Authors: Fiachra Sheridan
First published 2009
by New Island
Copyright © Fiachra Sheridan, 2009
The author has asserted his moral rights.
All rights reserved. The material in this publication is protected by copyright law. Except as may be permitted by law, no part of the material may be reproduced (including by storage in a retrieval system) or transmitted in any form or by any means; adapted; rented or lent without the written permission of the copyright owner.
British Library Cataloguing Data. A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Book design by Inka Hagen
Printed by XXX
New Island received financial assistance from
The Arts Council (An Chomhairle Ealaíon), Dublin, Ireland.
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‘Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a
sunless garden when the flowers are dead.’
This book would not have been written were it not for
the decisions of a few people: Warren Buffet,
Ronan Ivory and Sean Spillane.
Deirdre O’Neill, whose support and guidance was vital
in producing the final manuscript.
Máire O’Higgins, the believer.
Deirdre Nolan, the visionary.
Edwin, and all at New Island.
Faith O’ Grady, Alison Walsh, Claire Rourke,
Edwina Forkin and all who read early drafts
and offered advice.
Especially my mam and dad, for all
their love and expertise.
Bobby’s house was closer than any other to Croke Park, Ireland’s biggest sports stadium. He would stare out his bedroom window at the Cusack Stand, dreaming of the day eighty thousand people would come to see him playing football for Dublin. His brother, Kevin, slept on the top bunk. Kevin was three years older than Bobby at fifteen. He was in secondary school. Bobby had the summer holidays to go before he started in big school. There would be girls in his class for the first time. Kevin and Bobby were completely different. Kevin played guitar and hung around with his friends in Clontarf, one of the poshest areas of Dublin. Bobby played sport and hung around all over Dublin’s north inner city, one of the poorest parts of Dublin, with his best friend, Jay.
Bobby’s mam, Laura, was from Clontarf. Bobby’s dad, Matt, was from Ballybough. His father had been called Matt after Matt Busby, the great Manchester United manager. When they got married, money dictated that a house in Ballybough was all they could afford. Laura wasn’t
happy living beside the flats. Only a mile away in Clontarf were gorgeous houses by the beach. Most of the houses on Ballybough Road were boarded up. Bobby’s dad said he could make money restoring them, but he never did. The boarded-up windows didn’t keep Bobby and Jay out. They would have hours of fun in a derelict house. They would have tightrope walking competitions on the exposed beams of the upper floor. They would catch pigeons and release them and they would light fires in the old buildings that once housed families of ten and more in each room, with just one outdoor toilet between them. Bobby knew all about the history of the tenement buildings. Jay didn’t care.
Bobby’s dad was on the social welfare. He collected seventy-five pounds a week because he was an unemployed builder. He would get up every day and look for work, but there was none. Bobby wasn’t sure if he looked at all. Bobby knew that seventy-five pounds a week was ten pounds seventy-one pence a day, with three pence left over. A pint of Guinness was just under a pound. Bobby’s dad loved Guinness. ‘The nicest drink in the world,’ he would say. He always got asked the same question when he got home.
‘How many pints did you have?’
‘Two or three.’
How could it be two or three, thought Bobby. It had to be one or the other.
Jay lived in the flats, and Bobby considered the huge flats complex beside his house his real home. The flats were built so people could move out of the cramped tenement buildings that were now all boarded up. Jay lived on the top floor. His bedroom window looked out over the Royal Canal, the railway tracks and Ballybough Bridge. Bobby’s mam said Jay had a cheeky smile. Jay’s dad was in prison and his mother, Bernie, was a trader on Moore Street in the city centre. She was the youngest of all the fruit sellers. She was tall and thin and attractive. She had straight, blonde hair and never wore any make-up. Bobby fancied her, but had never told Jay. Any men that bought fruit or veg on Moore Street bought it from Bernie. Her good looks drew them in. She was friendly and flirty and they all thought she fancied them.
‘Here they are, looking for money again. Have a banana instead, son.’
‘I hate bananas, Ma. Can I have twenty pence?’
‘They’re full of goodness. Eat a banana and I’ll give you twenty pence.’
Jay didn’t really hate bananas. He just knew his ma would make him eat one in front of all the oul wans. They thought it was hilarious.
‘He is so cute, that young fella of yours, Bernie.’
Bobby would have eaten a banana for twenty pence. That was four games of Mario Brothers.
They always ate bananas before training. Anto said they were full of carbohydrates. Anto was the most recognisable person in Ballybough. He had a big mop of blond hair. Bobby could see an aura around him. Jay didn’t know what an aura was. Bobby thought most people were miserable. Anto was always happy. He would say hello to every person he met. Bobby and Jay thought it was weird that he would say hello to people he didn’t know. Anto said ‘it always pays to be nice’. Most twenty-nine-year-olds were on the social welfare. Anto didn’t have time to sign on the dole. He was too busy running the boxing club.
