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Armagh-geddon: the boxers fighting to save lives from suicide

This Saturday night the gloves will be on for 32 men and women as they raise funds for a cause close to many of their hearts.

By Ivan Little

People from Co Armagh are taking the fight against suicide into the boxing ring soon on a night they're calling Armagh-geddon. Most of the 32 men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes have never thrown a punch in anger before but they've been inspired to pull on the boxing gloves to raise money for a suicide awareness charity.

A number of the would-be Carl Framptons have been motivated to take part in the Niamh Louise Foundation fundraiser through personal loss of loved ones by suicide.

But even though they may not all have been directly affected by suicide, virtually every one of boxers knows people who are victims.

For suicide, which is no respecter of class or creed, has become an ever-growing nightmare across Northern Ireland.

Earlier this month the new Stormont Health Minister, Jim Wells, told a suicide prevention conference in Belfast it had been estimated that 7,000 people in the province had taken their own lives since 1970 - over twice the number of people who died during the Troubles.

He added: "Academics would conservatively estimate that each one of these deaths closely affects another six people. Therefore over 40,000 people here have been bereaved by suicide in the last 45 years."

Mr Wells said he believed the Government's investment in suicide prevention was saving lives and that a new strategy would continue to focus on raising awareness, training, research, crisis support and counselling. Which is where suicide awareness charities like the Niamh Louise Foundation - which has centres in Tyrone and Armagh - and the Belfast-based PIPS and Survivors of Suicide organisations come in.

As he watched the 32 boxers going through a rigorous training programme in a gym just outside Armagh, James McBennett, whose 15-year-old step-daughter Niamh's suicide was the catalyst for the formation of the charity set up in her name, told me fundraising events like Armagh-geddon were crucial to the development of the foundation's work.

"It's particularly apt because we are putting a lot of emphasis nowadays in our associations with sporting organisations on the relationship between physical and mental health.

"So by training here over an eight-week period the boxers are keeping their physical and mental health right at the same time," he says.

To some the combination of boxing and suicide prevention might seem like an odd alliance but the foundation is convinced the charity night in the City Hotel in Armagh can help spread the word about what they do.

"It can also increase people's knowledge of our work because there'll be over 1,000 people there to see the fights," says James.

"They'll go home and tell their friends and family about our efforts to tackle suicide.

"The more people who know where we are and what our aims are, the better."

The financial spin-off will also be invaluable for the foundation with an expected five figure sum going into their coffers.

"There's been a lot of suicides in the Armagh area and the money will complement the services that we have here," adds James.

Liam White (34), one of the organisers of Armagh-geddon, says: "We've helped charities in the past but it's particularly pleasing to assist the Niamh Louise Foundation, which is on our own doorstep.

"Officials from the charity brought us down to their offices to tell us about their work which is really incredible. I know suicide is happening everywhere around here but it's something people don't really know enough about.

"I'm lucky in that I haven't lost anyone close to me but some of the boxers here have been bereaved."

Even so, Liam was still surprised at how easy it was to get volunteers for a scrap.

"The response has been amazing. We insisted that participants had to be over 18 but we've got boxers here who are well into their forties," he says.

It may be fun for many of the pugilists, but it's serious fun.

"The training is intensive, two or three nights a week," says Liam. "Commonwealth bronze medal winner Sean Duffy is putting everyone through tough workouts at the Setanta gym and he's also had them at Keady Boxing Club for sparring sessions."

On the night a doctor will be at ringside and volunteer ambulance crews will be on standby to ensure that no-one is put in any danger during the fights, which will consist of three 90 second rounds. Experienced boxing officials will scrutinise the proceedings.

It wouldn't be a boxing contest, of course, without the fighters revelling in macho nicknames - even the girls.

A poster for Armagh-geddon has photos of all the participants whose names range from The Cobra and The Warrior, to The Merciless, The Hammer and, even more worryingly, The Assassin.

"We made them all up for a laugh," admits Liam. "We hope they'll still be smiling on the night."

Tickets for Armagh-geddon are available from the City Hotel, Armagh, visit www.armaghcityhotel.com

'My brother's death came right out of the blue'

Caolan Brady will be thinking about his brother Sean og as he steps into the ring at the Armagh-geddon fight night. For eight years ago Sean og took his own life after a night out.

He named his five-year-old son after his brother. He says:

Caolan Brady will be thinking about his brother Sean og as he steps into the ring at the Armagh-geddon fight night. For eight years ago Sean og took his own life after a night out.

He named his five-year-old son after his brother.

He says: "Sean og and I did everything together. We walked home together that night and he was as happy as Larry. He didn't appear depressed and I called for him the next morning but he was dead. It was right out of the blue. It seems to me like it was only yesterday."

