A Sailortown Hero

Author Barry Flynn recounts the incredible career of Belfast boxer Rinty Monaghan at Titanic Belfast

Rinty Monaghan's life story reads like an Alexander Dumas rags to riches epic, and author and all round boxing fanatic Barry Flynn tells it as such at Titanic Belfast for a talk entitled Rinty Monaghan: A Sailortown Hero.

A wiry little Catholic boy from the north side of Belfast, Monaghan turned pro in the flyweight division in the early 1930s before signing up in the fight against the Nazis. An extrovert from childhood, he would distract his fellow soldiers from the horrors of war by singing songs from back home, and maintained his boxer's frame while on duty in the fields of France by letting down and pumping up the wheels on army vehicles.

After returning home to Belfast, Monaghan re-entered the ring – where he, his brothers and so many of his friends had wiled away the hours as working class children – and began to build a fearsome reputation as a pugilist par excellence, drawing huge crowds from all areas of Belfast to his top bill bouts at the King's Hall. He was, according to Flynn, 'the biggest thing to hit Belfast since the Luftwaffe'.

Win or lose, Monaghan would invariably sign off his fights with well-sung and heartfelt renditions of 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling' or 'It's a Great Day for the Irish', much to the delight of the mixed audience.

In 1948, he beat the Scottish fighter Jackie Patterson (who had previously beaten him) to become the first and only home-based Irish fighter to be crowned undisputed world champion. And, after his retirement, he carved out a successful career for himself as a singer and entertainer, performing across Europe and even in Las Vegas. He left such an impression as a fighter and a showman in the United States that when he died in 1984, Muhammad Ali and Frank Sinatra both sent condolence cards.

Yet there is no statue to Monaghan in his home town. This sorry fact is verified by Flynn in a whisper, as if he is ashamed to admit it – which of course he is. But the author of Legends of Irish Boxing seems to have made it his goal in life to address that lack of a meaningful public memorial to Belfast's greatest boxer, and Flynn signs off this passionate lecture with a tentative 'we're close, we're close'.

I can only imagine the lengths of red tape he's had to unravel in his efforts to have a cross-community icon memorialized in a city such as Belfast.

To illustrate his talk, Flynn uses archive footage of Monaghan fighting in the King's Hall, and subsequently being interviewed by Gerry Kelly as an elderly but quick-witted man. It's wonderful to visualise the 5ft 3in fighter throw punches faster and harder than his opponent in black and white, hear the Belfast crowd roar their approval, listen to him singing after the fight with a towel around his shoulders and a city's chorus in his ears.

Flynn's lecture is part of the Festival of Family and Friends – a shrewd attempt from Titanic Belfast's marketing department to attract locals through the doors of this multi-million pound visitor attraction, as the German, Spanish, American and Japanese tourists pose for photographs in the lobby. And if tonight's impressive turn out is anything to go by, it's a gamble that has paid off.

The Andrews Gallery is kitted out with settees, armchairs, mirrored chests of drawers and round tables surrounded by padded chairs to give the place a homely feel in keeping with the theme, and the stage resembles a typical 1970s Belfast terraced house, replete with pink carpet and floral wallpaper. Flynn bestrides it with microphone in hand, without fear, pumped up to tell the greatest story that Hollywood has never told.

The audience is made up of families of boxers – some relations of Monaghan's, some merely acquaintances, others having travelled for miles to show their appreciation of a master craftsman. (Searching around for a seat on arrival, I wonder if I haven't in fact stumbled upon a Kray Twins Appreciation Society gathering – I am the only male in attendance without a tattoo, or any notion of my body weight.)

The room is packed with fathers and sons, uncles and cousins (and the occasional wife and daughter). Cauliflower ears and busted noses are the order of the day – so many observant fighters now kitted out with spectacles, tight-fitting collars and shoes not made for shuffling. Fading eyesight, fading tattoos, fading left hooks – but their enthusiasm for the noble sport, and for Rinty Monaghan, will never fade.

Flynn adopts similar diction. He is a showman from the off, channelling the finest of boxing pundits as he sets the scene – 'It was a time of hard men and harder bouts' – reading from notes and frequently joking off script. 'Boxers never lose a fight,' he quips, before adding with consummate timing. 'They are always robbed.'

The biggest reaction comes when Flynn reaches the zenith of Monaghan's boxing trajectory, when the stars aligned and all of the titles came to rest on his young shoulders. The assembled former hardmen join in collective applause – tears are shed, embraces given and received. And I sit there as an outsider, someone not from Belfast, and wonder why oh why Rinty Monaghan is not immortalized in marble or bronze at City Hall, where all men are equal and heroes few and far between.

Visit the Titanic Belfast website for information on all upcoming events.