The Hero of Mullingar arrives at the Newbury Hotel, up by the railway station, at one end of what James Joyce described as the town’s “long crooked main street”. John Joe Nevin has slipped in, as befits a slip of a man. But not a slip of a man to be trifled with: this is Ireland’s much-feted household name of an Olympic bantamweight boxing silver medallist who, since London, has received more honours and appeared on more television and radio shows than you can shake a glove at.
Given all this, and the way it is with boxing, it’s a little surprising to see him without a large retinue and giant vehicle casually parked on the double yellow lines outside the hotel entrance. Instead, he leads the way round the corner to a black BMW saloon with an almost demure Olympics logo.
Even more surprising, given all this, is that Nevin is a member of the traveller community, traditionally disregarded and distrusted by the rest of Ireland – and the first traveller to win an Olympic medal. According to myth and fable, he should have been indulging in an orgy of wild roverish enjoyment ever since.
But Nevin is not like that. When not indulging in the official and media hoopla, he has been making visits to schools, opening things, helping to publicise charity events – and finding it a touch difficult to adjust to the adulation and fuss, the stares and the autographs. “I’m a sportsman, not a celebrity,” he explains as we drive to the family home (which is only a few minutes away, but Nevin is a courteous man).
The house is one-storey and small. His parents have added to it: the front door is flanked by two imposing columns below a capital, from which hang green boxing-glove balloons and bunting in Nevin’s honour. To the side are wrought-iron entrance gates; inside, the kitchen, hall and living room are tiled and glisten. Nevin’s grandfather was the first to live here: Nevin and his family are “settled travellers”, who make up more than 80 per cent of the 30,000-strong community.
Nevin has followed some traveller ways: he left school at 14, for instance, to concentrate on his boxing. But he regrets it, and spends a lot of time on his school visits urging pupils against following his example: “To have the schooling, it helps with everything. It helps when you leave boxing if you have the schooling to fall back to.” He tells them, too, that if he’d stayed on, he’d have won gold.
No less than a quarter of the Irish Olympic elite boxing squad are travellers, customarily and still on occasion more than willing to settle disputes with their bare fists (see YouTube). But Nevin is firmly opposed: “Bare knuckle is not a sport. I don’t respect it … I wouldn’t look at it, it’s just two men going out there for pride or whatever. It’s disrespectful. Boxing has rules that give you an opportunity to show your skill; without gloves you’re not going to get that chance … Bare knuckle was in the tradition, but traditions can be broken.”
Nevin began boxing when he was seven. “Some of the cousins went boxing to get fit for handball and I asked my father if I could do it. He wanted me to hold out for a while because I was quite young, and young fellows don’t know what they want.” But Nevin did.
He had his first proper bout aged eight, against a 12-year-old: “He was a stone heavier than me, so you can imagine who won that fight.” In classic fashion he picked himself up and went on to win three national titles by the time he was 13, when he began travelling to a club in Cavan, 50 miles away; soon he was training about five hours a day. In 2008, he was selected to box for Ireland at the Beijing Olympics, losing in the second round to the eventual gold medallist.
In London 2012, he properly announced himself by beating, thoroughly and skilfully, the world champion, Lázaro Alvarez of Cuba, in the semi-final. Then he fought Britain’s Luke Campbell for the gold. Nevin lost a close fight, but a medal is a medal, especially in a country which won five in total and was in need of cheering up.
Since London, too, Nevin has had to decide what happens next. That decision has not been entirely straightforward. Once, in simpler days, there were unpaid amateur boxers and paid professional boxers. But not now. For some time the Amateur International Boxing Association has been busy moving the ring and creating a professional kind of amateur, still eligible to box in the Olympics.
This was Nevin’s status in London. He had been boxing in the league set up in 2010 by AIBA’s subsidiary, World Series Boxing. In WSB, newly franchised clubs compete at different weights under new professional rules – no headguard and vest, as in strictly amateur bouts, but fewer rounds and clearer scoring. AIBA’s masterplan is no less than domination of the declining, confused and discredited world of professional boxing.
However, the professionals are not giving up without a fight. One such is Amir Khan, Britain’s former Olympic medallist and professional World Champion, who has now started up his own promotion company and is busy signing promising boxers. Khan watched Nevin’s stylish dismissal of Alvarez in London – a performance of such confidence that in the final round he produced the fists-down teasing jig originated by his hero, Muhammad Ali. “I did that first when I was eight years old and boxed that big lad, I hadn’t done it since,” Nevin says. “I don’t know what happened – maybe I got a bit excited because I was beating him so easily.” This, immediately dubbed “The Mullingar Shuffle”, and now Nevin’s trademark, convinced Khan that here was the skill and showmanship of a great attraction.
