Irish business profile: Turlough McConnell
“The Fighting Irish follows Irish American history through boxing. We’ve seen so many boxing movies but probably not realized the huge Irish input into the sport,” he says. A quick glance through the roster of famous Irish American boxers brings the point home: Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett, and Jim ‘Cinderella Man’ Braddock, to name a few.
Even now, the Irish are making their mark. Maureen ‘Moe’ Shea is known as ‘The Real Million Dollar Baby’. The record-breaking super featherweight trained Hilary Swank and sparred with her for the film. The pair trained together at Gleason’s Gym, New York City’s boxing Mecca.
Turlough is delighted at how popular the exhibition is proving. “There are so many wonderful artifacts in this exhibition, for example Liam Neeson’s boxing gloves. Liam always says that had it not been for the boxing club, he definitely would have taken his energies in a different direction, given the situation in the North when he was growing up.
“This exhibition is bringing in people who are not the usual museum goers. There are trips from gyms, with loads of young people travelling up for the day.
“Pat O’Donnell did an amazing job staging this exhibition. She is a phenomenal curator. On the day it opened, we had a party out on Quay Street. Out walked two guys, two bare-knuckle fighters. Because it’s such an authentic setting, you catch yourself thinking, ‘My God, this really is The Gangs of New York.’”
In what may seem an odd comparison, Turlough says boxing is a lot like poetry. “Boxing has this whole other dimension - the history of the individual. You have a team of people around you but when you go into the ring, you’re on your own. Very solitary people go into boxing.
“I think there are a lot of similarities between boxing and poetry. Just look at Gene Tunney. He was very literary, very well read, a writer and best friends with George Bernard Shaw, who incidentally was really into boxing and fancied himself as a boxer.”
During his brief visit, Turlough popped up to Belfast to check up on a project he hopes to develop with another lad from Budgen, Pat Doherty (Big Hill), chairman of the Titanic Quarter. In conjunction with the South Street Seaport Museum in New York and the National Museums of Northern Ireland, Turlough is working on the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the sinking Titanic in 2012.
“This as a great opportunity to acknowledge the importance of the Port of Belfast and the Northern Ireland shipbuilding industry. There’s a huge demand in New York for something big to mark the 100th. New York City Council’s Speaker is Christine Quinn. Her grandmother was one of the survivors. There’s a real interest in how we develop this exhibition authentically.”
Turlough is currently working with Tourism Ireland on a special marketing feature on Ulster that will launch later this year in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s tremendously proud of the “sea change of peace that has swept through Northern Ireland in the last twenty years. To my way of thinking, the North has a huge responsibility to show other people how it's done.”