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Ireland's first Olympic boxing medallist John McNally dies aged 89

He was once crowned the honorary bantamweight champion of Germany after beating the country’s three previous title-holders inside 12 months.

John McNally pictured with Beijing Olympic medallists Paddy Barnes and Ken Egan in 2010.
John McNally pictured with Beijing Olympic medallists Paddy Barnes and Ken Egan in 2010.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

JOHN MCNALLY, IRELAND’S first ever boxer to medal at the Olympic Games and the country’s third Olympic medallist overall, has died aged 89.

The West Belfast man, then just 19, took silver at the 1952 Helsinki Games, losing a 2-1 split decision to home-country fighter Pentti Hämäläinen in their 54kg (bantamweight) decider.

En route to the final, McNally won all three of his bouts — versus the Philippines’ Alejandro Ortuose, Italy’s Vincenzo Dall’osso, and Kang Joon-Ho of South Korea respectively — via 3-0 unanimous verdicts.

McNally also won bronze at the 1953 European Championships in Warsaw, and won a Golden Gloves tournament while representing Europe against the United States in Chicago and St Louis. McNally beat three American Golden Gloves champions over the course of the tournament and was awarded an honorary pair of Golden Gloves in recognition of his transatlantic dominance.

That same year, McNally was also recognised as the honorary German bantamweight champion after defeating three previous 54kg title-holders from that country within the space of 12 months — two of them in Dublin and one in Newry.

McNally’s silver medal at the 1952 Helsinki Games was Ireland’s first Olympic medal in any sport since Pat O’Callaghan’s gold in Los Angeles 20 years prior. It was the country’s fourth Olympic medal overall, with only O’Callaghan (who also took gold at Amsterdam 1928) and Bob Tisdall (400m hurdles gold, LA 1932) having previously achieved such a feat.

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McNally, born in the Pound Loney in West Belfast, recalled with fondness the acclaim with which he was received in his home city upon his return from Finland. “There was a hero’s welcome, all the people from the Loney, the Falls, York Street and the Shankill,” he said in the book he wrote with Barry Flynn about his life and career, John McNally, Boxing’s Forgotten Hero.

McNally, who retired from boxing in 1962 after a middling professional career, said of the sport in Ireland:

Boxing is the easiest to get into, if you are good you are well taken care of, but what I like about the boxing fraternity is they are all one religion in this country. The only religion they have is boxing.

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