‘Sleeping draught’: Michael Lacey, the forgotten contender

By Cian Manning

Michael Lacey was born at Grady’s Yard, Johnstown in Waterford City on the 21st June 1913. Named after his father (a labourer at McDonnell’s Creamery who married a Mary Long), he would be known as either Mick or Matt to distinguish him from the patriarch of the family. By his early 20s, Lacey was married (on the 23 June 1935) to a Mary O’Brien of 81 the Mall, who worked as a ‘domestic servant’. Matt worked as a ‘bill poster’ and was noted as a well-known amateur boxer in Waterford as a southpaw with a ‘savage punch’ by most papers and commentators. His left was described as carrying a ‘sleeping draught’ that would put any opponent to drift. Though the Irish Independent noted that though he packed a considerable punch that if ‘boxing is the gentle art of self-defence then Lacey…is not a boxer…but…has a punch, and if he hits his opponent the question of self-defence does not arise…’ However it was outside of the ‘sweet science’ that he came to national attention. 

    ‘a credit to the people, city and country’: Lacey & the rescue of Agnes Dunne, Tramore, June 1936

In June 1936 Lacey was swimming around 8 o’clock out from the Strand in Tramore near what was then the ‘new promenade’. While exercising he heard the screams of Agnes Dunne (aged 16, the daughter of Mr. Tom Dunne, the prominent secretary of the Waterford Branch of the ITGWU) of Morrisson’s Road in the city, who had gotten into difficulty. She was quickly being carried out by the tide when Lacey reacted speedily and as noted by the Cork Examiner brought an exhausted Dunne back to shore. The unconscious girl was then brought to McCoy’s Riveria Café where she received first aid and recovered. So treacherous was the rescue effort by Lacey the local Munster Express recorded that ‘the scene of the rescue is close to the spot where on the previous Tuesday evening Mr. Michael Brett, Clonmel met his death under tragic circumstances after he saved his little nephew’s life.’ 

Clearly Lacey’s physical prowess and athletic ability had not only saved Agnes Dunne’s life but also his own in her rescue. Nearly twelve months later the Waterford man received the Royal Humane Society’s Certificate from Waterford County Commissioner Mr. S.J. Moynihan who noted that the young boxer ‘was a credit to the people, city and country’ and noted that it wasn’t the first time in which Lacey was a lifesaver. 

     ‘a real dark horse in heavyweight circles’: Lynn, Louis & the German Tralst 

Lacey was being described as a ‘real dark horse in heavyweight circles’ with consecutive victories over the experienced Cork boxer L Lynn in the autumn of 1937. As the Waterford Champion, Lacey fought and defeated the 1937-38 Irish Army Heavyweight Champion Pte. Kerry (Collins Barrack) on points at Tramore Boxing Club in 1938. The Evening Herald concluded that the result put ‘the Waterford boxer amongst our leading heavyweights, and it is almost certain he will be included for the selection of an Irish team for America.’ 

The Central Council of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association selected Lacey after trials against P. Gannon (Galway) whom he knocked-out and defeating Kerry again on a points decision. Originally Lacey was to fill the position of substitute for J. McMullan of the Royal Ulster Constabulary who subsequently had to cry off and meant the Johnstown man was primed to fight in Chicago. The Irish team travelled from Dublin to Southampton where they would embark on the Cunard White Star liner Queen Mary for New York. Upon reaching America they would travel by plane to the Windy City. They were the guests of the Catholic Youth Association of America who arranged the 10 bout fight card which saw Lacey named among boxers such as a young Joe Louis of a Chicago Youths selection. Lacey’s opponent though was to be Clarence Brown. In front of 3,000 spectators at Soldiers’ Field on the 13th July, Lacey-Brown was the deciding bout as the score stood at 5-4. 

The Irish southpaw wasn’t able to gain a draw for Ireland with some papers saying it was a valiant defeat in a close fight decided on points while others say he was battered in a brave performance. The following month, Lacey was facing the most inform amateur boxer in Europe. His opponent the Berlin Police officer Tralst had finished runner-up in the European Police Championships but even more impressively had defeated the Olympic champion Nagy of Hungary. At just 22 years of age he was considered to be Germany’s best heavyweight prospect in years. Ireland dominated against the Berlin Police selection winning 5-2 with Lacey’s southpaw style causing Tralst major problems and knocked him out in the third round. 

     ‘inadequate training facilities’: threatening to retire? 

Though at 25 years of age it looked like rather than be a springboard to further success it was to surprisingly lead to him threatening retirement from the sport. This wasn’t due to injury but that his sole reason as recorded in the Munster Express was ‘to protest a practical manner against the inadequate training facilities with which he had to contend.’ In preparation for the bout, Lacey found the local training school was locked up and even if it was open he would have found no sparring partners. Furthermore he stated that ‘this is not an isolated, but a typical instance, and with such training and co-operation I am expected to enter an international contest and win.’ Though he would receive support from locals in Waterford it appeared to be a black mark against Lacey by the IABA as he received few international honours for Ireland as such a talent deserved. The issue of training and facilities would dog the rest of his boxing career as even events in Waterford would begin to turn sour, but more of that later. 

It seems Lacey didn’t act on his threat of retirement as he continued to fight into August 1938 against the Ulster Champion C. McGlade (Central Hall, Belfast) and J. McMullan who he replaced on the Chicago trip. Lacey easily defeated McGlade in a one-sided affair though lost to McMullan where the Waterford man’s lack of training was apparent. There was still goodwill towards him from his native city which would lead to an interesting development in boxing in Waterford. 

