A typical late-summer afternoon in Ireland: mid-60s, windy, sunny, cloudy and a 99 percent chance of rain. I am in Mullingar, a town of 20,000 in Westmeath County, 50 kilometers from the geographic center of the Emerald Isle. Westmeath is not known for rolling hills or verdant landscapes about which Yeats penned. There is no charming harbor or seaside vista as there is in Killarney or Kinsale. The land here is flat, the terrain the color of straw, and it’s about as picturesque as the outskirts of Toledo. Thankfully I am not here for the scenery but to meet a boxer, a Mullingar-born-and-raised fighter who may become Ireland’s next great champion.
A little past noon that boxer whips his blue BMW into the parking lot. He is John Joe Nevin, a winner of seven Irish amateur national titles and a silver medal in the 2012 London Olympics. The driver’s window lowers. I see a warm countenance. A gap-toothed smile. The unblemished face of a camera-flash-quick counterpuncher. “Hop in the back with the lads,” John Joe chirps merrily.
The car is stuffy and hot, the air rife with Axe body spray. “So,” continues John Joe, introducing his very own E, Turtle and Johnny Drama, “dis is my brother Paddy Boy, dis is my cousin David and dis is my other cousin, Joe.” Like John Joe, they have crew cuts, sharp jawlines and garish tattoos. Unlike John Joe, they are not merry. They sit with legs spread and arms folded, saying nothing. While John Joe, 26, has fought across the globe from Kansas City to Kazakhstan, the others are far less comfortable around strangers.
The chilly reception isn’t surprising. John Joe and the lads aren’t your typical Irish but travelers, also known—in varying degrees of derogatory parlance—as pavees, gypsies, knackers, tinkers and pikeys. Numbering an estimated 29,500 throughout Ireland, travelers are an ethnic minority who, for centuries, roamed the country and earned their livelihoods plying various trades and doing odd jobs. That has changed. Most of today’s travelers have swapped their caravans for houses and have earned—fairly or not—a reputation for engaging in family feuds, drinking, bare-knuckle fighting, mooching off the state and making money in less honorable ways (stealing, scams, etc.). Internationally, thanks to Guy Ritchie’s 2000 film Snatch and the U.K.-U.S. TV series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, travelers are regarded with amusement, viewed as an odd and anachronistic lot prone to scrapping, bad manners, petty crime and a tragic fashion sense. On their own soil, perceptions are far less kind. The non–bleeding hearts, i.e., the majority of the Irish, fall into two camps. Some look at travelers as decent folks with a hearty supply of bad eggs, while others consider them a blight on society on par with, say, locusts or smallpox.
We head southwest on the N52 toward Tullamore, where a light afternoon workout awaits. During the 45-minute drive John Joe muses about his professional future. On Saint Patrick’s Day in 2014, he made his victorious pro debut in Boston, and the significance wasn’t lost on him. “I want to make a big impression in the U.S.,” he says. “Build a following in the Northeast, get the Irish crowds behind me. Make people remember my name.” The boxer weighs the pros and cons of elite promoters such as Top Rank, Golden Boy and DiBella Entertainment. He stresses the need for a sound career strategy en route to his first title, talks about the marketing savvy of middleweight “Irish” John Duddy, a popular regular at Madison Square Garden. “You’re from New York, eh?” John Joe asks me. “Must have been something with that 9/11. They ever get them Eiffel Towers fixed?”
But if Nevin wants to one day fight for a title in the world’s most famous arena, he’ll have to overcome more than just dangerous opponents. He must first survive the traveler life, one defined by startling prejudice and discrimination, poverty, soaring mortality rates, high incidence of suicide, poor health, long-standing feuds with neighboring traveler clans and the often Shakespearean complications of one’s own family. Exhibit A? As John Joe parks the car and marches across the Tullamore Aura Leisure Center lot, I notice he still has a slight limp. Last April, he made national Irish headlines with an altercation in Mullingar. Both his legs were broken. With a golf club. “I remember blood everywhere and trying to push the bone back under my skin,” he says. “I was sure my career was over.” The assailant? Not a mugger or a madman. It was his cousin, also named John Joe Nevin.
An hour north of Mullingar in the city of Cavan, just above a carpet and furniture warehouse, sits the Cavan Boxing Club. For more than a decade John Joe has made the commute here three, four, sometimes six days a week. Normally a trip to the gym is as routine as brushing his teeth. But today is different. It is a big day. An important day. For the first time since his legs have healed John Joe will step back into the ring.
The Cavan Boxing Club looks like most other boxing gyms. Walls covered in fight posters: Mayweather, Ali, Andy “the Quiet Man” Murray and John Joe Nevin. Dangling heavy bags, speed bags, double-end bags and a box full of used gloves, headgear and protective cups. Two rings covered in blue canvas. John Joe, sporting a yellow Brazilian Football Confederation team shirt, long green shorts and red 12-ounce gloves, slips through the ropes of one ring and begins loosening up. He is a small five-foot-eight, short-legged and long-armed, having won his silver medal at 56 kilograms (123 pounds). Paddy Boy—a two-time national amateur champion (under 16 and under 21)—dons a pair of mitts and joins his brother.
