Remembering John McNally winning Ireland’s first Olympic Boxing medal 63 years ago

‘It was the last day of the Games and the host nation had not yet won a gold medal, so there was a lot of weight on the Finn’s shoulders to deliver. It came down to the three judges and the British judge gave it to me, while the American and the Austrian gave it to Hamalainen. I was devastated and in floods of tears because I was convinced that I had won the gold medal, said Belfast boxing legend John McNally after his 1952 Olympic bantamweight final.
This Saturday marks the 63rd anniversary of McNally’s Olympic final with Finland’s Pentti Hamalainen in Helsinki, Finland.
Ireland has produced many outstanding international bantamweights, with John McNally, Freddie Gilroy, Wayne McCullough and John Joe Nevin winning Olympic medals in this weight class since Ireland first entered the Olympic Games as an independent nation in Paris in 1924.

McNally, McCullough and Nevin reached their respective finals and claimed silver, while Gilroy won bronze. McNally’s medal in Helsinki in 1952 was the first podium finish for Irish boxing at the Games.

It is generally accepted that his semi-final win over Korea’s Joon-Ho Kang on August 1st, 1952, which guaranteed at least silver, was the date that Irish boxing secured its first Olympic medal, which is technically correct.

However, following a decision at the 2nd AIBA Congress in 1950 in København, the 1952 Games marked the first occasion that losing semi-finalists were awarded bronze, and McNally victory over Italy’s Vincenzo Ball’Osso at the 1952 Games on July 31st of that year would have – eventually – secured at least bronze, although if the Belfast bantam had been beaten in the last-four by Ball’Osso he would have had to wait 30 years for his medal.

Up to 1952, losing Olympic semi-finalists had to box off for the bronze. However, no bronze medals at all were awarded in Helsinki in 1952. The losing semi-finalists were presented with diplomas and their national flags were raised, but it wasn’t until 1982 that bronze medals were retrospectively presented to the vanquished 1952 semi-finalists.

Only six boxers, four Finns, one West German and a Bulgarian, of the twenty semi-finalists from Helsinki 1952 showed up to receive their bronze medals at a special award ceremony in 1982 in Helsinki. Nevertheless, the awarding of bronze medals to losing (boxing) semi-finalists at the Olympic Games was established in 1952 and continues to this day in all international tournaments.

Meanwhile, while McNally, Gilroy, McCullough and Nevin and many more Irish 54kg (now 56kg) greats are lauded, Robert Hilliard, who lined out at the 1924 Games in Paris, Ireland’s first Olympiad as an independent nation, gets the decision as our most colourful boxer in this weight class.

Hilliard, the “boxing parson”, was the only non-Army member of team, and, almost ironically in that context, was, tragically, the only member of the 1924 panel to fall in battle. A native of Kerry, he died fighting for the 15th International Brigade battling General Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War 13 years after becoming the first Irish boxer to wear a bantamweight vest at the Olympic Games.

A Church of Ireland parson and a Republican, later to become a Marxist and a journalist, Hilliard was one of eleven boxers to receive byes in the preliminary rounds in Paris. However, he was then on the wrong end of a points decision to Benjamin Pertuzzo of Argentina.

Pertuzzo lost to eventual finalist, America’s Salvatore Tripoli – who was outgunned in the final by South Africa’s William Smith – in the quarter-finals.

The boxing parson secured Irish bantamweight titles in 1923 and 1924 and Dublin University featherweight belts in that era. Described as “an idealist who maintained radical social commitments”, Hilliard died after being shot in the battle of Rio Jarma in the Spanish Civil War.

Facing impossible odds – the 1924 Irish Olympian and comrades went up against tanks with light arms – to try and cover their comrades’ retreat as Franco’s forces attempted to cut off the supply chain for Madrid to Valencia.

Hilliard and his brothers in arms were cut down and the Irish bantamweight died of his wounds five days later in a field hospital on February 22nd, 1937. he was 33 years old. The boxing parson even gets a honourable mention in the Christy Moore song “Viva La Quince Brigada”.

“From every corner of the world came sailing

The 15th International Brigade

Bob Hilliard was a Church of Ireland pastor

From Killarney across the Pyrenees he came”

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Integral part of the Irish boxing community for over 13 years