In October, Nevin announced he was joining Khan. But it was all a bit rushed and ill-advised. Despite saying, bravely, that a medal of any metal was as much as he had hoped for, deep down Nevin was ruing that missed gold. Rio in 2016 was looking increasingly attractive. He is only 23 and a professional career could come later. So he changed his mind, and joined a new WSB franchise, the British Lionhearts.
Goodwill has got Nevin through this wobble. He’s adamant the about-turn was for Olympic gold rather than the monetary variety. In any case, it’s thought unlikely that he would have earned very much more as a professional than with his new WSB and Olympic squad contracts, estimated to be worth in the upper five figures a year.
As we talked in the kitchen, Nevin’s two-year-old son, Martin, named after his grandfather, was mostly on his dad’s knee, as he was in September at the official ceremony conferring Mullingar’s equivalent of freeman on Nevin. Listening were his brother, Paddy, 18, another promising boxer, and his sister, Mandy, 14; later, Alice, five, the youngest of his three sisters, arrived back from school (Nevin’s father was “too shy” to join us). Like most travellers, Nevin married young, in 2009; his wife Marie, 22, is also from a traveller family.
Nevin’s mother, Winifred, says: “He’s a home man, he likes to be with his baby.” Slightly incongruously, Nevin is not keen on travelling (even Paris, location of his last WSB club, arouses little excitement). His family went over to London to watch him fight (although Winifred usually only manages the first two rounds, through her fingers: “I don’t weep much, just if he’s boxing and he’s getting it tough”). But they had to leave before the semi-final: “Pockets was emptied,” says Winifred. They watched their boy’s last two fights on television, back home.
Which was when the trouble that tends to attach itself to travellers happened. There are many versions of why a party of Nevins, including Winifred, were refused service in a pub in the town to watch John Joe’s semi-final, with the reason ranging, depending upon the informant, from no reason to someone attempting to help themselves behind the bar. Whatever, most Nevins ended up watching the final at a bar outside Mullingar, boycotting the town. There were reports that Nevin’s performances were affected by the trouble, that he missed the gold because of it.
Not so, he says: he got the news five minutes before he fought Alvarez and says it made him all the more determined. As for the final, “I thought it was made for me, I’d beat the world champion, but Luke Campbell being an astonishing boxer, he just got me, fair play to him.” As for Mullingar, “the thing is, if I went down town there to any of the public houses, they’d serve me, no bother … but it still happens within the travelling community … I always thought that it was the way that if someone actually got out of hand or started a bit of trouble in a pub, then you’re barred – not for walking in and ordering a pint.”
Nevertheless, he says, things are getting better and will keep improving as differences between the communities fade, even if his mum doesn’t agree. Down on Mullingar’s main street, you can find support for both views. Tom Nally, of Rochforts store, still had banners hanging up outside congratulating Nevin and the town’s other Olympian, the equestrian Joseph Murphy. “John Joe is a credit to himself and to the town – and he’s a good customer,” says Nally. Frank Kiernan, from the Post Office, talked about Nevin’s homecoming, when about 7,000 (the town’s population is 20,000) turned out to salute the silver medallist. At the tourist office, they are handing out the local discount currency – the gar – bearing the legend “In Mullingar We Trust” and the head of Nevin, who has replaced the aforesaid James Joyce, previously the town’s most famous (if temporary) resident, but not, so far as can be ascertained, related to the traveller Joyces.
Frank Kiernan was optimistic, too, about community relations, seeing little tension between travellers and non-travellers. As for the alleged mass riot between members of the Nevin and McDonagh families in Mullingar in 2008, apart from the odd siren, says Kiernan, the main street was “as peaceful as the beach at St Tropez”.
For what it’s worth, my investigations in the bars of Mullingar disclosed wariness but only one outright ban of travellers. In The Old Stand, I came across Nevin’s uncle, Michael Nevin, who joshed: “The staff here are lovely, they’ll serve anyone who is half-right.” But he confirmed that other pubs were not so keen. (Of course, I am a fellow Nevin, though merely a distant English relation. As Nevin says, he has “an awful lot of cousins” among the nearly 500 Nevins around Mullingar).
Miko showed me pictures of himself with John Joe on his mobile phone, which, he was proud to point out, had a picture of the Virgin Mary as its screensaver. Like his uncle and many other travellers, John Joe is religious: “I wouldn’t go to mass that often, but I believe in the Lord and the afterlife. My coaches told me I had natural ability, so it was just like I was getting a gift from God to be a boxer … Before a fight, if I’m in Ireland I go visiting my grandparents’ grave… I just believe they look down on me and help grant my wishes.”
One of those wishes is to be a spokesman and model for his community: “I don’t know, maybe it’s because the travellers have made a bad name for themselves, but there’s not all bad in them, either. I’ve proved that – I’ve gone off and won an Olympic medal. It shows we can do something good as well.” Good luck, cousin.
John Joe Nevin is scheduled to fight for the British Lionhearts against the USA Knockouts in January.