     Waterford City Boxing Club: Amateur Ethos & Professionalism in conflict 

A letter addressed to the editor of the Waterford News proposed to raise a training fund for the Johnstown southpaw, by subscribing a pound a week, to avoid ‘seeing its most promising boxing protégé of the decade fading out in decay and inaction.’ These funds were then used for the establishment of the Waterford City Boxing Club at the Bridge Hotel on the 22nd September 1938. The meeting was presided over by Mayor James Aylward to create a body which would promote the development of the ‘manly art locally’. A duel function of the club was to supported the efforts of Lacey in guaranteeing to pay his expenses with a substantial Monster Tournament organised to raise funds. The proceeds of which would go directly to his training for his re-match with McMullan at Portobello Barrack. 

Though by the following month it was rumoured that Lacey had come to the attention of the London boxing promoter Dan Sullivan (the man who brought Cobh’s Jack Doyle to America) but the Waterford man rejected a tempting offer to turn professional as he was content in the amateur ranks. A hectic schedule saw him have bouts in Cork, Waterford and even Bristol. The latter of which he faced Colchester Police officer A. Porter then considered to be the best heavyweight in Europe. The English fighter was considered unbeatable for their November 1938 bout and with Lacey’s preparations hampered by a heavy cold the Waterford boxer was easily knocked out in the second round. 

Going into 1939 Lacey was still held in high regard as a genuine contender for a national title with his left considered a devastating weapon. His first fight of an expectant year was against J. Boyd of Belfast and of the contest W.P.M, of the Independent wrote ‘Lacey, the idol of Irish boxing enthusiasts in recent months, let his supporters down badly when he was beaten’ in a one-sided contest. For no obvious reasons (that we are aware through newspaper reports) he didn’t enter the National Championships but a comeback was scheduled for Tramore where he would again face Boyd. It was hoped under the guidance of trainer Garda J.W. ‘Boy’ Murphy he would recapture the form and spark which brought him to national attention. 

The fight was switched to the Waterford Volunteer Hall for the 9th June 1939 with his opponent now Pte. Maher (Curragh) as Boyd had to pull out of the meeting due to illness. As a large crowd waited for the main event organised by the Waterford Boxing Club it was announced by the MC, Segt. Spillane that Lacey had failed to show up for the bout and was automatically suspended. It was a back-dated one month suspension with Lacey brought before a committee to explain his actions or rather inactions in this case. His complaint to the boxing club was that they had not arranged with his employer to get the required time-off; and the failure to deliver on the promise of oils was the last straw for him. In consultation with his family he decided “to dress, go out for a walk and take no notice of anyone’. 

The club which was formed to support his efforts had now turned hostile towards him. Comments of the committee members included a Mr. Falconer who suggested that some of Lacey’s advisors were getting in his ear about the club making substantial money off his efforts. Though Lacey also highlighted his dissatisfaction with the training at the club suggesting that juveniles and seniors should be accommodated on different nights. The most cutting remarks came from Capt. J. O’Meara (Irish Volunteer Force) who believed Lacey ‘should be suspended for two years, and the club will get on very well without him.’ 

     Later career & life 

 Through all the trouble in his hometown Lacey was selected as a substitute for another Irish selection to Chicago but he would not step in for Mourneabbey’s P. Sullivan like he had for McMullan previously. Returning to Ireland we know Lacey was in contention for an Irish team travelling to Warsaw but his role was very much down the pecking order. 

In August 1939 he married Mary Coughlan of Mall Lane at the Cathedral in Waterford (Yes, I know what you’re thinking, a second marriage. On the marriage cert from 1939 it notes that Lacey was a widower). The two worked together at McDonnell’s Creamery. His boxing commitments would dwindle as the 1940s began and eventually peter out completely as the decade went on. He was disqualified in the 1940 National Championships against Fethard’s Louis O’Donnell. Though notable victories for the Waterford boxer included defeating North of England champion J. Craig in Manchester (a powerful right doing the damage this time) and a promising Windsor boxer J. Agnew at the National Stadium. The arrival of George Bennett on the national scene saw Lacey fall down the pecking order further. 

There was more tragedy to follow for the boxer, in 1942 his brother died on the way to attending 12 noon mass. It is around this time that McDonnell’s Creamery which specialised in the manufacture of margarine (temporarily closed leading to him moving to England for work). He worked at their Essex operations till his own death in 1953 when he was killed by a jeep in London. The information related to his marriages, time in England and death require further investigation. 

Lacey packed a lot into his 40 years of existence from being a lifesaver, bill porter, boxer, two marriages and travelling across the Atlantic and Irish sea. His crusade to see that training standards were improved were not only to boost his own chances in the ring but also the competitiveness of boxers from his native city and country. One wonders what could have been if his warnings and pleas had been heeded. 

Jonny Stapleton

Irish-boxing.com contributor for 15 years and editor for the past decade. Have been covering boxing for over 16 years and writing about sport for a living for 19 years. Former Assistant Sports editor for the Gazette News Paper Group and former Tallaght Voice Sports Editor. Have had work published in publications around the world when working as a freelance journalist. Also co-founder of Junior Sports Media and Leinster Rugby PRO of the Year winner. email: [email protected]