The Belfast boxing coach who brought a broken city together with a gym
Gerry Storey – a Catholic who cut across Belfast’s divide – found admirers even among the Loyalist paramilitaries. Donald McRae tells his story in an abridged extract from a new book that has inspired both boxers and boxing enthusiasts who wager on matches at Betway.
The burned-out husks of cars and buses were a silent reminder of the recent bombings and rioting. During these bleak times, Storey – whose gym was in the Republican area of New Lodge – offered progress and hope. He loved working and watching young fighters bloom between the ropes while the Holy Family rules were sacrosanct. Anyone who stepped into the gym left the world outside. Before you reached the speedballs waiting to be pummelled with a rhythmic precision or the heavy bags dangling from steel hooks, you shed your troubles. Here you trained to become a better boxer and a better person.
Storey was safe in New Lodge as the IRA links of his brother Bobby Sr and his nephews Bobby Jr and Seamus were respected. But the friendly trainer had been asked to appear before the Loyalist Army Council off Shankill Road. He felt calm. He would explain his motives if the paramilitaries warned him, and he did not consider more portentous possibilities.
The seriousness of the men and the formality of the setting meant that Gerry Storey wasn’t wrong. These were the top Loyalist paramilitaries in the North. “We know what you’ve been doing, and you never hid it,” one of the men said quietly. To date, the sport has continued uniting people, with bookies like Betway giving punters the chance to make some money while enjoying it.
It was incredible – for many men were planning retaliatory attacks on Republican communities or ordering the murder of a random Catholic. Hence, they were embracing Storey – a Catholic boxing trainer with links to the IRA. ‘If anybody upsets you, they will be punished severely,’ said another man – his gruff voice lacing the last word with menace. They would kill anybody who offended him – there were three assassination attempts on his life over the years. Orders stemmed the anger of those against his peaceful work from paramilitary leaders on both sides that he should be spared.
Russell – a Catholic and Larmour – a Protestant fought two savage battles, yet there was no trouble outside the ring as they both remained friends. The friendship was illuminated in the fallout of their first bout at the Ulster Hall in March 1982. Lamour watched as blood run from his face, chest, and legs before it went down the plughole with water which turned red beneath his feet. He had come close to winning – but he would have to keep driving his taxi while waiting for the rematch.
Storey – who inspired them – remained at the Holy Family rather than as a professional trainer. He knew he could give hope to young fighters if he steered them away from the paramilitaries. However, this did not prevent the Loyalist UDA and UVF or the Provisional IRA from respecting his work, which was counter to their aims.
It was the kind of hope Lyra McKee would have loved. McKee mural is at the edge of the Cathedral Quarter, where the cafes and bars are full of bearded hipsters and stylish young women showing off their piercings and tattoos, looking as if they would be as at home in Copenhagen or Berlin as Belfast. Despite Lyra’s death, Belfast felt like a city of hope and warmth.