MANY years ago, Peter Mullen was at a boxing tournament in Manorhamilton when someone who, having established he was from Westport, asked him a question: “Do you know ‘Porky’ McGreal?” When Mullen replied that he did, the woman said simply: “That man is God – but for him, I wouldn’t be able to walk.”
John ‘Porky’ McGreal, who died last month, built up such a good reputation in the field of physiotherapy that, Mullen recalls, “they were coming from all over the place to see him”. But he was also the driving force behind the establishment of St Anne’s Boxing Club, and was in the National Stadium the night Mullen won the club’s first ever national junior title 40 years ago.
At a civic reception held in his honour in 2009, Charlie Keating called ‘Porky’ a cross between Angelo Dundee and Harry Houdini. Mullen says McGreal had a special gift for boosting the confidence of young boxers – “He’d make you feel like you were ten feet tall, that you could beat anybody,” he reflects.
After a brief spell in the ‘lecture hall’ on Westport’s Newport Road in 1965, training with Stephen Browne and John Sheridan, Mullen and Brendan Heneghan boxed in Castlebar in the 1966/67 season – “cycling back and over,” the former remembers, “or for wet nights, the late Francie Kelly had a car. Without Brendan, I wouldn’t be in boxing”.
Heneghan was instrumental in getting John McGreal on board. The St Anne’s club began in the so-called ‘GAA room’ in the Town Hall before moving to the old Vocational School, creating “a lovely little gym” where “thousands of lads went in and out”.
“With Larry Hingerton, Pete Callaghan and Con Cusack on board, it just took off,” Mullen reflects. “John [McGreal] was a cattle-dealer and knew people all over, including guys in Ballymote and Ballyshannon. We went to tournaments in his pick-up truck – registration number NIZ 777. If you got in the front, you were lucky! He’d often have 30 or 40 fellas back there!”
In those days there was a so-called ‘County Board ring’ which did the rounds from tournament to tournament. “It was in Knock,” Mullen remembers, “and we were wondering how we’d bring it to Westport. We put it on top of the pick-up truck! It was great fun.”
In 1969, Mullen got his own car. Club secretary Larry Hingerton had a car, and the arrival of Vincent Conlon’s Land Rover meant that later, St Anne’s would “travel in luxury”!
A trip to Dublin in 1969 brought victory in the junior quarter-final before losing the semi-final. Mullen missed the following year’s competition after twisting his knee playing soccer for Sporting Club in Ballina on New Year’s Day 1970.
The breakthrough came in 1971. Mullen beat Pat McCormack (Lanesboro) in the junior heavyweight semi-final, a ‘maul’ against an awkward opponent. That set up a final meeting with Tom O’Rourke (Ennis) where “I kept throwing the left and he kept running into it,” he recalls. “There was a good crowd up from Westport. The crowd in Castlebar was unbelievable – we met in Castlebar and there must have been 100 cars.”
The cavalcade converged on Westport’s Octagon, where the new Irish champion was congratulated by Westport Urban District Council Chairman Matt Beckett. The homecoming made the front page of The Mayo News. “This is not merely an individual victory or a club victory,” John McGreal told the crowd. “This is Westport’s victory.”
Stories in The Mayo News often involved a late-night rendezvous between journalist Martin Curry and McGreal, who was always anxious that his boxers’ successes were immortalised in print. “We’d getting home at half one on a Sunday night, and if there was light in Curry’s, he’d go in!” Peter Mullen says with a laugh.
It was the start of an action-packed period. Beaten in the senior final by Dubliner Jack O’Rourke, Mullen nevertheless represented Ireland in Italy, and went on wear the international singlet on ten occasions.
There was a brief, ill-fated spell in England and an amateur bout with Larry Holmes while on Ireland duty – asked “Did you box Larry Holmes?”, Mullen replies with a smile: “I was in the ring – he did all the boxing!”
Remarkably, he went on to contest the next four senior finals, winning in 1972 and ’73, losing the ’74 decider, and coming back to win in ’75. A semi-final defeat in 1976 marked the end of his time in the ring, but of course, he’s still a virtual ever-present in the St Anne’s gym, named after the late Pete Callaghan – “a great technical guy, before his time”.
And, of course, Mullen is still a regular visitor to the National Stadium – a place he still speaks about with reverence. “The Stadium never changed – it still has the same dips,” he explains. “It’s like Croke Park – the place to be. I just loving going there.”
John ‘Porky’ McGreal left St Anne’s in 1972, but almost 40 years on, the foundation he left is still being built upon.
A Lasting legacy
John ‘Porky’ McGreal, of Carrabawn, Westport and Newport, was born on June 19, 1926 and passed away on February 27, 2011.
Porky’s ‘magic rub’ helped Garrymore
IN the 1982 Mayo Senior Football Championship semi-final, Garrymore led Lacken by a point with ten minutes to go when Billy Fitzpatrick had to go off with a ‘busted’ ankle.
In that era such an injury generally meant ‘game over’ for the party concerned, but Garrymore had a special double act to call on – the recently deceased Westport physiotherapist John ‘Porky’ McGreal and the late Hollymount doctor Michael (Mickey) Caulfield.
“The two boys got at me,” Fitzpatrick told The Mayo News. “The boot was off, the cream was put on the ankle and the doc had a fistful of tablets.” With a minute to go, Garrymore got a sideline kick ‘above five yards from the corner flag’ and Fitzpatrick was sent back on. With “a storm blowing in from Crossmolina into the town goal” in Ballina, he kicked the ball “about 40 yards out the field and it went in over the bar!”
It wasn’t the first time Fitzpatrick had seen the powers of physio and doctor up close. In the 1976 county final, Garrymore were going for three in a row in ‘a very tight game’ against Knockmore when Danny Dolan went off injured. “In about ten minutes, the two lads had Danny back again – feeling no pain whatsoever! – and he played a starring role for us in that victory,” the Midwest Radio analyst says with an air of wonder.
“With Porky’s magic rub and Dr Caulfield’s fistful of tablets, we rarely missed a game through injury during our ten-year spell at the top.” he adds. “They were able to get you back into games. ‘Porky’ was a great character in the dressing room. He had a word for everybody, and he was great at giving you confidence. No matter what kind of an injury you had, you were going to be all right for the next game.”
To this day, Fitzpatrick doesn’t know what was in the ‘magic rub’, except that it was a mixture of two tubes. “And when it went on, it burned! If it was a hot day and you were sweating, you wouldn’t be standing up too long! Because you’d get on the move to keep cool!”
Fitzpatrick was instrumental in getting McGreal involved with Garrymore, and the association lasted from the club’s first senior final in 1973 until the end of their golden age a decade later.
The physio would even travel to south Mayo for training evenings, and also did a stint with the Mayo senior football team in the late 1970s. “He was a tremendous friend of Garrymore, and we were very saddened to hear of his passing,” says Fitzpatrick.