The boxing club was a different world. It had a distinct smell of sweat and leather and the freezing cold gave you goosebumps, even in the middle of summer. The boys had to train hard before they were even allowed in the ring. If you could attain a good level of fitness, which would be assessed by Anto, then you could fight. Bobby and Jay would always fight each other because they were both about the same age and the same weight. The gloves they wore were club gloves. That meant that hundreds of boys had worn them. If you had to put them on after another boy, the inside would be saturated in sweat. If you put them up to your nose, the smell would kill you. Jay and Bobby would jog the two miles to the gym, which was just off Moore Street. Anto would put them through
their paces, starting with skipping, followed by sit-ups, press-ups and stretching. He said they had to do it if they wanted to be champions. All the boys trained in pairs. When it came to the punch-bag, it was thirty seconds on, thirty seconds off. If Bobby said he was tired, Jay would slag him.
‘I’m going to knock you out when we get in the ring, I feel really strong.’
Jay would dance around, shadow boxing. He would throw punches at Bobby, stopping the glove a few inches from his face every time. Bobby always concentrated before a fight, even if it was just training. Jay would always act the clown. Sometimes Bobby would pretend he was tired so he could fool Jay into overconfidence.
‘There’s no point in saving it for the ring, Jay. I’m going to knock you out.’
Neither of them had ever managed a knock-out. Anto would only let them box for one minute at a time and he never let them go flat out. They were well-matched, so they hurt each other without ever inflicting real pain.
‘I want to remind everyone that we are leaving early next Saturday morning. We have two boxers left who have a chance to qualify for the All-Ireland finals,’ Anto announced.
The six other young boxers all stared at Bobby and Jay. They looked up to them because they
were by far the best young boxers in the club. Anto told them they were two of the best boxers in the country for their age. Bobby had known about the away trip for a while and hadn’t given Anto an excuse as to why he couldn’t go.
‘My ma says we don’t have the money.’
‘Don’t worry about the money, it’s already taken care of.’
Maybe he just wouldn’t show up for the bus.
‘I’ll be starting the engines at half six in the morning. If you’re late we’re leaving without you,’ added Anto. ‘I’ve arranged for all of you to get a bout. We’re fighting at Mayfield Boxing Club. The Cork lads will be looking forward to boxing the heads off you Dublin boys, so be prepared.’
The real competition for Bobby and Jay came after they left the gym. They always raced home. There was always a winner in a running race. They would start off at a slow pace, but when they reached the Sunset House pub it was flat out all the way to the bridge over the canal, and the downhill finish that took them to the top of Sackville Avenue. There was never more than a few yards in it, as both of them had good sprint finishes. The two of them would walk the length of the avenue to get their breath back, the winner gloating about being the best, and the loser making up excuses for the defeat.
The flats were all three storeys high. Each landing had seven flats. Twenty-one flats in each building. Sixty-three flats on Sackville Avenue. The ground-floor flats were single storey. They were designed for old people. A round stairwell led you to the upper floors. Anto lived on the top floor of the middle block with his granny. Bobby and Jay never asked why he didn’t live with his mam and dad, or ma and da, as Jay would say. Bobby would say ma and da too, but if his mother heard him she would correct him.
‘It’s mother and father.’
Bobby would drive her crazy with his inner-city accent. She spoke properly, according to herself.
The people in the inner city were poor. Bobby and Jay felt rich. They always had money and went to places none of their friends did. Anto had taken them to see Barry McGuigan fight. The tickets were fifty pounds each. They had been to see Ireland beat Malta 8–0. Bobby could remember Liam Brady’s goals clearer than any of the others. When he got the ball at his feet, he was a magician; he was the master, he was the best Irish football player ever. Bobby loved the ease with which he strolled around the pitch. He walked with his shoulders hunched forward and he looked lazy, but nobody could get the ball from him.
Bobby loved Italy the most. He had been excited for weeks about going to see them play Ireland in
Dalymount Park. He still copied Marco Tardelli’s celebration from the World Cup final in 1982. He scored in the second half to win the World Cup for Italy. After the ball hit the back of the net, Tardelli jumped off the ground and ran around like a lunatic, shaking his arms down by his side. He had veins the size of small rivers running down his arms. Bobby tried shaking his arms like Tardelli, but no veins ever appeared.
Anto had really bad scarring from burns he got in the Stardust disco in 1981. Forty-eight young people died at the disco. Anto never talked about it, but everyone in Ballybough knew his arms had been burned when he was trying to save people. Jay’s mam said he ran back into the burning building to pull people out of the fire, and that he had saved many lives. The scars didn’t take away any of his strength.