“Paddy’s mad to get me back sparring,” says John Joe with a grin. “He knows I’m rusty and he can catch me with a few shots.”
The bell rings. John Joe moves cautiously on his rehabbed legs. His punches lack timing and purpose and the sound against the leather mitts is not a sharp crack but a muffled thud. Their father, Martin, with a shaved head and prominent paunch, leans on the top rope and watches without worry. He has seen his eldest son through more than 250 amateur fights. Although proud, he takes no credit. “Don’t know where he got it,” says the 46-year-old. “I never laced ’em up myself.”
Standing a few feet outside the ropes, another man watches intently, his own hands encased in red-and-black pads etched with BELFAST BOXING. Brian McKeown runs the gym and has trained John Joe for 13 years. With a white beard, broad back and gray-blue eyes, the 67-year-old Northern Ireland native exudes the strength and vitality of a ship captain or a Mafia don. In a heavy brogue, he hints about his past—professional boxing aspirations, involvement in the Troubles, a bit of hard time. He’s the sort of man who, if he said he’d bitch-slapped Gerry Adams, I’d believe him.
His life now, however, revolves solely around boxing and his prized pupil. “I first met John Joe when he was 12 years old,” says McKeown. “He had talent and was eager to fight, but he was unnaturally small. He was willing to give weight, height and age, but I was reluctant to do it because older boys were stronger, more mature and hit a lot harder. I was afraid John Joe might take a lot of shots and lose his appetite for it.”
Yet John Joe had been feasting off bigger boys since his first bout at the age of eight. “The lad was 11 years old and had six kilos on me, but I was mad to get at him,” recalls John Joe. Martin had bought his son long baggy shorts à la flamboyant former champion Prince Naseem Hamed. John Joe lost the bout but discovered his calling. “Each time he put me down, I got back up and did the Hamed shuffle,” he says.
The Mullingar traveler won his first Irish National title at the age of 11. After repeating four of the following five years (his only speed bump at the under-15 nationals) he got a call from “the boys,” a.k.a. the Dublin-based High Performance national team. Their offer? A 5,000-euro yearly stipend and a spot on the junior national squad. He didn’t disappoint. By 2008 John Joe had won his first senior national title and qualified in Pescara, Italy for the Beijing Olympics.
An eventual second-round loss in China only fanned John Joe’s fire for the 2012 Games. In London, however, there was reason for concern, namely, a brutal lineup of opponents. John Joe won his first two fights handily to set up a bout against Oscar Valdez, one of Mexico’s top prospects. “I was pretty worried,” admits John Joe. “He was a pressure fighter. Big hitter. Four Irish boxers had tried him in the past and lost.” John Joe didn’t (he won 19–13). After another decision over reigning bantamweight world champion Lázaro Álvarez of Cuba, John Joe found himself three rounds away from an Olympic gold medal.
Standing in his way was the U.K.’s Luke Campbell. “I’d beaten your man before,” says John Joe. “And not only beaten him. I made fun of him in the ring.” But the Irishman admits he took his eye off the ball and lost 14–11. Disappointed, yes. Deterred? Not a chance. The next summer he steamrolled the European Amateur Championships in Minsk, and that October he announced he was turning pro.
After one round of pads, McKeown lumbers into the ring and takes Paddy Boy’s place. “Head up, son,” he instructs, catching combinations with ease. “Drop the shoulder, roll the right hand and finish with the hook.” The bell rings, ending round two. Sweat dripping down his nose, John Joe leans his heavy arms on the rope. McKeown isn’t worried about endurance so much as weight transfer. “Can you put the weight on the leg? Is that a problem?”
I ask McKeown if there was ever a seminal, holy-shit moment when he knew John Joe was special. He mentions the time John Joe, as a 16-year-old, beat a man nine years his senior. He also mentions the qualifier in Italy where John Joe rallied in the last round to make the Olympics. But McKeown settles on the 2008 senior Irish lightweight title fight against Ulster vet Ryan Lindberg. “Lindberg was the defending champ and a top-class international fighter,” says McKeown. “John Joe beat him with double and triple scores. That made me sit back and say, ‘What the fuck have I got here?’ ”
But as McKeown will tell you, the surprise wasn’t so much John Joe’s talent but that the then 18-year-old was still fighting. Irish boxing gyms are brimming with young gypsy lads eager to box. For them, learning a right-cross, left-hook combination usually takes precedence over the multiplication tables. “For fuck’s sake, I’m surrounded by ’em,” says the trainer, laughing. “I’d say 50 percent of the kids who come here are travelers. Good lads. Have a chip on their shoulder. And I expect ’em to come, because fighting is such a part of traveler culture.” By the time they’re in their late teens, however, marriage, kids and social lives draw travelers away. Some have managed to stick with the sweet science, including light-middleweight Francie Barrett (17–3) and heavyweight Tyson Fury, currently ranked number three by The Ring magazine. “I followed a lot of my cousins into boxing,” says John Joe. “As we got older, they went to the streets—smoking, drinking, girls. I had my eye on something bigger.”
