Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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Olympics:
1988 (second round)
1992 (Gold, beating Juan Hernandez (Cuba) 13-10).

Pro-Record:
18 wins, three losses

National Titles (4)

Lightweight

1987 - Bt S. Furlong (St. Michaels Wexford)
1988 - Bt S. Furlong (St Michaels Wexford)
1990 - Bt W. Boyd (Holy Family Belfast)

Welterweight

1992 - Bt Billy Walsh (St Ibars, Wexford)

World Amateur Championships
1989 (Bronze)

WAA Welterweight Title: 1997.

Awards

Supreme Texaco All-Star 1992

2010 IABA Hall of Fame
(uniquely inducted alongside his father Austin)

MICHAEL CARRUTH
WELTERWEIGHT BOXER

‘We started in Scotland but they fecked us out so we became mercenaries and we fought for whoever had the most money so things haven’t really changed.’ Retired army sergeant Michael Carruth leans back against the ropes of the Drimnagh Boxing Club and smiles. ‘I believe we were from Norway originally’, he adds.

Nearly twenty years after his show-stopping Olympic Gold, Ireland’s most successful amateur boxer is preparing himself for an evening’s work out with the young gents from the inner city who are gathered here to hone their fighting skills and enjoy a little sparring. The room echoes with the sound of rubber soles squeaking and pounding upon the floor, as nine punch-bags are smacked by rolling fists that bristle with cocksure confidence. Along the walls are photographic portraits of boxing icons like Ali and McGuigan, mixed with those of club stalwarts like Martin Doran and Paul Griffin. A glass-fronted cabinet in the corner contains the impressive trophy ware which the club has scooped in its forty years of service.[i]

Michael’s father, Austin ‘Aussie’ Carruth, has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Drimnagh BC since it opened.[ii] Aussie’s grandfather William Carruth was a Protestant carpenter from Co. Tyrone born in 1885.[iii] During his early 20s, he and his wife Annie lived in Co. Fermanagh where their first son Billy was born. By the time their second son Victor was born in 1909, they were living at 31 Ussher’s Quay in Dublin.[iv] Billy, the eldest son, was Aussie’s father and Michael’s grandfather. He worked as a carpenter, builder and tradesmen in Dublin. ‘He was born in the north so they used to call him “Billy the Brit”’, laughs Michael.

Protestant or not, Billy soon became romantically entwined with Miss Bridget Gaffney, a young Catholic woman from the Thomas Street area of Dublin. In November 1922, her brother John Gaffney was one of four IRA men executed in Kilmainham Jail on the orders of the 26-County Irish Free State government. Their dubious charge was possession of a revolver. ‘They arrested them, gave them back their arms on the street and then rearrested them again’, says Michael.[v]

Billy and Bridget lived in Cabra where they raised their two sons and three daughters as Catholics. The teenage Aussie went to live with Bridget’s mother, Granny Gaffney, whose husband had since died. Neighbours referred to him as Aussie Gaffney. Aussie liked to box and, when he was thirteen, he joined the St Francis Boxing Club. The club was run by Martin Humpston and Aussie began spending time with Mr. Humpston’s sons, including Martin Humpston jnr, who became Ireland’s first light middleweight champion in 1951 and later served as a much admired trainer at Coventry's Bell Green club.

‘And then one day, when he was 14 or 15 years old, my Dad came to the Humpston house and he saw this young girl called Joan who was a sister of the brothers he was hanging out with. So he started courting her and, well, now they’re both 76 and they’ve been married 53 years. Her dad used to call him ‘Carruth’ all the time’.

Like his father, Aussie became a builder. He and Joan settled in Greenhills where they had ten children. ‘All ten of us were married and all ten of us are still married. That’s something my mother and father are immensely proud of. In this day, when people get separated if they have a fight over what colour the fecking duvet on the bed should be. None of us emigrated. And we’re very close-knit. No matter what goes wrong in a family, it can be fixed. If you owe a few bob, you can find it. If it’s emotional, talk about it. There’s northing unfixable.’[vi]

Michael was one of triplets born in 1967, towards the younger end of those ten children. ‘Yeh, yeh, we used to switch around and do all those tricks’, he says. The triplets left school after their Junior Cert. William became an apprentice electrician, Martin joined a carpet company and Michael enlisted with the 2nd Infantry Battalion of the Irish Army and moved to Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines.

