I was reminded of the fleeting nature of fame when reading last night the brief, yet interesting, biography of Ireland’s first internationally acclaimed athlete, John Joe Barry. Born in County Tipperary he came to athletics as a runner of natural ability who with the minimum of training outshone his competitors at home and abroad. Known as the “Ballincurry Hare”, John Joe succumbed to the pleasures and temptations which all too often accompany precocious talents such as he enjoyed. He eventually recovered from over indulgence in drink and other excesses and did so with the help of those involved in the Cuan Mhuire organisation. He wrote of being brought to Cuan Mhuire by the legendary Irish Olympian, Ronnie Delaney, there to be greeted by Sr. Consilio and her team who were to prove most important in Joe’s eventual recovery. The “Ballincurry Hare”, for all the publicity which greeted his athletic successes, is now by and large consigned to wherever the forgotten heroes of a past age are sheltered.
The fate of John Joe Barry prompted me to wonder how often have we forgotten the sporting successes of men and women of our own community whose names in the past featured regularly in the local press. There are no doubt many who, whether in sport, politics or some other activity, achieved great success but whose stories are hidden away in dusty newspaper archives waiting to be retrieved by some future researcher.
Athy in recent years has achieved an extraordinary high level of success in the world of Irish amateur boxing, all due in no small measure to the hard work of those involved in St. Michael’s Boxing Club. In a town which in the early 20th century had its share of All Ireland Handballers, success in the boxing ring might not have been expected. However, there is an early precedent for local boxing prowess and this is to be found in the career of Dick Reid of Blackparks, Athy who was born in 1917. Dick was one of six children of Bob Reid and Sarah Leonard and his siblings were Paddy, Kitty, Sadie, Michael and Jane, all of whom are now deceased. Dick was a member of the Irish Defence Forces based in Collin’s Barracks Dublin and while a member of the Collins Barracks Boxing Club he won the Army Junior Middleweight Championship in the late 1930’s. He was also a very useful handballer and in 1935 he was defeated in the Army Handball Championship Final. Three years later he was described in the Irish Independent as “one of Dublin’s most promising junior rank handballers”. Thereafter he concentrated on his pugilist skills and he joined the senior boxing ranks when in February 1938 he was selected on a joint Army/Garda team against a Nottingham England selection. On that night the Irish team lost eight bouts and the only Irish winner was Athy man, Dick Reid, who beat his opponent on points. A week later Reid was boxing in a tournament at the Curragh and a subsequent press report noted “R. Reid is now well up amongst the leading middleweights.” Shortly afterwards he beat Private Fanning, the reigning Army Senior Middleweight Champion and the victory helped propel him into the ranks of the Irish International team.
1938 was the year of the Catholic Youth Organisation Tournament in Chicago in which an Irish team was represented. Trials for places on the Irish team were held and Private Dick Reid of Collins Barracks beat several opponents to gain the middleweight position. The Irish Independent reported at the time, “Private Reid (Collins), Army Junior Champion who goes to the U.S.A. is regarded as the best Army middle seen since the time, about ten years ago, when Tommy Morgan was a menace to the best of Irish middles which included the inimitable Jack Chase.”
The Irish team, including Dick Reid, embarked for the American Tournament on 27th June 1938 travelling on the Queen Mary. On the way across the Atlantic the Irish team were able to maintain fitness as they had a gymnasium and a swimming pool at their disposal. On arrival in Chicago the Irish team members were feted by civic and Church leaders before they entered the ring on 10th July 1938 against a Chicago selection. An American newspaper described the scene as 38,000 spectators crowded into the open air arena at Soldier Field, Chicago to witness the unbeaten American boxers take on “the Irish invaders in the green pants and gold hued shirts”. Local favourite, Chester Rutecki, was up against Athy’s Dick Reid whom the papers described as “a 155 pound dark fierce eyed soldier from Kildare who had whipped eight boys in Ireland for the right to make the trip to America”. The sports editor of the Daily Times, Chicago, Marvin McCarthy, described Reid as the “most ferocious member of the Irish Team, he takes two to give one”. Dick had an exciting bout with Rutecki but eventually lost on points. One of the highlights of the American trip was a visit by the Irish team to the restaurant of Jack Dempsey on New York’s Broadway where all the team members were photographed with the former World Champion. The return journey home to Ireland was made on the Cunard White Star Liner, Samaria, which arrived in Dublin Bay and on transferring to Alexandra Basin, the boxers were welcomed home by Irish dignatories and officials of the Boxing Association.
Dick Reid was chosen for the Irish team on several occasions after 1938 and featured in International tournaments against teams such as England and Germany. His international career has not been fully documented but I hope that some further research will help to complete the story of one of Athy’s earliest International sport stars. Reid’s involvement in boxing appears to have coincided with his enlisting in the Army as a press report of June 1938 following his success in the trials for the Chicago Tournament stated “the rise of the Collins boxer to senior ranks has been meteoric, as a short time ago he was competing in the novice section of the County Dublin Leagues.”
When the National Stadium on the South Circular Road in Dublin opened in 1938 it played host to the Irish Senior Championships of that year. The only champion who returned to the ring to defend his title was Michael Coffey who in the open Middleweight Contest was defeated by Army champion, Dick Reid.
Dick married and had three children, daughters Pat and Sadie and son Dick. The great boxing hero, Dick Reid, sadly died in 1946, aged 29 years and is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery, Athy. His wife passed away the same year and their three young children, orphaned at such a young age, were reared by members of their extended family. Dick’s sister, Kitty, married to Frank Scully of Plewman’s Terrace reared the young Dick Reid and his sister Pat while Sadie went to live with her grandmother in Gowran, Co. Kilkenny. Sadie is now married and still living in Gowran, while her sister Pat is married and living in London. The young Dick Reid, like his father, joined the Irish Army and is now living in retirement in Portlaoise.
The story of Dick Reid, Irish Boxing Champion, is incomplete but at least the young man whose exploits in the boxing ring over 60 years ago brought pride and honour to his home town can now be recalled and hopefully will never again be forgotten.