Connemara's Sean Mannion really was a contender

A new film about Sean Mannion charts his amazing journey from Connemara teenager to South Boston boxing hero, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

Connemara's Sean Mannion really was a contender

THERE’S a scene towards the start of Rocky Ros Muc, a documentary film about the life and times of Sean Mannion. The Connemara boxer, who moved to Boston as a 20-year-old in 1977, was about to fight Mike ‘The Bodysnatcher’ McCallum for the vacant world light middleweight title in Madison Square Garden in 1984.

The owner of an American firm phoned up Mannion looking to put the name of his company across the waistband of Mannion’s boxing trunks. He offered $5,000. Mannion rejected the offer, as he wanted to put “Rosmuc” on it. The company boss kept putting up his offer in increments of $5,000, thinking Mannion was playing hardball until he hit $25,000. “Whoever they are, I’ll match them,” said the businessman.

Still Mannion wouldn’t budge, even if he went up to a million dollars, he explained. Exasperated, the businessman said: “Why? What do they have?”

Mannion replied: “People.” “What do they produce?” probed the businessman. “Human beings,” said Mannion, putting an end to the negotiations.

There are many things that define Mannion. He was a boxer. He’s a native Irish language speaker. He’s a man who had the guile to successfully skirt his way around Whitey Bulger’s gangland environment in South Boston. Above all, though, he’s a Rosmuc man, even though he’s lived more of his life around Boston than the Gaeltacht in Connemara.

He embodies the life of so many Irish emigrants to America who live in that twilight zone between Ireland and their adopted home in the US.

“To me Rosmuc was always a character in the film,” says Michael Fanning, the documentary’s director. “It’s all about Rosmuc and its independence and identity, and the independent streak they have. It’s incredible — you have the mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, whose mother is from Rosmuc; you have Sean, one of the best boxers that Ireland’s ever produced from Rosmuc; you’ve [Irish-American mobster] Pat Nee, one of the most notorious criminals in the whole of Ireland from Rosmuc. It’s bizarre that has happened.”

Fanning says he knew he was telling a story that just wasn’t about boxing. “We were really telling a story about Ireland, Ireland’s relationship to Boston through the eyes of a boxer and emigration.

“The very first time we went to film in Boston with Sean, we filmed a card game in a house in Dorchester. They’re all sitting around a table, all from Ros Muc, all speaking Irish. The house is littered with relics and memorabilia, bits and pieces that would make you think you’re at home in Ireland. The six or seven of them around the table are still in Ros Muc. It’s only when you open the door, you realise you’re in Boston.

“Then when you go to Rosmuc on the back of everybody’s car, there are car bumper stickers saying, ‘I vote Marty Walsh’. It’s a fascinating thing — those elements of identity, community and shared experience.”

Mannion aged 17 in 1974, and a recent picture.
Mannion aged 17 in 1974, and a recent picture.

Mannion is an endearing character, taciturn, a gentle giant. There is an emotional scene in the film a couple of years before he leaves Ireland for the States. He has just won his first Irish boxing title in Dublin’s National Boxing Stadium at 17 years of age. He meets his father after the fight. His father tries to play down the achievement, telling his son he should have beaten his opponent in the first round. It’s no good, though — he can’t hide the pride he feels in his son, and he breaks down crying. Mannion Snr wore his son’s winner’s medal around his neck until the day he died. The medal was also buried with him in his coffin.

Mannion was No 2 contender in the world for three years and about as tough as they come. Muhammad Ali’s old trainer Angelo Dundee, who later trained Mannion, said the Irish man had the toughest chin of any boxer he ever worked with. In 57 professional fights, Mannion was never knocked down.

Mannion probably came closest to getting knocked out in a fight in 1983 against Danny ‘Thunderhand’ Chapman. In the ninth round, Mannion punctured a lung and broke some ribs. He said he knew what “real pain” was for the first time. With six rounds left to fight, he was in trouble. Luckily for Mannion, the lights in the arena went out, which gave him enough time to gather himself and survive to the end of the fight, which he won on points. All kinds of rumours exist about whether someone switched the lights out on purpose, but Mannion says there was “thunder in the air”.

There is a melancholy about Mannion, which has enveloped him since losing his title fight to McCallum. It’s the last thing he thinks about in bed at night. He feels he let people down.

“From the moment Sean put on his first pair of boxing gloves, he wanted to be world champion,” says Fanning. “It was his life’s goal. He was driven to do it. He felt really disappointed because he wasn’t just fighting for himself. He was fighting for Rosmuc, for the Irish language, for Ireland. When that’s your whole existence, and you get that close and it doesn’t happen, the downfall of the next 20 years are as steep as the ride up. That’s been the problem with him coupled with his alcoholism.”

The film has a slew of intriguing elements mixed into Mannion’s story, including the racism and street fighting that fed Boston’s fight game in the 1970s, and some memorable interview segments with the crime boss, Pat Nee. “There are lots of layers to it, lots of character to it,” says Fanning. “It’s just a really amazing life story at its very heart.”

  • Rocky Ros Muc will be screened on Saturday, as part of the IFI Documentary Festival. 

Other highlights of the IFI Documentary Fest:

  • The Indians Who Rocked The World (Saturday, 8.40pm)

A who’s who of rock legends, including Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson and Iggy Pop as well as the film director Martin Scorsese, feature in this documentary about the role played by Native Americans in the 100-year history of popular music, from the Delta Blues and jazz right up to hip-hop.

  • It Tolls For Thee (Sunday, 1pm)

There’s no escaping the life story of Corkwoman Mary Elmes. Two books are being published this autumn about her as well as the release of this film narrated by Winona Ryder. She led a remarkable life, helping to save hundreds of children from death during the Spanish Civil War and Second World War.

  • Elián (Sunday, 5.10pm)

Revealing documentary about the story of Elián, a five-year-old boy who survived a sinking boat while 11 other passengers drowned three miles off the Florida coast. His mother was one of those who drowned, leading to a bitter custody battle between the boy’s Cuban father and his Miami-based relatives.

  • Kevin Roche: The Quiet Architect (Sunday, 8.20pm)

The Mitchelstown-born architect is still working at the age of 95, and in this documentary reflects on how he has avoided the limelight, despite designing such buildings as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Convention Centre, Dublin.

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