? The boxing? 

The victory in the Dublin Horse Show with a prize-winner fed on stout? The boxing? 

Buddy Cianci, crooked mayor of Providence, Rhode Island? The boxing?

They’re all linked, of course.

Walsh is standing in St Colman’s Boxing Club in Shanagarry, where he’s coached for decades, but he’s talking about his high school coaching days in Rhode Island. The early 1970s.

“It was going well, some of the guys we had went on to win college scholarships to play football, but one day at practice the cops surrounded the practice field, and then they came in.

“‘We’re taking two of your guys, Pip,’ they said to me, that was my nickname. Those players were on dope. 

"The same thing happened a couple of months later — surrounded the field, came in, took a couple of players away.”

This was Providence in the era of Buddy Cianci, a mayor so crooked he was jailed? Walsh rolls his eyes: “He was some gangster.”

“Anyway Margaret (his wife) had been left the pub in Shanagarry, and when we talked about it first, I said to give it to someone else in the family.

The signed gloves from Jake LaMotta, who was nicknamed Raging Bull, hanging in St Colman's Boxing Club in Shanagarry, East Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan
The signed gloves from Jake LaMotta, who was nicknamed Raging Bull, hanging in St Colman's Boxing Club in Shanagarry, East Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

“But when that happened, the cops taking away high school players for dope, I said, ‘let’s go, before our kids are big enough for school here.’ And we did.”

Walsh had an eventful back catalogue of sports highlights even then.

As a teenager he’d help coach his high school to the State baseball championship, and he’d starred himself in American football. 

As a quarterback in the New York Giants farm system a professional career in the NFL was on the horizon, though he downplays his career now.

“I played with the Giants’ farm club, the Providence Steam Rollers. I was the quarterback, but I was just an ordinary player. 

"The top quarterbacks could throw the ball 60 yards or more, no problem — on the button. I couldn’t do that. 

"Forty yards, maybe, but beyond that it was guessing where the ball went. Those other guys were accurate up to 60 yards.

“Plus, I was the smallest guy on the team, and that’s not good for a quarterback. He’s got to look over the linemen, those big guys, 240lbs or more. 

"It was good they were that size when they were protecting you, but not so good when they were after you. After a couple of years I got into coaching.”

Hence the high school in Providence, the police raids and the relocation to east Cork.

His mother was from Aghada and his father from Ladysbridge, so Walsh knew what to expect when landing back in Ireland.

“I fitted right in,” he says. When the locals learned he’d been coaching since he was aged 17, and Russell Rovers, the local GAA outfit, needed some help training the team, there was a meeting of minds.

They hadn’t won anything in years, but I didn’t know anything about hurling. I thought maybe with the football, though, I might be able to help.

They duly won the Junior B championship in 1978.

Even in the laid-back east Cork of the 70s, five small boys in a family needed an outlet for their energy, something to take them out beyond the sandy floor of the pub, and there was an option on the doorstep.

One of the photographs in the boxing club shows a visitor to Walsh’s bar, a large gent with a square-topped haircut smiling out, surrounded by kids. 

Floyd Patterson, one-time heavyweight champion of the world, was an obvious role model.

“He was passing through and he dropped in to see us. A nice guy. Before his fights he’d go to St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Gleason’s Gym was very near it.”

Walsh wrangled the kids into the boxing club — they used the old schoolhouse, “rats, everything” — and others joined in from Shanagarry, Ballycotton, Cloyne. 

They had to learn the ropes — all of them — and they weren’t afraid to travel to improve themselves.

“Every Saturday morning we’d drive up to Drimnagh for sparring, Austin Carruth (Michael’s father) would help us. Get there and get started around 10.30, and home then afterwards. 

"Maybe three-four hour drive up, the same on the way back. I remember this girl who used to come in around 11 for sparring.”

That girl was Katie Taylor. Walsh remembers the impact she had.

“The boys would be swearing and messing before she came in, but the minute she walked in the door that stopped. Immediately. They had great respect for her — and she had great respect for them, too.”

He was dubious about girls boxing himself until Karen O’Sullivan walked into the gym: “She came to us at 14 and I didn’t really like girls boxing, so when girls came to the gym I’d work them really hard, to see if they were really interested.

“But she hung on for a year and half, and eventually I put her into the ring with two of the boys her own age, tough guys, and she hit the hell out of them. She went on to win two All-Irelands, which was great.”

The little club near the sea in east Cork won plenty of other titles over the years. On a red plaque in the gym you can see the winners’ names. 

Eanna Falvey, who would become the Irish rugby team’s doctor; Kevin Hartnett, All-Ireland medal-winner with Cork.

The name Walsh figures prominently on the plaque, too. 

Billy, Kevin and Pa collected over 20 All-Irelands between them but their father focuses his attention elsewhere: “Billy boxed at welter and light-welter, Kevin middleweight, Pa at welter and he went on to coach with me. 

"It’s just great they’ve stayed involved, to keep the club going. That’s the most important thing.”

Then there was the horse. On his daily constitutional in the 70s Walsh used to pass a horse which got into the habit of strolling over as though saying hello, and Walsh got into the habit of feeding the horse sugar cubes.

Thomas Hennessy, the farmer who owned the horse, didn’t approve of the treats.

“He gave me hell, said the horse would get wind, but we became friends. 

Eventually he said if I was interested in horses he had a mare down the yard that was bound for the factory because of a problem with her legs, but if I wanted her I could have her. Cost £300, I think.

“He was very honest, he said if the mare’s first foal had the same problem with the legs then he’d give me my money back and he’d take the mare back. 

"I picked a stallion from Wexford, I knew nothing about horses, just picked one to do the job. I can’t even remember the name of my horse, but the stallion was Billy’s Bank, I remember that.

“Anyway, the foal was fine, no leg problems, and I looked after it well. I gave it stout to drink, I thought that would be good for it. I don’t know if other people were giving their horses stout to drink, but I was.”

When he took a fancy to entering the horse in the Dublin Horse Show the numbers weren’t promising. There were 56 other contestants in his class.

“The judges were eliminating horses, sending them out of the gate, and I was still there when there were only ten horses left. Still there when there were six left.

“The judge took one last look at my horse, ‘trot up there, back there’, and I went back and saw there were only four horses left.

“We walked our horses up and down and the judge pointed and I’d won.

“I was shocked, honestly. I had to bring the horse up through the gate when I’d won and Thomas Hennessy and Michael McGrath, who were big horsemen from around here, were waiting there for me. They were crying.

“They said ‘you know damn-all about horses, we’re coming here all our lives but you’re the one who won’.

“But they were delighted for me, it was a great day.”

There was a celebration when the champion came back?

There was a celebration before we ever got back, I’ll tell you that.

When we finish our stroll around the club Walsh points to the new gym equipment, freshly-painted walls. 

A top class environment.

A technicality denied St Colman’s a grant to refurbish their clubhouse, but that didn’t slow them down.

They renovated it. Walsh pays tribute to the locals who volunteered their time, energy and materials, and Michael O’Brien of the Garryvoe Hotel in particular.

“They were great, they drove on and fixed the place up, and it’s terrific. 

"We have good coaches here, the likes of Liam Hickey and Anthony O’Connor, and there are still good numbers, people are interested.

“They come down and train away, it’s great.”

Why wouldn’t they, with a backstory like that?

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