A poignant film which examines how a modest Connemara-born boxer became a cult folk hero in South Boston looks set to inspire some emotional reunions in Galway on July 12.
Boxer Sean Mannion, who once contested a world title fight before a global audience in New York, is flying home to the Galway Film Fleadh for the European premiere of the feature-length documentary.
‘Rocky Ros Muc’ is the story of a man from a small village in the Connemara Gaeltacht who has spent virtually all of his adult life in South Boston and once fought the famed Jamaican Mike McCallum for a WBA world title.
Based in Dorchester, Mannion won 42 of his 57 professional fights across the US through a 15-year professional career. And yet this shy local hero remains virtually an unknown figure back in his native Ireland.
The film, shot in both Ireland and the US, is about so much more than boxing. It’s about the experience of emigration which has been common to so many thousands of Irish people, who feel at home neither in their adopted US cities nor back in the impoverished rural communities they left behind.
It’s also about broken dreams, loneliness, a man’s poignant and honest account of his own battle with alcoholism, and the unbelievable modesty of a boxing star who became the US Light Middleweight Champion in the early 1980s.
And it’s about the sense of defiance and community spirit in the tight-knit South Boston community which gave so many Irish people a home, after fleeing poverty, hopelessness, or discrimination back in their native land.
Now aged 60, and working on construction sites in Boston, we see Sean attempt to move back to Connemara at one stage in the poignant film, before returning again to ‘Southie’, his spiritual home since he first flew across the Atlantic at just 17 years of age.
“I don’t care what’s in the documentary, as long as you tell the truth,” Sean told Belfast-based director Michael Fanning when they first sat down to discuss the film project in early 2014.
The movie is based on an Irish-language book of the same name by Connemara man Ronan Mac Con Iomaire, who says that Sean was a rare hero for local children in the 1980s.
Back then, children in the Irish-speaking part of Connemara didn’t have a TV station or role models of their own. But they all knew about the Ros Muc boxer who was so proud of both his Connemara roots and his native language.
Ronan was nine years old when Sean returned to a hero’s welcome in Connemara after losing the biggest fight of his life to McCallum in 1984.
One of the most striking things about the film is the huge sense of regret Mannion still experiences when he looks back on that world title fight in New York. He still feels that he let the people of Ireland down by losing that fight.
Mannion suffered a serious eye injury when sparring just before the showdown at Madison Square Garden, a disastrous set-back which hampered his preparations.
Sadly, even though he was a star of ESPN and HBO in the US in the 1980s, it was the only one of his 57 professional fights to be screened ‘live’ back in Ireland.
“I think the only thing that kept me going that night was that the people of Ireland were watching it live,” says Sean. “I always thought, and I still think to this day, that I let the people of Ireland down.”
McCallum pulverized Mannion in a grueling fight which went to the 13th round and, even though he fought on until 1993, he never reached such dizzying heights again.
The honesty which runs through the film is remarkable. Director Fanning looks at Sean’s connections with the notorious ‘Whitey’ Bulger gang and the defiant, hard drinking scene which was so central to life in ‘Southie’ in the 1980s.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, whose parents also hail from Ros Muc, talks openly about his own battle with addiction and the loneliness which can drive emigrants to drink too much.
The film also explores how immigration to Boston was such a normal part of life for rural communities across the West of Ireland.
“It wasn’t seen as odd,” says Ronan Mac An Iomaire, whose 2013 book of the same name inspired the film. “It wasn’t seen as a crisis to have to leave home. That’s just the way it was in Connemara back then. “
Sean was already an Irish junior champion before he arrived in Boston and signed up to Jimmy Connolly’s gym in June 1977. His brother Paddy used to be in his corner and they would converse in the Irish language during Sean’s fights throughout the US.
Sean jokes on film that he used to listen to Paddy more than his trainer because he spoke Irish during his big fights.
Perhaps better management might have boosted his career. He had turned 30 by the time he signed up with Angelo Dundee, who had worked with Mohammed Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, and the veteran coach used to speculate on what might have been.
“He told me that if he’d had me at 20 instead of 30, I’d have fought for a world title – and I’d have won it,” says Sean.
Although it explores some of his personal demons, Mannion is happy with the finished film. He is looking forward to flying across the Atlantic to see the first Irish screening of the documentary in Galway on Wednesday, July 12. A special Irish language speaking will take place in the village hall in Ros Muc on Thursday, July 13 (8pm).
There was an innocence to Sean’s boxing career which is captured in the film. We hear that a sponsor offered him $25,000 to wear a logo on his waistband for the McCallum fight, but Mannion had already decided that the name ‘Ros Muc’ would have pride of place when he wore his green Irish shorts with pride.
Like many professional sportsmen, the battling Southpaw battled with alcoholism and depression after he retired, although he says reports that his drinking interfered with his boxing career are simply not true.
“I might go to the Blarney Stone before a big fight, but I wouldn’t be drinking,” he says. “I fought five world champions and I beat two of them. There’s no way I would have done that unless I trained hard.”
Director Fanning says he was shocked that he knew so little about Mannion before he met Mac Con Iomaire in a Belfast TV studio and they came up with the idea for the film.
“It’s a bitter-sweet story, but I think it’s uplifting too,” he says. “After I met Ronan, I thought this was an incredible story and I wondered how come I’d never heard of the guy. It’s not just the story of Sean Mannion. It’s the story of South Boston and how this close-knit community gave so many Irish people a new home.”
Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. You can find his Facebook page here