Caolan (32) has been helping suicide awareness charities ever since his brother passed away. "I've even gone skydiving to raise money for the PIPS organisation in Belfast, and I can't do enough. Sean og was a good person and a great sportsman. He captained our local soccer team and he played Gaelic football too."

Caolan, who's been dubbed 'Bone-crusher' by the organisers, didn't envisage how hard the training would be for the boxing night. "The sparring at Keady boxing club has been really hard. People have been coming out with busted noses and the like. Everyone's taking it seriously because you don't want to lose. You'd never live it down. I've been having a few sleepless nights thinking about what could go wrong.

"I've been talking the talk about the fight and I don't want to get knocked out in the first round," adds Caolan, who admitted that underneath the bravado it would be an emotional night.

"My parents are coming and so is my brother's girlfriend. So Sean og will obviously be on all our minds."

Meet the boxers taking part:

  • Sean Duffy, who’s training the 32 boxers for Armagh-geddon, won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and is a former sparring partner of world champion Carl Frampton.  “They’re a great bunch here,” he says. “They’ve stuck to the training well. I’ve been showing them how to defend themselves because anyone can throw a punch but not everyone can get out of the way of one.” Four girls are among the boxers, and Sean says women’s boxing is no longer dismissed by men as a source of amusement. “Katie Taylor changed all that by winning the Gold for Ireland at the Olympics,” says Sean, a freelance personal trainer from Co Armagh who boxes out of the Holy Trinity Club in Belfast, where he has had all too close experiences of suicides. “Sadly, there have been quite a few boys associated with boxing who’ve taken their lives. I’m only too happy to do something which might increase awareness of suicide. It’s a bit like cancer — everybody knows someone who has been affected by it.”
  • Connie ‘Whirlwind’ Boylan from Armagh lost a cousin to suicide. “He was only a young man in his 20s, so it’s something that’s close to my heart,” she says. Connie has two children of her own, a girl of 11 and a boy of seven. The tragedy happened 10 years ago and Connie said she had only recently learnt about the work done by suicide awareness charities like the Niamh Louise Foundation. “And since enlisting for the charity night I’ve discovered more and more of what they do,” she says. “I wanted to help them in their work for people at risk, especially young people.”
  • The sweat is dripping off Darryl ‘The Driver’ Conn as he takes a break from training. Darryl, who is from Armaghbreague, just outside Keady, got his nickname not for any nefarious or hardman reasons but because he is … a driving instructor. And boxing has been a steep learning curve for the 38-year-old, who’s fighting for the first time. But it’s not the first time he’s got the boxing gloves on for a charity fight. However, that fight night was unfortunately stopped — by fighting outside the ring. “That was in another part of the country, altogether,” he says.  “Just before I got my chance to box, spectators fell out about a decision and the whole event was abandoned.” Darryl has been involved in fundraising for the Niamh Louise Foundation before, supporting his local pub who’ve collected thousands of pounds in memory of owner Joe O’Toole took his own life eight years ago.
  • Brenda ‘Ferocious’ McCormack, from Ballyhegan, has been involved in a number of charity fights but the training has almost been a walk in the park compared to what Sean Duffy is putting the Armagh-geddon fighters through. says: “He really does push us to the limit,” she says. “If we’re late for training he has punishments for us. It’s all been about fitness for six or seven weeks. And we’ve done more of that than hitting the punchbag. But it’s been very enjoyable, in a strange sort of way.” Brenda, who plays Gaelic football for her local team, says she would like to take part in boxing competitions for real in the future. As for the serious business of fundraising for the charity, Brenda says she has known people who have died by suicide. “It’s rife around here, especially among young people,” she says. “There’s a lot of peer pressure, drugs, alcohol and so on.”
  • Paul ‘Golden Boy’ Donnelly is fighting one of his best friends in Armagh-geddon. But he rubbishes any notion that Franko ‘Lights Out’ Oliver would be going through the motions. “He’s told me he won’t be pulling any punches. And he’s even talking about introducing a couple of moves that you see in the wrestling,” he says. One of Paul’s closest friends died by suicide. And he knows a lot more victims. “I think the work that the Niamh Louise Foundation do is invaluable,” he says. “And if the money raised by the fights can help save a life than that will make our efforts even more worthwhile.”
  • Barbara ‘The Killer’ McGeown, from Armagh, has been a kickboxer in the past but reckons that what she’s training for now is even more difficult.  She says: “Three of my friends have taken their own lives inside the last four years, so I know that more needs to be done to eradicate the absolute scourge of suicide.”

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