The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee

While his wasted sporting potential is a source of frustration, the ex-world champion boxer's remarkable, still unfinished story makes for an absorbing read with as much tragedy as it has triumph

Sports books tend to divide opinion, often being pigeonholed as the preserve of the serious fan and seen as a niche interest, but the best sports writing is really about mining the human condition, understanding what makes people tick in extraordinary situations of physical and mental stress, and giving the reader a sense of insight into just what makes an elite athlete different from the rest of us.

Paul Gibson certainly touches upon some of that in The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee. This is without doubt an engrossing study of an entirely fascinating, frustrating and often infuriating character, but in terms of us giving us any idea of how Eamonn Magee achieved greatness in his sport, I’m not sure that we are left any the wiser.

Many readers will be aware that Magee fought his way through a long career to become World Welterweight Boxing Champion in 2003, bringing the world title to Belfast in a blaze of glory.

Fewer will be aware that he did this while in the grip of alcohol addiction and drug abuse, with a complicated domestic life and also having suffered a ‘punishment’ shooting at the hands of the IRA, as well as a nearly dying after being stabbed in the neck after an attack in a Belfast fast food restaurant.

Many will also be aware of the murder of his son, Eamonn Jnr, in Belfast in 2015, stabbed to death outside his girlfriend’s home by her former lover.

The book concludes with the devastating impact of this tragedy upon Magee Snr, but over 300 preceding pages a remarkable and compelling story unfolds, with an air of tragic inevitability hanging over every single one of them.

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Gibson works at length to establish the reality of Magee’s childhood and adolescence in an Ardoyne that is torn apart by a brutal tirade of daily and almost casual political and sectarian violence.

The almost forgotten reality of normalized, everyday violence for many young men in and around that part of North Belfast is recalled in unrelenting detail, with Magee a skilled and fearless street fighter who finds himself brawling with almost anyone that crosses his path.

Despite the political backdrop of the Troubles and a father who was in the IRA (before falling foul of them) the fighting of Magee’s youth was territorial as well as political – for a young man looking for trouble it was there to be found on all sides.

Whilst Magee was most certainly looking for trouble in these years, its also very clear that he had a roguish charm and a sense of natural justice that endeared him to many, even when his temper or fondness for drink and adventure landed him in hot water time and time again.

As you work through these early years you come to expect a turning point, where Magee discovers a focus in boxing and channels all of this energy into becoming a World Champion. That is surely the logical conclusion of his story?

Except that it isn’t. Magee never really does discover that focus in any sustained way and the story becomes one of massive frustration for the reader. Magee’s gifts as a boxer are so clear and so profound, yet they can never triumph over his gifts for self-destruction and chaos. His key talent really emerges as being able to function as an athlete capable of world-class performances, in the most dysfunctional of environments.

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As he works his way through an amateur career he comes to understand that he can still perform as a very good fighter whilst still drinking himself to oblivion, brawling his way across Belfast and chasing women at every opportunity. And so the pattern of his life and career is established.

It’s a lifestyle and story that make for a great read though. Ripping yarns leap off the pages and Magee comes across as a charismatic, hugely loyal and genuinely likeable character when sober. He is a rich source of tragi-comic scrapes and stories, which only serve to add to his legend in Belfast and beyond.

Gibson’s book is a totally absorbing account of a unique character and his inability to control his self-destructive tendencies. This is not the tale of how Magee battled his demons to become World Champion, but of how he became a World Champion whilst still in their grip.

This is not just a sports book, it's much more than that. This is a universal human story of a man whose obvious gifts exist in the bleak shadow of his upbringing and his character. A story where the darkness constantly threatens to overwhelm the light.

It comes as no surprise that there is no a sense yet of a neat resolution in Magee’s story. Whilst Gibson’s book is complete, there are clearly still chapters to be written in Magee’s life, and we are left really hoping for the best for him, but fearing for the worst…

The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee is published by Mercier Press on April 20 2018.