Rinty Monaghan Immortalised in Bronze
Belfast City Council unveil memorial sculpture honouring the Sailortown boxing great
It’s 6.30am on a still Wednesday morning at Belfast’s Cathedral Gardens – beside St Anne’s Cathedral and the Ulster University. The open space is not quite deserted. Apart from a few cars and buses passing along York Street and the Donegall Street on their way somewhere else, there is myself, several men in high vis jackets and, bobbing about on the end of a lorry winch, a bubble wrapped bronze statue of one of Belfast’s most iconic sporting legends: Rinty Monaghan.
Thirty one years after the death of the former world flyweight champion boxer, who died in 1984 at the age of 63, his life is being honoured with this slightly larger than life size memorial. On the eve of the official unveiling, Edinburgh based sculptor Alan Beattie Herriot and his team are completing the final touches of placing the bronze on the granite plinth and getting a cover back on before the morning rush hour.
'While Rinty was a boxer he was also an entertainer who loved to sing and made a career of that after his boxing days,' says Beattie Herriot, whose diverse body of work includes busts of former footballer Denis Law, King Robert the Bruce, and Sir Robert Watson-Watt.
'The pose is not the traditional stance of the boxer crouched with his fists raised as he prepares to challenge his opponent. Instead it’s of Rinty, holding a microphone in his left hand and singing. His right arm is raised in triumph and he is wearing his world title belt.'
And the design has the full support of Rinty Monaghan’s family. Former professional boxer Eamon McAuley, Rinty’s great nephew, couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome.
'I visited Alan’s studio is Scotland and saw the clay figure before it went into the oven. It is so exciting for our family and for the wider boxing family that we are having this statue in Belfast,' he says.
'There are so many boxing organisations, divisions and champions now, I couldn’t tell you who half of them are. I wouldn’t recognise the names or faces,' explains McAuley, himself an acknowledged boxing historian. 'Back in Rinty’s day there were eight divisions and eight champions and he was instantly acknowledged as one of them.'
John Joe 'Rinty' Monaghan was born in Lancaster Street in 1918. He began to make his way up through the ranks of boxing in the 1930s appearing on professional cards around Belfast at venues such as The Ring, Chapel Fields Arena, Cuba Street Sports Stadium and the Kings Hall.
Twenty-year old Monaghan made his first recorded professional foray across the water to beat Cyclone Kelly on points over ten rounds at the Liverpool Stadium in March 1938. Two weeks later it was the same result when Kelly came to Belfast.
Rinty’s first encounter with future world champion Jackie Paterson was not a happy one. The Scotsman scored a fifth round KO in Liverpool in July 1938. When they met again in June 1946 at the Kings Hall, Paterson was retired at the start of the seventh round with cuts over both eyes.
In October 1947, Rinty got his hands on the vacant world flyweight belt after a bruising 15 round encounter with Hawiian boxer Dado Marino at Harringay Arena in London. Three months earlier, Rinty had been disqualified when the pair met in a non title fight at Glasgow’s Hampden Park.
In 1948, Paterson’s ambition of regaining the world title he had been stripped of the previous year ended when Rinty floored him in the seventh round at the Kings Hall. Belfast was in raptures as Rinty celebrated with a rendition of his theme song 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling'.
In two further Belfast defences of the title, Monaghan beat Maurice Sandeyron of France on points and then drew with London’s Terry Allen in September 1949 before retiring the following year. Allen had already claimed a points victory against Rinty in February 1938 in London. In spite of having been knocked down four times during the bout, Rinty still had enough stamina, and humour, afterwards to sing 'I’m Always Chasing Rainbows' from the centre of the ring to the adoring crowd.
'Rinty had 19 knock outs in 52 victories with nine defeats and eight draws. He was part of a bygone age. He shared his time with the boxing elite. Joe Louis and Rocky Graziano were the heavyweight and middleweight champions in those days' reflects McAuley.
'He was also a generous man,' adds Beattie Herriot. 'It’s reckoned that he made about £23,000 in career winnings and he gave a good bit of it away to people in need. He was forever helping out charity causes.'
The Rinty Monaghan statue is the culmination of a long campaign by the organisation The Belfast Boxing Ring which has been working with the city council to get proper recognition of the sport’s contribution to the lives of the city.
'Boxing has brought more medals to this city than any other sport,' says McAuley. 'It’s great that a working class man, one of our own, is being immortalised in bronze.'
'I’m a big boxing fan and I have seen how it unites communities, especially in Belfast' adds Beattie Herriot, who is already in the early stages of his next piece of work, a statue of former Olympic bronze medal winner John Caldwell.
'That will be ready next year and be erected at Dunville Park. After that there are plans for a piece at Woodvale Park which will reflect on the boxing greats of the Shankhill Road.'
But for now it is only right that the stage should belong to John Joe 'Rinty' Monaghan, whose eyes will be smiling on us all as we pass by Belfast’s Cathedral Gardens.