14 January 1999 Edition
Pulling no punches
Boxing has always been a route via which young men from deprived backgrounds make it out of the ghetto, but in Irish boxer Francis Barrett's case, the reality is more complicated. Training in the spartan surroundings of the unserviced Hillside Traveller site in Galway under the paternal instruction of local barber Chick Gillen, Barrett made it to the 1996 Olympic Games and even carried the Tricolour at the opening ceremony. Despite his success, however, he is still refused from pubs and nightclubs at home because he is a Traveller.
Southpaw is his story, a fly-on-the-wall style documentary tracing his effort to make it to the 1996 Olympics and his ongoing attempt to repeat the feat for Sydney 2000. There is great sporting drama here, as Francis wins some and loses others. There is ample evidence of the strength of the ties that bind Francie to his family and fellow Travellers and of the depth of the relationship between the young boxer and his mentor and trainer, Gillen.
Barrett emerges as a likeable young man, and one who, despite the obvious financial attraction of the professional circuit, has so far remained true to his amateur dream of Olympic glory and true to his Traveller heritage.
On one level, this movie, which features commentary from leading Irish sports journalists, is an emotive evocation of courage, dignity and struggle, but on another, it is an indictment of Irish society and its discriminatory attitudes and practices against an underprivileged and marginalised minority.
Southpaw is the official selection for Robert Redford's 1999 Sundance Festival, a testament to the story-telling talent of the filmmakers and the captivating power of their subject material.
To watch it is to be both inspired by the achievements of a remarkable young man and to be ashamed to live in a society where the much lauded 100,000 welcomes are routinely and systematically denied to our own.
By Martin Spain
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