Boxing in Ireland is huge. It’s actually the number one Olympic sport in Ireland. Although I wouldn’t consider myself a boxer, I’ve been blessed to train with of one of the best boxing clubs in Ireland. Portlaoise might be small but it has huge sporting traditions.
Recently, I was able sit down for an interview with Pat Ryan, the club stalwart and head coach of The Centre of Excellence Boxing Club in Portlaoise.
Greg: Hi Pat, it’s good to finally meet you outside the club. Tell us a little bit about the club’s history.
Pat: The club was founded by Billy Blackwell in 1930 and it was situated at the back of the Gardai station. This club was very progressive raising up many trainees who eventually travelled to England and Australia to become professional boxers, some are still in the top 10 worldwide.
Greg: So it all started with Billy Blackwater?
Pat: Yes, he was an exceptional coach who gave most of his life to youth. As a community guard he reached out to young adults and encouraged them to participate in boxing, hurling, and Gaelic football. He ran the club for more than 40 years, until 1973. I took over the club in 1976.
Greg: Why you? And why boxing?
Pat: I was involved with the club from 1964. I was trained in PE and worked in the Portlaoise Prison as an instructor. Additionally, l introduced boxing to the prisoners. I was finding abilities in some of the young offenders and giving them something to do.
Greg: Any success?
Pat: Yes, many successful stories, there is probably no time to tell them all. One offender with whom I worked for three years become a senior national champion.
Greg: Senior national champion?
Pat: Yes, Ireland’s boxing champion. He is now coaching and working for the community along with his wife. All pre-release programs are very important for successful entry into society.
Greg: And your biggest success Pat?
Pat: Providing the facility for the boxing club.
Greg: Tell me more.
Pat: When the troubles started in 1969, the Garda got a different outlook on boxing. After forty years of existence the club had to move to a different facility. We settled in St. Mary’s complex thanks to my excellent relationship with the priest. He allowed us to use the facility free of charge. The club progressed. We won our first juvenile title in 1987 with Dave O’Loughlin. As of today, we have won over 100 national titles. The priest offered us an 80x30ft piece of property to develop but as the club became more popular we experienced problems with local neighbours. Their main concern was too many cars parked in the area. I decided to take a different approach and look outside the box. We began to search for a different unit. Very luckily Counsellor Gary Longe suggested to speak with John Dunne – the son of the friend of the club. He identified a great unit. I started to raise finances. The City Council agreed to give us 30,000 euro forward purchasing the new premises. We also received 30,000 euro from the church along with a lot of help and advice from Senior Dann Burn. So in 2014 we were able to purchase this unit.
Greg: It’s a very impressive place. Two full size rings, a weight gym and a lot of space. Why is it a good place for youth?
Pat: It’s all about community. Young boys and girls can enjoy the sport of boxing. Many members don’t have the necessary skills to become boxers, but they still enjoy fitness training. It gives them opportunity to train and develop discipline and endurance.
Greg: How popular is boxing in Ireland?
Pat: Very popular. It became popular during the occupation of Ireland and was coached in the Army. Boxing is the number one Olympic sport in Ireland. We have won more medals in boxing than any other Olympic sport.
Greg: Why are the Irish so good at boxing?
Pat: No doubt there is a specific gene in the Irish make-up that has been developed through fights over the last 600 years. We have one motto: ‘Never give up’.
Greg: What are you trying to teach your fighters in the ring?
Pat: Firstly, discipline. No matter where you are from you can train and remain in the club as long as you follow the codex of behaviour inside and outside of the club.
Greg: Why is discipline number one?
Pat: We have boys and girls coming from different backgrounds. We train youth from the travellers’ community, Polish, Lithuanian, and Afro-American communities. They train together side by side with no distinction. That is why discipline and self-respect is so important. We also want them to learn that the game is fun, it gives a good laugh and teaches them skills they can use outside of the ring.
Greg: Is boxing safe?
Pat: Yes. We provide medical forms, questionnaires, vetting and medical examination. We increase the weight of the gloves during progression of training. All participants have to wear gum guards, head guards and hand tapes while training. Yes, it’s a very safe sport.
Greg: Will we have a future Olympic gold medallist coming from Laois?
Pat: I think yes. We have great coaches. Second coach Slawek Mudryk, Karl Lawless, Eugene Lacumbre and Daniel Daly . You could say that Slawek and I are addicted to boxing.
Greg: And the last question, is boxing an effective tool to fight violence?
Pat: Of course. When you learn how to box, you learn how to control your emotions and appreciate the harm and damage that could be done if not for discipline. You learn how to respect yourself and others. Boxing is about community it helps people to develop and grow into better men and women.