Sent to Coventry
Playwright Jamie McGough told David Hennessy about the new play Fighting Irish. Based on the story of his uncle Jarlath McGough, a Coventry- Irish boxer who found the Irish boxing authorities against him when he became light heavyweight champion, the play deals with issues such as Irish identity and corruption.
In the new play Fighting Irish, Coventry playwright Jamie McGough deals with the issue of the Irish identity of those born outside of Ireland and the fascinating history of his own family in boxing.
Jamie’s uncle Jarlath McGough became the youngest ever Irish light heavyweight champion in 1978 and his family’s proud fighting tradition does not end there.
His other uncles Martin boxed internationally for the Commonwealth title while Sean boxed internationally before getting his PhD.
Jamie has boxed for England himself.
But it is a battle that Jarlath faced inside and outside of the ring that Jamie has now turned into a play, which will premiere at the Belgrade Theatre in April.
Set in Dublin in 1979, Fighting Irish tells the story of how Coventry-born Jarlath returned to Ireland to defend his title, only to find he would not just be up against his opponent.
Jarlath and his brothers had grown up with a clear sense of their Irish identity but it became clear that the odds were stacked against him as some did not like an ‘Englishman’ taking the belt back across the water.
When Jarlath was unfairly disqualified by the referee, a scuffle broke out in the ring and a riot ensued with Jarlath and his brother Martin ending up in the courts.
Jamie McGough told The Irish World: “Obviously I’ve known this story all my life.
“The arc of the story is laid out perfectly but then I also thought it was made for the stage in the sense of bringing the atmosphere of a live boxing event to the theatre.
“We follow is Jarlath’s boxing story.
“He went over and became the youngest ever Irish light heavyweight champion at 17 and when he came back to defend his title, he was told that he wouldn’t be taking an Irish title back to England again.
“You know what. I’m quite lucky really to have this story in my family because it really is made for theatre.
“But the really interesting thing to me was not just the great boxing story.
“I’ve spent my whole life really being asked these questions about having an Irish identity in England and the cynicism and stuff that comes with it.
“I thought it would be interesting to explore those questions and issues with the previous generation in my family that has experienced it.
“It is all those issues, not really being accepted anywhere and kind of fighting for acceptance.
“It was sad in a boxing sense with the things you have to deal with, corruption and prejudice and so forth.”
What was it like for Jarlath, who identified as Irish, to find he was not accepted in Ireland due to being born in Coventry? “I think it was a shock because he was brought up immersed in Irish culture.
“For him, there wouldn’t have been a second thought about being Irish and boxing for Ireland. That would just be a given for him.
“But I think the shock was probably mixed with sadness or disappointment because to go from kind of being called a ‘plastic Paddy’ and being targeted in England for his identity, he would have been and all the family would have been thinking, ‘Our family history, our culture hasn’t changed. Only the location and the accent’.
“And so that would have been hard in England but then to go to Ireland and then not be recognized, I think they just thought, ‘Why not? What’s the problem here? Why wouldn’t you accept me?’
“I think the whole experience has changed him massively.
“Jarlath’s a great character, he is a great conversationalist, a great storyteller.
“The events of this play created a bitterness that has affected his life ever since.”
Fighters like Matthew Macklin, who comes from nearby Birmingham, have been allowed to be proud of their Irishness despite not being born on the island. Other Irish sporting greats born in the UK include Paul McGrath, David O’Leary and Mick McCarthy, why was Jarlath becoming an Irish champion so offensive to some? “Yeah, that’s a tricky one. I’d love to give you the answer to that, why it’s okay for some and not for others.
“But for me, there’s a lot of very layered debate about Irishness anyway. It’s a tricky one to get your head around.
“One interesting thing for me, and I’ve touched on in the play, is that I think there is an immediate thing where some people think of birthplace, people think of accent. They’re the things people notice first and kind of go for first.
“But if you look at Ireland’s history, many great fated Irish people have been born abroad, Thomas Clark, Constance Markievicz , James Connolly. That’s just on the political side.
“But then obviously, you can go through actors, singers, sports people, many people have done great things for Ireland who were born elsewhere.
“And I think maybe it’s something people don’t think of. I think once they’ve had success and proved their Irishness as such, it becomes an after thought but I suppose with some people, you just won’t get through that first barrier.
“I’ve tried to look at these kinds of myths surrounding Irish identity and acceptance.
“I have tried to, I suppose, through the characters argue their case, give a representation of the Irish diaspora and their thoughts and their feelings because maybe it’s something we don’t hear about enough.”
Jarlath’s story seems to be in stark contrast to fighters like ‘Irish’ Micky Ward.
Why is there never the same repulsion to Americans who like to celebrate their Irish heritage as there can be for those born in Britain?
“Well, I think I think part of that is possibly due to Anglo- Irish history.
“With America, it’s kind of a given thing. People moved there often out of necessity, for opportunity.
“America hasn’t been to war with Ireland, America hasn’t occupied Ireland and I think that history between England and Ireland is so tense and so bitter that I think it becomes something that I think English people have a problem with.
“It’s like, ‘Well, hang on. We’re at war with you’. Or, ‘We were at war with you’.
“And obviously you had things like The Troubles as well, so it became an even more highly charged situation.
“Because the history is so tense and because things like the Troubles are so recent, it becomes a problem between English and Irish, I think.”
Birmingham’s Irish community were demonised after the Birmingham bombings and there was also some of this in Coventry.
“An IRA bomb had gone off in Coventry a week before the Birmingham Pub bombings.
“And there had also been an IRA bombing of Broadgate a week before the Second World War.
“There were elements in Coventry that turned on the Irish community because of it.
