BLARNEY native Finbar O’Leary won the first of his two All-Ireland titles in 1959 representing the Glen BC.
To mark the 60th anniversary of that triumph, O’Leary returned to his old club recently and presented his former alma mater with a perpetual cup for the annual presentation of the unit’s Boxer of the Year Award.
O’Leary, in addition to national glory, also secured county and provincial titles. In 1961, two years after topping the podium at Dublin’s National Stadium, he achieved a clean sweep in all Irish, provincial, and county competitions.
Following that grand slam, O’Leary, a remarkably skilful and crafty fighter, was selected for the first official Cork boxing team to take on Dublin at the Parochial Hall on Leeside in May 1961.
The show was billed as the Battle of the Cities. A full house ensued at the Northside venue with many failing to gain admittance on the night.
The match took place in an era when boxing was thriving in Cork.
Established clubs, such as the Glen and Sunnyside, were churning out champions and a young unit — which went on to become one of Cork’s most feted outfits — was establishing itself.
The new boys on the block were Fr Horgan’s BC.
The club was founded in 1959 and are this year celebrating their 60th anniversary and the Irish Elite success of Macroom welter Christina Desmond at the Stadium last February.
Meantime, O’Leary had both the honour and distinction to captain the first Cork boxing side and led by example against the Dubs by scoring a magnificent decision over Tom Dempsey almost six decades ago. On the night, Cork secured a 6-5 win over their arch-rivals after 11 bouts.
The success was copper-fastened by big performances from Tony Arnold, Paddy Gough, Billy McKenna, Louis Kenneally, and Donie Carroll.
A feature of the Battle of the Cities was the medals presented by the Lord Mayor of Cork. Following the InterCity showdown, many pubs in Shandon St, known as the boxing boulevard, had unofficial bar extensions. The celebrations went the distance — and beyond.
The famous victory was again celebrated three years ago at a Cork Boxing Breakfast where each athlete on that historic team was presented with a silver tray by the president of the Cork Board, Michael O’Brien.
The guest speaker that morning was the leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, whose father, Paddy, was the chief official on the night of the Cork versus Dublin clash.
It was ironic, therefore, that the skipper of the 1961 side, Finbar O’Leary, stepped forward and made a presentation to Martin on behalf of his dad.
Today, at his home in Blarney, that silver tray takes pride of place in O’Leary’s sporting memorabilia which includes his many medals, plaques and photographs from an outstanding career between the ropes.
The Irish champion displayed an aptitude for the sport from an early age and his father pointed him in the direction of the Glen BC.
At the time there were few cars on the road, so O’Leary would get the bus fare from his dad to travel to Blackpool three nights a week for training.
O’Leary recalled that he was very excited at the prospect of representing Ireland’s oldest club and the bus from Blarney would stop outside Molloy Howe’s bar in Blackpool, a famous watering hole for the Glen hurlers when they claimed county titles — a regular occurrence at the time.
O’Leary would make his way up through the cobblestones in Spring Lane and into the small terraced house which was known as the Glen BC.
For the young prospect, this was the promised land.
The club was the home of some of Cork’s most famous boxers.
He was immediately made welcome by coach John Morrissey and struck up an enduring friendship with Mick O’Donovan, another top class athlete.
O’Leary admitted that at first, he was standing in the clubhouse in awe.
He noticed the tiny ring and recollected thinking that there was nowhere to hide in there.
The smell of sweat, tinged with leather and wintergreen hung in the air.
The percussive sound of skipping ropes provided the backbeat.
Outside the unit, teams of runners would be doing their roadwork and putting in the hard yards around the Glen, once described as an oasis of God’s natural beauty.
O’Leary immediately made an impression and went on to become a Glen BC hero himself.
Over the last 10 years, he has been very active with the Cork Ex-Boxers Association and has visited the National Stadium on numerous occasions.
At the recent presentation in the Glen Hall, the president of the board, Michael O’Brien said: “Because of Blarney Castle, many of the world’s most famous people have visited the picturesque village and yet living modestly amongst their own was a national sporting hero, Finbar O’Leary, the former All-Ireland boxing champion.”