Boxing young guns Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan were given a heroes’ welcome as thousands lined the streets of Belfast to see the Olympic bronze medallists tour the city on an open-top bus.
While they may not be the biggest in stature, the pair’s huge personalities and exploits in the ring during the London Games have earned them the Belfast public’s respect.
As the sun baked down yesterday, fans and tourists flocked to catch a glimpse of the men and their medals.
Leaving their starting point outside St Anne’s Cathedral and parading down Royal Avenue, the city’s main shopping street, dressed in green, Paddy and Michael waved vigorously, their bronze medals hanging proudly around their necks.
Many of the lunchtime brigade idling around the city put their sandwiches aside and followed the open-top bus to its final destination.
Arriving at Belfast City Hall, the boxers were met with roars and cheers, tricolours held aloft and echoing chants of “olé, olé, olé” reverberating around the city centre.
Then, as the Champagne was popped, the two bronze medal winners stood victorious at the back of the coach.
With the weighty bronze hanging proudly around his neck, Michael (20) said the day had been “non-stop” — and the crowds and fans had been “unreal”.
“The support, I can’t believe it. We didn’t know what there would be and we came back here to see an audience like this, it’s fantastic,” he added.
As for his fame and popularity in his home city, Michael said he “loves it”.
“It’s great to be recognised for something like this. I’m proud to be bringing this back.”
Also embracing the countless fans and well-wishers was Paddy (25). It was the north Belfast man’s second time returning to the city as an Olympic medal winner, after taking his first bronze at the Beijing Games in 2008.
“I really can’t describe it. There are more people this time, which is great. Family and friends have turned out — and tourists,” he said.
After accompanying his son throughout his journey to that second medal, Paddy Barnes snr said it was “finally great to be back home”.
“It’s great to be back in my own bed — and it’s great to see people and that they are getting so much enjoyment out of it,” he added.
“We get caught up in the competition and tend to forget what it’s like back home. But this is fabulous.”
Paddy’s mother Ellen, who watched anxiously on in London through all of Paddy’s fights alongside her husband, said she was “over the Moon”, and never worried while watching her son fighting in the ring.
“I really couldn’t be any prouder. He is so well trained for it I’m not worried. He knows what he’s doing,” she said.
Judging by the response from the young fans who gathered outside City Hall, cameras at the ready, you could be mistaken for thinking a Hollywood A-lister or dignitary was descending on Belfast.
But they were all out for the city’s medal winners.
James Baker (12) from north Belfast said it was great meeting one of his heroes.
Lisa Brady was joined by her children and nieces, and said she was both “excited and very proud”.
Her son Conn (6) said he was there to “see all the medals”.
“The boxers have done really well. It’s great to be in the sun, it’s fun,” he added.
Sheila Flood from north Belfast was joined by her young
son and avid boxing fan Matthew (9), who hadn’t missed a single fight during the Games.
“I think they have done fantastic and it’s great to see them back,” she said.
Welcoming the boxing battering rams back atop the bus was the city’s Deputy Lord Mayor Tierna Cunningham, with Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin and Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy also attending the homecoming celebration.
“It’s great that Belfast can honour two of its boxers.
“Looking at all the young kids here, it’s going to inspire them to get involved,” said Ms Ni Chuilin.
Mr Kennedy said it had been a “tremendous achievement” by both Barnes and Conlan to bring bronze back home.
...now let’s give all our athletes a fitting celebration to mark achievements that united us in delight
By Chris Kilpatrick
The unprecedented success of our Olympians should be used as a unifying driving force to create a lasting legacy for Northern Ireland, an MP has said.
A massive public reception for all the province’s competitors at the London Games would enable the people of Northern Ireland to “rise above politics” and toast the collective glory of our athletes, according to the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long.
Ms Long called for the wheels to be put in motion to cement an all-inclusive event for Team GB and Team Ireland competitors.
“This could certainly be used to bring people together,” Ms Long told the Belfast Telegraph.
“Northern Ireland clearly, regardless of Team GB or Team Ireland affiliations, did very well and I think it would be good for morale in Northern Ireland if people could celebrate their local sports people.
“It’s very clear people supported the athletes regardless of their own political allegiances.
“Throughout Northern Ireland there was a lot of goodwill towards the athletes.
“It would be nice if they were able to be recognised together and it would be a good opportunity for people to rise above the politics of the situation and concentrate on the sport.”
Yesterday, thousands lined the streets of Belfast to see Irish boxing bronze medallists Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan show off their gongs.
Similar numbers are expected to take to the streets of Coleraine later today to welcome home rowing heroes Alan Campbell and Peter and Richard Chambers, who contributed bronze and silver medals to Team GB’s haul.
Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin is expected to be among those waiting to greet the trio. Images of tens of thousands of people taking to the streets of cities across the world to greet their athletes has whetted the appetite of those in favour of a unified bash.
So far Stormont has refused to bow to pressure to stage a celebration for all our athletes, which many believe would serve not only as an opportunity to recognise their sporting achievements, but also help to capitalise on the Olympic-fuelled feelgood factor to bolster community relations.
Ms Long said the legacy of the Olympics for Northern Ireland has the potential to transcend sport.
“Sport has the potential to bring people together and the Olympics are a classic example of that where you have people from all over the world, from all cultural and religious backgrounds, competing in that spirit of peace and friendship,” added Ms Long, a former Lord Mayor of Belfast.
“If we can take that away from the Olympics in a Northern Ireland context, I think that would be a good result for us.
“People from Northern Ireland participating from both teams are being recognised across the board, but it would be nice if they could be recognised together.
“It would be great if local people could get involved.
“You can’t get better than five medal winners on your home turf so you’ve got to celebrate that, and I think allowing people to participate in that could be a very positive thing for Northern Ireland.”
On Monday rower Campbell threw his weight behind a united celebration for the public and all Olympians.
“I would love it,” he said.
“It would be great to celebrate Northern Ireland’s contribution to the Olympics as a whole and I would love a big celebration.”
The Sports Minister’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is still declining to comment on whether such an event is in the pipeline.
A spokesman said: “London 2012 is still ongoing.
“Our Olympians have done brilliantly and their medal haul is a very positive accomplishment we can all share.
“Our Paralympians have still to compete and we are mindful of planning an event for all our Olympians and Paralympians together.”
From the Champs-Elysees in Paris to Piarco in the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala, Russia and Holland, the world's sporting stars have been met with joyous scenes as supporters in their home nations flooded airports and city streets to honour their athletes' achievements at the London Games.