‘I joined for employment’, he says, ‘but it turned out to be the best move I ever made. I was full-time fighting and training all day. You couldn’t ask for better. They transferred me into the gym and gave me leave to go to all these games and championships. I still had to do my regimental duties but I got looked after because I was boxing for Ireland and I was representing the Defence Forces.’

In 1988, he went to the Seoul Olympics but was beaten in his second fight.[vii] ‘I was dropped for the first and only time in my life. I got up and the fight was over.’ There was no sympathy when he returned to the barracks. ‘The amount of slagging I got. “You lost in the Olympics, ya bleeding waster!” Those comments hurt as much as any punch. I had to get back, which I done, and then I went and won the bloody thing!’

In 1992, five months after his marriage, Michael returned to box at the Barcelona Olympics. With Aussie coaching him, the young freckle-faced Corporal from Drimnagh became the first Irishman since Ronnie Delany to win Gold.[viii] ‘To be honest, the lads in the battalion were immensely proud. I was flying the flag for them when I won the gold. My medal was their medal and still is.’

Michael broke both his hands during the Barcelona win and took some time out to consider his career. ‘People were telling me to do this and that. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was 25 years old and I was basically being told to give up being an amateur because I had won Olympic Gold. I would have stayed amateur if anyone had made me that offer. But they didn’t. So I left the army and turned professional in 1994.’[ix]

He did not particularly enjoy professional boxing and retired in 2000 with a pro-record of 18-3-0. He then began coaching alongside his father at the Drimnagh BC.[x] ‘This is my army now’, he says. ‘This boxing club is what I live for. I come here every night to train these kids. Boxing has a way of humbling people when they get too big for their boots. Just listen to the slagging I’m getting, standing for photographs with you. “Ya bleedin’ poser” and all. Little blaggards, half of them. But if I can make one of them a champion … I asked my Da ‘d’you think I’ll be as good a coach as you?’ and he said ‘yeah, but you’ll have to win two Olympic Golds to be better than me’.[xi]


FOOTNOTES

[i] ‘I don’t know the statistics but we have a unique record. There are three major events in Irish boxing. The European Championships, the World Championships and the Olympics. These are the three big ones, no matter what anyone else might tell you. And in this club we have won a medal at every one of those events. We’re the only boxing club in Ireland to do that. Paul Griffin is a European Gold medallist in 1991. Philip Sutcliffe is a European bronze medallist twice. And I won a bronze at the World Championships and the Gold at the Olympics so we had a good old time of it.’

[ii] The club is officially called the Frankie Kerr Memorial Hall after one of Aussie’s greatest friends, the father of former Republic of Ireland soccer manager Brian Kerr, who was the club’s foremost coach but died before the building was complete. Prior to this, residents of Drimnagh fought at the St John Bosco. Frustrations over the ring - it had to be taken down on a Thursday night for the dance and put up again on a Sunday – obliged boxer Frankie Kerr (father of Brian), Mick McQuillan and architect Niall MacCarvill [who had been President for last 45 years] and others to plan their own boxing club. They collected around the houses and raised the money for Drimnagh Boxing Club. When we called by in February 2010, the club had lately lost Jimmy Murray one of their greatest members aged 59, which hit them badly. ‘He was like a big brother to me’, he says. ‘He was a very private man. He knew he was bad but he didn’t tell us. He’s gone from us now but I swear to Jesus I’m still waiting for him to walk through that door there’. A five-a-side all-weather soccer pitch at the club was named for Michael Carruth in November 2008.

[iii] In 1882, three years before William was born, an Irish-born American prize-fighter called John Sullivan, the ‘Boston Strongboy’, became world boxing champion when he knocked his opponent out of the ring in London; Sullivan avoided the rematch in New York as he turned up too drunk to fight.

[iv] Victor was born on Christmas Eve 1909. His sister Beckie were born in Fermanagh in 1911, indicating strong Ulster roots. Annie’s real name may have been Ellinor.

[v] On 17 November 1922, the same day Childers was arrested and sentenced to death, the first four executions took place in Kilmainham Jail, under the Public Safety Bill take place. In Kilmainham Jail, four Anti-Treaty Volunteers are executed for possession of revolvers. Among them was John Gaffney of 3 Usher St., Dublin. Gaffney and his neighbour Cassidy (who was also executed) served with the 3rd Battalion of the IRA. It is to be noted that the Carruths may have lived at 31 Ussher’s Quay at this time. Aussie used to spend a lot of time with Granny Gaffney.

