Boxing in Ballina
The first boxing tournament on record for Ballina took place in St. Muredach's College Ground in 1923 and this was run in conjunction with Moyalla Bazaar. The principal performer was Jim Coffey of Castlerea who, in his best days, went six rounds with the great Jack Johnson. After the Civil War in Ireland had ended and the country was at peace, many soldiers had been discharged from the Army where boxing was the main sport. Records show that a boxing tournament was held in the Town Hall, Ballina in 1925, organised by a group which included Henry Jordan, Knockleagha, an ex-Army soldier who was regarded as a useful performer at the time. The principal bout was at heavy-weight between T. Moysten, Army, and B. Murtagh, ex-British Army, which resulted in a k.o. for Moysten in the fourth round. This was followed by an Army tournament with some of the best boxers in the country taking part including Corp. Paddy Hennelly, then Army welter-weight champion, who later joined the Gardaí, and others like Billy Wright, Irish light champion of Phoenix Boxing Club. Others included W. O'Shea, Army lightweight champion, M. McDonagh, Army bantam champion (who later emigrated to Canada and became Canadian champion) and Thomas Hickey, finalist light Irish champion.
Jim and Jack Corcoran of John Street (since renamed Casement St.) ran a taxi service in Ballina and had rented a shed for a garage at the back of the old Estoria Cinema (beside Ballina Printing Co. today) and it was in this shed, by candle-light, that Jack and Larry Garry sparred nightly. They were soon joined by others and as 1926 was coming to an end, the inaugural meeting of Ballina Boxing Club took place. The club met in the Town Hall, then owned by James Ahearne. The rent for the upstairs room was five shillings per week and this included free electric light. The only property owned by the club at the time: two sets of boxing gloves. The committee included Sid Ruddy, Paddy Molloy, W. J. Loftus (victualler, Bridge St.), Jack Garry, Jack Corcoran, V. Leonard, J. Lynch and Mick Durcan M.P.S.I. A Whist drive was held in the Hibernian Hall (in Casement St. where Ardnaree Boxing Club is located at present) and just over £50 was raised. This was used to purchase punch-bags, sand-bags, singlets, trunks etc. A horizontal bar and a vaulting horse were purchased from the Rectory, Ardnaree. Membership increased above 50, and the club had the services of Jack Birrell as trainer.
The first tournament was held on 27th January 1927, and George Hewson M.P.S.I. was invited to judge. The proceeds from this tournament went to the St. Vincent de Paul Society where George was an active member. Boxers from Ballina included Dick Hearns, Jack Barrett, Arthur McNamara, Jim Lynch, M. J. Doherty and Jackie Barrett who was the first man into the ring. Dressed in black shorts and a white singlet with a B.B.C. monogram, Jack must have been very proud indeed. When the Town Hall closed the club had to go dormant until 1931 when training re-commenced in the Old Workhouse. Fred V. Devere (then Editor of "The Western People") was President at that time and W. J. Loftus was Secretary.
The first major tournament was held later that year in the Old Town Hall. Top of the bill that night was local man Dick Hearns' bout against the Army champion Cpl. Smutton. Dick was winner by a k.o. (Dick Hearns, born in Ballina in 1907, was a boxer in An Garda Síochána from 1929 until 1939 and also played county football for six counties: Mayo, Roscommon, Longford, Cork, Dublin and Donegal. He also trained the Mayo team which won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship in 1936. The Olympic Council of Ireland boycotted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and there is no doubt but that Dick would have won gold as he was Irish light-heavy champion in '33, '34. '36, '37 and '38, missing out through illness in '35, the year he won the British ABA and European Police boxing championships. Both Dick Hearns and his wife Claire were active members of the Mayo Association from the 1940s right through to the ‘70s. The purpose of that organisation was to help Mayo people and enable them establish their presence and identity in Dublin, the capital city of Ireland. Dick Hearns was always looking out for fellow Mayo people right up to his death in September 1993.) Other Ballina boxers taking part were Tommy Furey (paper weight), Paddy McNulty (fly), Tommy Curran (fly), Eugene Doherty (cruiser, a popular name for light-heavy at that time), Martin Mullen (middle), Kevin English (welter), Larry Brien (light) and Martin Connor (welter). The following year Ballina BC ran a tournament with Dick Hearns, Tommy Furey, Paddy McNulty, Larry Brien, James Gillespie, Ernie Devere, Willie Gaughan, Kevin English, Martin Mullen, Eugene Doherty, Tommy Curran and Tommy Kelly from Ballina BC taking part. One of the most memorable contests on the night was between Dick Hearns and Pat Marrinan of Belfast, then British Universities cruiser champion: Dick was tested but triumphed. Many fine tournaments folowed with a German V. Irish match in Russell's Store (where Clarke's Garage is now), and the Army V. a Connaught team comprising mainly Ballina boxers.
