On our last Trails of Ireland trip to Kilkenny, we were lucky to have a chat with Irish Olympic boxer, Darren O’Neill in Paulstown boxing club… The place where it all started.
It was one of those mornings. It was raining, but not very heavily; the kind of rain that sticks to the insides of your eyelids and nostrils and leaves you wishing you could stay in bed. The skies were a disapproving iron grey and there was a general air of ‘go home guys, today is a write off’, but today we were in Paulstown, just outside Kilkenny as myself and Laura Kavanagh were meeting with Kilkenny treasure and Irish hero, Darren O’Neill.
I’d heard briefly of Darren in the news and read about him in the papers, so I knew it was quite a big deal to get to meet with him. I mean, this man captained the Irish boxing team at the last Olympic Games. Life doesn’t have many more pinnacles than that! I was a bit wary as this would be my first meeting with an Olympian and one held in such high esteem in his sport, but any fears I had were almost instantly allayed as soon as he walked up to say hello… I knew it would be a warm morning, despite the weather.
Darren put me through my paces…
As we sat on the lip of the ring canvas and had a chat with Darren, it was clear that he is a very humble and thoughtful guy; his many achievements line the walls of the gym but instead of glorifying in them, they seem to spur him on to achieve even more. His passion for the sport of boxing is clear while he speaks as even the low points seem to hold as much significance to him as the highs; he speaks about his upcoming qualifiers for the Rio games in his division of heavyweight but instead of complaining about the difficulty of his attempt (only three top boxers in Europe go through), he talks about creating history, about being the first Irishman to qualify the way he has to in 90 years!
Darren hails from Paulstown, Kilkenny; probably the hurling capital of the country so it may be a mystery to some how he ended up in boxing at all. In the kitchen, Ollie O’Neill, Darren’s dad is busy making tea and he gives a wry smile as if remembering old times… Ollie pushed Darren into lots of sports from a young age; hurling, football, soccer and more, and they would even have played together on the same teams. In the area he is well known for boxing however and he mentions how he had his first gloves and went sparring in Castlecomer in the late 60s and early 70s. It would be the start of something special and he would eventually coach Darren and set up the Paulstown boxing club.
Eventually, boxing became Darren’s main passion but making the switch from his other love of hurling in 2006 to boxing full time would be very difficult. Having to drop his weight from 81 kilos to 75 kilos to represent Ireland at the European championships was tough but he accomplished that with a slight change of mindset and routines. Since then he’s gone on to train and box in some great facilities but coming home to Paulstown is always great. In his words, “I love training with dad”. It is great to see the father-son bond between them still so strong even today after Darren’s exploits but he is happy with the way things are as he can come home to Paulstown and stay grounded. There is so much support from Paulstown and Kilkenny for Darren and of course from the rest of the country when he boxes and he credits some of his successes to that.
Although he doesn’t have any true sporting heroes, Darren mentions Muhammad Ali and Manny Pacquiao as boxers he has always admired but comes closer to home when he mentions the likes of D.J. Carey as sports person whom he has admired as a role model to younger people coming through. It is the traits of determination in those personalities that are have been evident through Darren’s career; he mentions the first time he boxed for Ireland at the age of thirteen in Ipswich; a small hall where he was able to fight against a future olympic medallist in Tony Jeffries. There have been countless fights since then, but the fight and the trip lives on and is replayed in his memories.
Since that fight with Tony, he has fought many opponents, many of which have been incredibly tough fighters, he playfully mentions Kenneth Egan, silver medallist at the Beijing games and also the late great Darren Sutherland who took home bronze at the same games. However, In terms of the toughest, he recalls his match with the Ukrainian Sergiy Derevyanchenko at the European Quarter Finals in 2010, although he beat the man who was world number one at the time by a point, he feels he was the best he has been in the ring with. The match was also his most memorable having won by a point in the most dramatic of finishes… Imagine the scenes as he was entering the final round, the coach glanced over to let Darren know he was a point down and somehow he leveled up the match but just as the bell dinged, he got another point in! The crowd goes wild! As does his brother who bumped his head in the process.
It is great to listen to Darren talk about the other members of the Irish boxing team; the likes of Katie Taylor and Michael Conlan who are doing big things for Irish boxing internationally. There seems to be a real family spirit among all the boxers in the team and when asked why Irish boxers seem to do so well for such a small nation, he puts it down to the passion and the lack of fear and the attitude to the world class ‘High Performance’ training methods that the boxers now have access to in the gym. He also puts a lot of the success down to the smaller gyms around the country, like Ollies in Paulstown and the commitment they show and give to young boxers, usually on very limited budgets, “they polish you off, they remind you of the basics of boxing when you start thinking too far ahead… it starts here and it ends here…”
“When the public think and believe that our boxers will be successful, why not cover them?”… It would be nice to see boxing covered more by the media now as they really are shining the torch for Ireland; the lack of coverage for Michael Conlan when he won his gold medal was a real shame and probably came too late, meaning the majority of the public are unaware of the fights, let alone seeing them fight on the television. This seems to be changing in Darren’s eyes at the moment but it would be good to see more consistency in the coverage of the vibrant and competitive boxing scene that the Irish are taking abroad.
As humble as he is, Darren is a driven man; when he committed to boxing in 2006, he had two goals which were “…first to win a major medal and second to become an olympian..”. Having achieved both those goals and more, the man is still hungry for success. He has set himself even more targets and getting to Rio and bringing a medal back home seem like the next steps. At the end of it all, Darren is Paulstown through and through and when it comes to his hometown, he loves the peace and quiet, the brilliant Shankill Castle beside the club, the Red Mills factory (which his Ollie works at) and much more. He also mentions jockey Paul Townsend… who lives in Paulstown!
Darren has to get through the qualifiers in the next few days, so look out for him over the next few months!