In the annals of Irish sport, their names will echo an eternity: 15 boxers who, between them, have won more than half the medals in Irish Olympic history.
Some are names everyone will know – Katie, Conlan, Carruth – while others had their time and did their thing more than half a century ago, their careers, their stories, their achievements often known only to those willing to take a deep dive into the history books.
But as an Olympic year prepares to dawn, the tale of Ireland’s boxing medallists at the Games is worth knowing. As a horde of current boxers prepare to fight for more Irish medals in Tokyo, it is these fighters’ footsteps in which they will follow. Fifteen fighters, 16 Olympic medals, and one production line of pugilistic brilliance that has firmly established this little island as a genuine global heavyweight.
Silver, men’s bantamweight, 1952, Helsinki
Many followed in his wake, but he will always be the first. Ireland had never won a boxing medal before the Helsinki Games of 1952, but then along came a Belfast man who etched his name among the immortals of Irish sport. A native of Belfast’s Pound Loney area, McNally began boxing with his local Immaculata club and he progressed quickly, winning Ulster juvenile titles in his youth before taking the Irish junior flyweight crown in 1951. In Helsinki, he was awarded a bye through the first round then he beat a Filipino boxer, an Italian boxer and a South Korean boxer – all by unanimous decisions – to advance to the final, where he was edged to gold in a 2-1 decision against Finland’s Pentti Hamalainen.
Silver, men’s welterweight, 1956, Melbourne
One of the finest amateur boxers Ireland has produced, Tiedt was a stylish fighter who is best remembered for his heroic silver at the Melbourne Games. He had been beaten by arch rival Harry Perry earlier that year but in a box-off for an Olympic berth, Tiedt reversed the result. He was outstanding in Melbourne, powering his way to the welterweight final where he met Romania’s Nicholai Linca, who beat him on a 3-2 split decision that proved highly controversial. In 1958 he turned professional but his career never hit the heights it did in the amateur arena, though Tiedt remained committed to the sport long after retiring, coaching at the Dublin University club and later working as a referee in professional boxing. He passed away in 1999 at the age of 63.
Bronze, men’s lightweight, 1956, Melbourne
A native of Drogheda, Tony ‘Socks’ Byrne passed away in 2013 at the age of 82, but his legacy lives on through his achievements. The socks in his name stood for ‘sock it to him’ and that’s exactly what Byrne did to the world’s best at the 1956 Games. The captain of the Irish boxing team in Melbourne, Byrne relied on donations from residents and local businesses in Drogheda to fund his trip to Australia, where he carried the Irish flag at the opening ceremony and duly led by example in the ring, beating Czech and US boxers to reach the lightweight semi-finals, where he was beaten on points by German Harry Kurschat. Byrne emigrated to Canada with his family in 1962 but he was never forgotten by his hometown of Drogheda, where a statue of him was unveiled in 2006.
Bronze, men’s flyweight, 1956, Melbourne
A legendary figure in the annals of Irish boxing, John Caldwell was just 18 when he won flyweight bronze at the Melbourne Olympics. The Belfast native was deemed exceptionally unlucky to lose his semi-final in Melbourne, but he used that platform as a springboard for a brilliant subsequent career. Nicknamed the “cold-eyed assassin”, in 1961 he won the world title in what was his first bout in the bantamweight division, beating France’s Aphonse Halimi. In 1964 Caldwell won the Commonwealth and British titles before retiring from the sport a year later. He passed away in 2009 after a long battle with cancer.
Bronze, men’s bantamweight, 1956, Melbourne
Another brilliant boxer who honed his craft in the gyms of Belfast, Gilroy shot to stardom at the 1956 Olympics when beating a Soviet boxer, Boris Stepanov, by knockout before brushing aside Italy’s Mario Sitri on points. He was beaten on points against Germany’s Wolfgang Behrendt but had the consolation of a brilliant bronze medal for the long journey home. After turning professional, Gilroy won the Commonwealth and European bantamweight titles and in 1960 he fought France’s Alphonse Halimi for the world bantamweight title, losing on points. In 1962 he fought fellow Olympic medallist John Caldwell in a bout that’s remembered as one of the best ever on Irish soil, with Gilroy winning after a cut to Caldwell’s eye forced a stoppage. Gilroy passed away in 2016 at the age of 80.
