It was clear from the moment Paddy Barnes made it into the Irish Olympic squad over a year ago he was going to be considered a hero in north Belfast
So when the 21-year-old picked up a bronze medal in Beijing, the local community set out to make sure he received nothing but a hero’s homecoming.
And what a homecoming it was.
Among the scores of youngsters who packed the Holy Family Club last night, eager to see Paddy before he boarded the open-top bus, was the local media all vying for a piece of Northern Ireland’s newest Olmypic medalist. Such was the fanfare that the young lad looked as though he was in a daze most of the time, overwhelmed by the constant attention and bewildered by all the fuss.
His mother Ellen, who has not slept since she flew back from Beijing on Monday night, explained that her son is modest.
“He doesn’t like a lot of fuss,” she said. “I don’t think this has really hit him yet, maybe when he gets on to the open-top bus maybe then he might realise how big this is.
“This morning he got all emotional and said to me ‘you did not have to do all this for me mammy’ but I told him it was out of my hands. I am just so proud of him.”
Proud is also how you could describe the north Belfast community who came out in their droves to greet him as he made his way through the New Lodge and Cliftonville areas on the open-top bus.
It has been 16 years since Northern Ireland has produced a boxing medalist and the people of north Belfast were not going to let that go unnoticed.
As the ‘Paddy mobile’ set off, hundreds of youngsters ran alongside cheering for their hero — “our Paddy” who lives down the road — while the scores of young people who filled the top of the bus sang “C’mon Paddy Barnes” and chanted “ole, ole, ole” all the way to the street party which had been organised by the club and the local community centres.
Banners congratulating the boxer on his achievements and Irish flags paved the streets and just about everyone who lived along the parade route waved and cheered as Paddy went past.
When he finally arrived, the 21-year-old received a raucous welcome from his extended Cliftonville family who have been right behind him from day one.
Harry McGavock, who was leading the celebrations, told the crowd that the young lad was a role model for other young people in the area and asked them to give him a big round of applause before handing over the mike to the star of the show.
Not one for many words, Paddy, who could not stop smiling the entire time, almost blushed at the overwhelming reception and thank everyone for coming down.
Earlier, he had explained that he was “blown away” by the welcome the Irish team had received at Dublin Airport, but he was even more touched by the welcome he had received at home.
“I was not expecting this at all,” an overwhelmed Paddy explained. “There are so many people here. It’s unreal.”
When asked how he felt about his bronze medal now, the 21-year-old, who was beaming from ear to ear, said he felt “really proud. It’s amazing, I am really proud.”