Boxing continued to improve into the forties with the formation of St. Patrick's BC and the Ardnaree BC (1949). A few names must be remembered though they are no longer with us: Charlie Gilmartin, Inspector Joe Cahill, Charlie McGoldrick, John Rice, Fred Devere, Sid Ruddy, Jack Corcoran, Eamonn Horkan, Tom Walsh, Joe McGarry as well as many more who gave of their time to ensure the sport would be conducted in the proper manner of the "art of self defence".
Our President, Msgr. Paddy Gallagher, was instrumental in securing the old granary on the Downhill Road as a training venue in 1978, and with mentors like Eamonn Horkan who was able and willing to do the needful, Ballina Boxing Club was revitalised. John O'Boyle too was to the fore at this time in furthering the aims of the club.
After returning from England in the 80s, Joe Lavelle took a keen interest in Ballina BC, and with much success. He used his contacts in England and Wales to organise matches between clubs in those countries to box Ballina selections. Teams travelled to Ballina from St. Pancras BC (London), Bedford, Birmingham, Leeds and Cardiff, and Ballina selections were in turn invited to box in their tournaments overseas. The boxing/dinner shows were staged in Downhill House Hotel to capacity crowds for several seasons from the early 1990s onwards. During this period the club thrived and coaches such as Brian O'Donnell, Gerry Hickey and P. J. Melia together with Joe Lavelle ensured the boxers got the best of training.
Though Ballina Boxing Club trained at different venues in the town over the years, special mention must be made to benefactor Paddy Murphy (deceased) of Bunree Mills for giving the club the use of a premises on the Sligo Road for many years and for donating a building at Pawn Office Lane to the club in 1990. Funding to develop this facility was sought from the Sports Council but responses did not meet expectations. In any case, AIBA rules for the dimensions of a competition ring specified that the platform dimensions be 7.80 metres square with the area between the ropes being 6.10 metres square: the building on Pawn Office Lane was just 6.50 metres wide. Major repairs to the building without grant aid at the time would not be deemed to be money well spent and the club moved to Ardnaree GAA HQ for a time before setting up temporary base in the Ballina Stephenites Sports Centre. In 2012, he club signed a 10-year lease on premises on Mercy Road close to the site of the former Old Workhouse and the club would like to acknowledge the support of IABA (Irish Athletic Boxing Association) and Junior Minister for Sport, Mr. Michael Ring T.D. for this venture.
The centenary year of IABA which was founded in 1911 saw Ballina among the national winners:
Boy1, national title went to Martin McDonagh, 29kg, aged 11, of Cluain na Rí.
Boy 2, national title won by Martin C. Collins, 75kg, aged 12, of Millview.
Boy 4, national title defended successfully by Jamie Conroy, 42kg, aged 14, of St. Patrick’s Estate.
With the new gym at Mercy Road, the future of Ballina Boxing Club looks very promising. Ladies boxing has become popular too of late and Ballina BC will be able to increase female membership because of this facility. Ballina's boxers deserve the best. In fact, Irish boxers deserve far more credit that they're given and it is a matter of public record that Irish boxers have taken more Olympic medals than all other sports combined in the country: boxers have won 16 of the 31 Olympic medals (summer) awarded to Irish athletes to date.