“But the English knowledge of what they’ve done in Ireland under the years of occupation, and more recently, you know, state collusion in horrific events, I think, is very limited.
“It certainly wasn’t taught in schools.
“In fact, when I raised the point with teachers, it wasn’t met happily.
“I think that combination. There had been IRA attacks in Coventry, but then the lack of knowledge and empathy for what was happening in Ireland, I think just created a perfect storm.
“The play is set during the Troubles.
“The characters are forced into conflict with the boxing authorities, and there’s conflict raging in the country anyway, and spilling over to Coventry.
“I think conflict drives things up a lot more.
“It speeds up a process of thought and consideration about who you are, and your identity within that.
“I think the time that the play is in is very interesting in that sense.”
What is Jarlath’s reaction to there being a stage play of his story? “I think he probably enjoys the attention on his boxing successes.
“It’s probably quite nice to have a little bit of fame from being portrayed on stage.
“But he also did say to me, ‘Just remember what this did to me. This ruined my career’.
“It’s a great role to play. We have someone who is not only a very talented boxer but a very charismatic person with it.
“And Jarlath has a real presence about him and a real aura about him.
“People are drawn to his company and to create that is something very big and very difficult because the aura that people have is quite an intangible thing.
“So it will be very interesting to see on stage.
“I think for my family as well. It’s going to be a very surreal experience to see people playing them.
“My grandmother is one of the characters in the play and she was a great teller of the story. We used to talk about it a lot.
“When COVID kind of first arrived on the scene, not long afterwards, she died of it and it was a terrible, terrible loss- I’m getting a bit choked up- It was terrible loss for us.
“The last thing she said to me was, ‘Get that play finished. It’s a great story and it’s a great tribute to your family’.
“She was very encouraging that way.
“One of the things I noticed when I was writing in the months after her death was that there was some comfort in writing her words and her character because it felt like she was still there with me.
“That will be one interesting thing on the first night. The first night will be the second anniversary of her death.
“To see someone playing her onstage will be an interesting feeling because it’s a fantastic tribute to her. It’ll be quite emotional as well.”
Jamie had a lot to live up to when he stepped into the ring. Although he describes himself as ‘weak’, he would go on to have success like his uncles but one regret would be that he boxed for the wrong country.
“I think there’s quite an interesting story in my boxing career.
“I was sent to the boxing gym because I was quite weak and timid as a kid. I loved football but I was always getting injured.
“I was sent to the boxing club with the name that I have and probably not really equipped to back that name up.
“I lost 18 of my first 24 fights, and my uncles weren’t too happy about it,” he says almost laughing now.
“One aspect of that was that some of those fights, we felt I was winning the fight and I wasn’t getting the decision.
“We did think, ‘Is this about the name?’
“Obviously I turned my career around, won a national title and then I boxed internationally.
“And even though I boxed for England, it’s very unlike the situation with Jack Grealish and Declan Rice.
“They chose England maybe because they felt more English than Irish, maybe for the money, I don’t know.
“But for me, it was very different. I wanted to box for Ireland.
“The only time I’ve ever worn an England Jersey or an English vest in my life was when I boxed for England.
“But as a boxer, you have to try and aim to box internationally and because of the events of this play, we knew that Ireland wasn’t going to be an option for me, which was something that is sad for me.
“It’s a real shame that I couldn’t represent my country as a boxer.
“There’s a strange story in that I went from being a loser to a champion to boxing internationally, but it’s been a bittersweet situation for me.”
Jamie mentions Jack Grealish and Declan Rice but there have been many other examples of people swapping allegiances or assuming identities as soon as it became convenient and not all in sport.
“Obviously, this thing Brexit’s happened.
“There are people who didn’t identify as Irish before but also don’t want to be out of the EU and are applying for Irish passports.
“If someone has a right to an Irish passport, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge it, but I could see how Irish people could be a little bit miffed by that because it’s like, ‘Well, are you Irish? Or are you Irish when it suits you for a passport?’
“I can understand difficulty with that.
“But when someone truly is Irish and brought up with Irish culture and has a lot of pride in that, it just doesn’t make sense to not accept someone like that.
“It can only be a good thing for the country to have those people accepted.
“Don’t get me wrong. There’s so many people in Ireland who are accepting and there’s so many on top of that that are accepting once they hear the argument a little bit.
“You know, that’s important to say but I wonder is there an element of being haunted by the diaspora?
“Some people that left Ireland were escaping famine or Cromwellian conquest.
“Are they subconsciously a bit of a reminder of terrible times?
“There is a very, very, very sad history behind Irish emigration, for the most part, and that is a hard thing to face. It’s a sad thing to think about.”
The Belgrade Theatre will present the play in the round with the set designed like a boxing ring to give it the excitement of a fight night.
“The story, the courtroom aspects, the conversations, whether they be in a pub or the changing room, and the actual boxing ring itself- I find it interesting that all of those things happen within the boxing ring because I think there’s a lot of things in life that are similar to boxing.
“There’s a lot of struggles, there’s a lot of conflict, there’s a lot of battling you have to do in life.
“And I think to set all the events of the play inside the boxing ring, I think is a is a nice image. And I think it has an extra meaning.
“This is a play that that has a lot of dimensions to it and I think there’s something in there for everyone, especially for the Irish diaspora.
“You have this really interesting mix of boxing, family drama, history, politics and the central theme of identity that ties it all together.”
Co- directed by the Belgrade’s Creative Director Corey Campbell and former Artistic Director Hamish Glen, Fighting Irish will mark the finale of Coventry UK City of Culture 2021.
Belgrade Theatre presents Fighting Irish Saturday 2 April- Saturday 16 April. For more information and to book, click here.