Bronze, men’s lightweight, 1964, Tokyo
McCourt won bronze at the European Championships, gold at the Commonwealth Games, but it was the bronze medal he won at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 for which the Belfast fighter will be best remembered. The southpaw won three straight bouts in Tokyo before he came up against Velikton Barannikov of the USSR in the semi-final, who was given the verdict on a 3-2 score that shocked those watching at Korakuen Hall. It was the first Irish Olympic medal in eight years and it would be 16 years before the next one came along. McCourt won seven Irish senior titles at three different weights across an astonishing career, securing a well-deserved place in the Irish amateur boxing hall of fame.
Bronze, men’s flyweight, 1980, Moscow
Having been knocked out at light flyweight in the Irish nationals in 1980, Russell was not most people’s idea of an Olympic medallist later that year in Moscow. But after a move back up to flyweight he secured a place at the Games and the rest is Irish sporting history. Wins over Iraqi, Tanzanian and Korean opponents secured him a semi-final spot in Moscow, where he was beaten by Bulgaria’s Petar Lesov, the eventual gold medallist. During a troubled time in Belfast, the impact of Russell’s achievement could not be understated, and upon his return from Russia he was told how the streets would clear at the time of his fights so everyone could follow his exploits on TV. Before leaving Moscow, Russell spent the last of his roubles on a camera, which he used to ignite a career in photography, for which he has won awards and drawn wide acclaim.
Gold, men’s welterweight, 1992, Barcelona
The image is one singed into the memory of all those who lived through it, the families who huddled around TVs in living rooms across the country in the summer of 1992. Michael Carruth, 25 years old, bouncing around the ring in Barcelona after going where no Irish boxer had gone before: to the top of an Olympic podium. His victory in the men’s welterweight division was the first Olympic gold for Ireland since Ronnie Delany’s 1500m win in Melbourne 36 years earlier. The Dubliner coasted to the final in Barcelona, where he came up against Cuba’s Juan Hernandez Sierra, a bout he won 13-10 on points. After bitter disappointment in Seoul four years earlier, it provided sweet salvation for the Drimnagh boxing club star, who had promised his father at the age of seven that he would one day win Olympic gold. In Barcelona that dream – along with the hopes of nation – finally came true.
Silver, men’s bantamweight, 1992, Barcelona
Long before his talent dazzled those in the professional ranks, Wayne McCullough was proving his mettle as an amateur, a part of his career that reached its climax at the Barcelona Games in 1992. The Belfast boxer was just 18 when he made his Olympic debut in Seoul in 1988, carrying the Irish flag at the opening ceremony, a significant gesture given McCullough grew up in the Shankill Road area of Belfast, which was staunchly loyalist. McCullough often said he was a “sportsman, not a politician” and his exploits in Barcelona provided common ground for both sections of the divide in Belfast. He powered to the bantamweight final where he lost to Cuba’s Joel Casamayor on points, but a superb silver medal was just reward after an outstanding week in the ring. As a professional McCullough’s talent blossomed even further: he held the WBC bantamweight title from 1995 to 1997 and challenged for world titles at super-bantamweight and featherweight.
Silver, men’s light heavyweight, 2008, Beijing
A 16-year medal drought for Irish boxing came to an end at the Beijing Olympics as not one but three Irish boxers reached the podium. Dublin’s Kenny Egan was a well-known force ahead of those Games, having won bronze at the European Amateur Championships two years earlier. In Beijing he reached the final of the men’s light heavyweight division after four comprehensive victories, where the 26-year-old was beaten 11-7 by China’s Xiaoping Zhang. Egan returned to his native Dublin a hero alongside fellow boxing medallists Darren Sutherland and Paddy Barnes. Following his retirement from boxing he pursued a career in politics, which he has balanced with work as a psychotherapist and counsellor in recent years in his native Clondalkin.