[vi] ‘I come from a well-structured family. I had a great, great day in Barcelona in ’92. But I’ve had bad days and I’ve had a real bad day. He was flying home from Barcelona, sitting beside Wayne McCullagh, drinking Bucks’ Fizz. ‘I didn’t know what Buck’s Fizz was. I thought it was a band that won the Eurovision’. They reading papers and says I’m going to make quarter of a million in the first few months. ‘I knew my life was going to change’. My dad was sitting across from me on the other aisle seat. I carry on reading the paper. And I see a piece just opposite about another drowning in the Blessington Lakes. My dad is reading the same page. And it listed all those who died in the lakes, including Gary Carruth. He was my first nephew, my Ma and Da’s first grandchild. He drowned in Blessington Lakes at 8 years old, about three years before. But there was his name. And I look at my Da. He’s reading it too. He says what would you do? I said, see that medal? I’d give it up straightaway if I could have him back? People say ah you made a load of money and you won a load of medals. I would swap everything to have him back. In a heartbeat. I have two children. I know what my brother and his wife went through. My children are the reason I get up in the morning. Things like that keep you grounded.’

[vii] ‘When I went to my first Olympics in ’88 at Seoul I’d only been in the army 3 or 4 years. I didn’t get it right and I got beaten in my second fight. I was dropped for the first and only time in my life. I got up and the fight was over. I had to get that monkey off my back. The amount of slagging I got in the barracks. As soon as I got back, “You lost in the Olympics, ya bleeding waster!” It hurt. My dreams were shattered. But fellows didn’t give a flying feck and those comments hurt as much as any punch did. I had to get back. Which I done. I dedicated four years of my life to getting back to the Olympcis and rectifying that. I’d have been happy if I’d won two fights but then I went and won the bloody thing!’

[viii] Ronnie and Michael are Ireland’s only Gold Olympians since Pat O’Callaghan and Bob Tisdale, with Michelle Smith weighing in with her rather controversial collection.

[ix] ‘I went on sick leave so that kind of covered me as I was opening shops and seeing people and all. Then I was turning professional and the army gave me leave of absence. I didn’t ask for it but it was good PR for them too. After five years, I told them I’d tasted civvy street and I liked being back. I was in the army from 1985 to 1995 and left it a sergeant. I went on a career break after I won at the Olympics. And I made kind of a rash decision that I wasn’t going to turn pro. It was thrust upon me. People were telling me to do this and that. I didn’t know what I wanted to do myself. I was 25 years old and I was basically being told to give up boxing because I had won an Olympic. What were my options? I’d fulfilled a lifetime dream by winning. Inevitably I was going to be beaten as an amateur, no question about it, not the way judging and politics goes. I’d got to the very top of amateur boxing. Promoters were coming in and offering me crazy money to turn pro. But I wasn’t ready to give up boxing. I would have stayed amateur if anyone had made me that offer. But they didn’t. Grants were only just coming into play. So I left the army and turned professional in 1994. I could have stayed with the army another 2 years but then I’d have had to serve another 11 years. But I’d been out for seven years and things had moved on s I’d have had to be retrained. It’s a totally new army now. A lot of my mates are still in it but they’ve gone to cushier numbers.’

[x] After taking some time out, he joined his brother Mark in 'Carruth's Carpets' on the Long Mile Road. In November 2003 he opened his own business, 'Michael Carruth Interiors', specializing in floors and doors. Since 1998, he has lived in Naas, with wife Paula and children Leah (born 1999) and Carl (born 2001). ‘I’m 18 years married so I’m going alright. I was 24 when I married and I’m 42 now’. He still travels to Drimnagh Boxing Club three times a week. I can’t argue with my life so far. I’m an Olympic champion and always will be. I don’t see people looking at me anymore. I’ve had it for the last 18 years and you learn to adapt. Someone comes up and wants an autograph, no problem. Why not? He’s not asking for a fight or a kiss!’

[xi] He is also a practising Sports Injuries & Holistic Massage Therapist and was masseur to the Westmeath football team in 2009. He is a fully qualified NCEF Fitness Instructor and holds an ITEC Diploma in Holistic Massage. AS of March 2010, he is the new community development officer for the IBA for Dublin City Council.

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.