Book review — In Sunshine or in Shadow: How Boxing Brought Hope in the Troubles (Donald McRae)
by Constance VICTOR
4 October 2020
“Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow,
It’s I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow,
Oh, Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so!”
The lyrics from one of Northern Ireland’s national anthem songs “Danny Boy” inspired Donald McRae for his book, In Sunshine or in Shadow, as he emotionally and thoroughly explores the positive impact of boxing in Northern Ireland from 1972 to 1985. By navigating through the journeys and challenges experienced by Irish boxers and their coaches, McRae wishes to highlight in what ways boxing enabled countless young men to steer away from joining paramilitary groups as well as simultaneously suggesting hope for shared peace in a time of sectarian violence.
Boxing holds a special place in the Irish sporting consciousness, and as tensions were quickly rising in Northern Ireland in the beginning of the 1970s, one specific boxing club rapidly differentiated itself from other boxing clubs around Northern Ireland.
The “Holy Family Club” in North Belfast had a head coach who trained Catholic and Protestant boxers despite the sectarian divide that was meant to separate the Northern Irish population along religious lines. The man wished for his boxing club to be a refuge and a safe haven for boxers to not only develop their talent, but also to bond and become friends despite their differences. The author presents the head coach as a “fearless, venerable, and inspirational” man.
This man’s name was Gerry Storey.
Gerry trained many boxers during his career, but McRae gives us the opportunity to explore chronologically and in a detailed manner the backstories of some of the major Northern Irish boxing champions Gerry has bred: Barry McGuigan, Charlie Nash, and famous rivals Hugh Russell and Davy Larmour.
As we navigate through the boxers’ career paths one boxing match at a time, McRae has a particular talent in parallelly narrating the most important events of the Troubles, as well as exploring in what ways the boxers from the cross-community boxing club had their lives impacted personally and professionally by the sectarian violence around them.
Despite their extraordinary boxing parcours, McRae narrates the unfortunate events that have impacted the lives of the boxing champions. Some of the events involve the death of Charlie Nash’s brother during Bloody Sunday, the hospitalisation of Davy Larmour’s father after an IRA bomb explosion, and Barry McGuigan’s experience at Divis Flats as he almost got hit by a cow leg that had been thrown by children on top of the building.
Gerry himself was personally impacted by the Troubles, surviving two assassination attempts as bombs were placed at his workplace in the Belfast docks. Due to the respect he had gained for his peaceful and unifying interests, both major paramilitary groups made sure he would be safe and never threatened again.
In light of this, Gerry would then go on training UVF and IRA prisoners in the Maze prison and this experience allowed him to realise that “inside the cages of the Maze, the two paramilitary groups would share the same boxing gloves, pads and headgear”, a powerful observation as two groups at war with each other would unexpectedly unify through their common attraction to boxing.
McRae hence does an extraordinary job in describing life in the boxing ring as well as in the violent outside world which characterised Northern Ireland at the time. By doing so, the author is able to highlight the importance boxing and boxers have had in uniting people in times of hatred and discrimination.
“Perhaps being punched hard in the face and gut gave boxers a purity of purpose that lifted them above petty discrimination”, McRae wrote in this regard.
This easy-to-read novel might seem for some as a book that only avid boxing fans would enjoy given the obvious focus on the sport, but be assured that this book is tremendously enjoyable to read albeit a readers’ potential disinterest in boxing. The author’s goal isn’t to shed light upon the history of boxing in Northern Ireland, but rather to use the stories of four boxers to highlight the sport’s capacity in promoting human empathy and unity during a violent and divisive conflict.
Gerry Storey once said, when discussing the Troubles, that “the shadows were long, but boxing gave sunshine” and McRae’s In Sunshine or in Shadows has shown an astounding ability in narrating Gerry’s achievements, purposes, and inspirations as the head coach of a Northern Irish cross-community boxing club.