Bronze, men’s middleweight, 2008, Beijing
The late, great Darren Sutherland is remembered for many things: his infectious smile, his calm, confident demeanour, but it was his ability between the ropes that will ensure his is a life that will never be forgotten. Born in Dublin, Sutherland lived in London until he was seven before returning to Ireland, where he picked up boxing with St Saviour’s club on Dublin’s northside. His talent was undeniable, his work rate astonishing, and he won the Irish middleweight title in 2006, 2007 and 2008 before beating Britain’s James DeGale to win gold at the 2008 EU Amateur Championships. At the 2008 Olympics, Sutherland showcased his supreme skill as he coasted through to the semi-finals where he was beaten by DeGale on points. He passed away a little over a year later, leaving a deep void in the Irish sporting landscape. But for his exploits in Beijing, for doing his country proud on the biggest stage there is, his is a legacy will live forever.
Bronze, men’s light flyweight, 2008, Beijing
Bronze, men’s light flyweight, 2012, London
The only Irish boxer in history to win two Olympic medals, Barnes’ place in the pantheon of Irish sport is already firmly secured. Growing up in Belfast, he took up boxing at the age of 11 and in his late teens he developed into a bright prospect. In 2007 he reached the quarter-finals at the World Amateur Championships and the following year, his victory in the light flyweight division at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing secured Ireland its first boxing medal in 16 years. He was beaten by eventual gold medallist Zou Shiming of China in the semi-final. Gold followed at the 2010 European Championships and Commonwealth Games, and in 2012 Barnes repeated his feat from Beijing, winning light flyweight bronze at the London Olympics. In his semi-final he again came up against Shiming and it was a very different contest to four years prior, with Barnes producing one of his best ever performances. The two were matched 15-15 on the scorecards but Barnes was edged 45-44 on countback.
Gold, women’s lightweight, 2012, London
By the time she hangs up her gloves, there’s no doubt Katie Taylor’s career will rank up there with the best in Irish sporting history. In truth it already does. She’s a boxer who makes feats of exceptional difficulty seem almost routine, a woman who transcended her sport and who went to the 2012 Olympics lugging the hopes of a nation on her shoulders. Taylor was utterly dominant heading into those London Games, winning her fourth successive AIBA world title in China three months before. In London she outclassed one boxer after another to set up the gold medal clash with Russia’s Sofia Ochigava. In what was the toughest test of her career to date – as thousands cheered her on in front of big screens back in Bray, and virtually the entire nation held its breath – Taylor passed with flying colours, winning 10-8 to etch her name among the immortals. Disappointment followed four years later in Rio, after which Taylor took her talents to the professional ranks where her career continues to blossom – her 17-0 record exemplifying that every time we watch her step between the ropes, we’re witnessing not just a true great of Irish boxing, but of world sport.
John Joe Nevin
Silver, men’s bantamweight, 2012, London
John Joe Nevin was just 18 when he made his Olympic debut at the 2008 Games in Beijing, where he bowed out in the last 16 to eventual champion Badar-Uugan Enkhbatyn of Mongolia. It was an experience he would put to good use, maturing in the years that followed into one of the world’s best amateurs. The Mullingar native won bantamweight bronze at the World Championships in 2009 and 2011 which set him up perfectly for the London Olympics, where at the age of 22 he powered into the bantamweight final. There, he was beaten 14-11 by Britain’s Luke Campbell, but his silver medal was an achievement that put him among a select few in Irish Olympic history. The following year Nevin won gold at the European Championships before turning professional, where he has since racked up a 14-0 record.
Bronze, men’s flyweight, 2012, London
Few Irish boxers have dazzled with a talent as bright as Michael Conlan, a fighter for whom stardom long seemed more probable than possible. Growing up in Belfast, he won his first Ulster novice title at the age of 11 and he was only 20 when he travelled to London for the 2012 Olympics, where he defeated Ghana’s Duke Micah and France’s Nordine Oubaali with ease to reach the flyweight semi-final. He lost that bout to the eventual champion, Robeisy Ramirez of Cuba, but with Olympic bronze in the bag Conlan’s star was only starting to ascend. He Commonwealth gold in 2014 and World Championships gold in 2015. Having been the victim of highly dubious judging at the 2016 Games in Rio, when he lost the bantamweight quarter-final to Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin, Conlan spoke his mind about the corruption he believed was rife in the sport, a subject about which he was eventually proved right. There was much expectancy surrounding his subsequent move to the professional ranks and in the years since, his reputation has only grown in that sphere, with the 29-year-old now boasting a 14-0 record.