He adds, with no shortage of sarcasm, “They’re all living the dream now. It’s just not my dream.”
Mist falls on a raw evening as I approach the Mullingar Greyhound Stadium. As a sound rule of life, one should never pass up an evening at the dog track. I cough up my 10-euro admission fee and meet John Joe, Paddy Boy and Mullingar native “Big” John Lynch, an indefatigably cheerful tree surgeon who claims to have set the world’s record for the number of Christmas trees chopped down in less than two minutes. John Joe is on the phone. “Dad, I parked over in the lot of dat furniture store,” he says. The store’s neighborhood, and that of the track, is a bit unsavory. “Could ya drive by and check on it in a bit? Tanks.”
We head upstairs and discover a crowded bar and restaurant and a reasonably well-heeled local crowd that includes a bridal party. Five minutes to post in the second race and I lay a 20 on the caramel-colored long shot, number six. He comes in last. John Joe and Paddy Boy, wagering conservatively, win 12 euros on the favorite. John Lynch buys a round of beers and we spend the next several hours speculating on the soundness of canines and the fitness of the bridal party. A fine Mullingar night out.
Slowly, however, I realize that everything isn’t so fine. Here is John Joe Nevin, Olympic star (no everyday occurrence—Ireland has only 28 medals in its Olympic history) and hometown hero. He should be fighting off the fans, yet no one approaches him. No one congratulates him. Nary a handshake or a photo request. It’s not that he’s unrecognized. I see the whispers, the nudges, the furtive glances. It’s just life for a traveler in a country where, according to a 2007–2008 study, 60 percent of the population wouldn’t want a traveler as a family member, 40 percent wouldn’t hire one and nearly 20 percent would deny travelers citizenship.
None of this is news. “Prejudice is a way of life for a traveler,” explains McKeown. “John Joe has realized it’s a handicap he must overcome. For him to attain what he did is amazing.” Fame doesn’t seem to matter. Nor does representing one’s country. Fifteen minutes before his semifinal Olympic bout against the Cuban Álvarez, John Joe’s phone rang. “Normally I wouldn’t answer,” he explains. “But I thought it was Father King, the priest in Dublin who calls before every fight to give me a blessing.” It was no invocation but his uncle Michael calling from Mullingar. A group of 30 travelers—John Joe’s extended family—had shown up at a popular pub to watch the bout, only to be told that John Joe’s parents and Paddy Boy were welcome, but the rest were not. The basis? They were travelers. “They had to go to a pub six kilometers out of town,” says John Joe. He does little to hide his disgust and anger. “These pubs in Mullingar had been using my name to promote business, then they don’t let in my family. It’s not fair.”
The incident made national news as another example of blatant discrimination. Not that it made a difference. Shortly after John Joe won the silver medal, the owner of a popular Dublin restaurant sent a tweet that the boxer’s relatives would soon be coming for the lead and copper. Upon John Joe’s return to Mullingar after the Olympics, thousands of people lined the streets for the celebration, yet not a single hotel would rent his family members a room. And there was the occasion in 2013 when the boxer returned from winning his European championship. When he sidled up to the bar in one of Mullingar’s tonier establishments, the barman stated bluntly, “We can’t serve you.” Then there was the night in Dublin when they went for a bite at a pub and were refused, as McKeown will attest. “They said he had on trackie bottoms, so he couldn’t be served,” recalls the trainer. “Make no mistake. That’s just an excuse.”
Suffering discrimination hurts, even for someone who doles out punishment for a living. “Some people might deserve to be put out but not all of us,” says John Joe. “Not all should be painted with the one brush. All people should be treated the same.” Any traveler will tell you the problem is only getting worse in Ireland. Complaints to councilmen fall on deaf ears. “Ali winning a medal helped change things for the better for blacks in America,” claims the boxer. “Nothing’s changing for travelers here.”
The dog track outing ends. Despite dropping 75 euros on those mutts, we all have, as the saying goes in these parts, quite a crack. John Joe continues to be friendly, genuine and funny. Paddy Boy, once defrosted, is equally kind and reveals a dry wit. As we part ways for the night I’m starting to think that perhaps John Joe and his kinfolk might be exaggerating a bit, blowing things out of proportion. I flag down a cab. The driver is a bespectacled avuncular-looking fellow in the neighborhood of 50 years old. “In from the States?” he inquires merrily.
“Yes, sir,” I reply. “Here doing a story on travelers.”
The cabbie’s smile disappears.
“Any experience with them?” I ask.
“They are hateful people,” he states coldly. “The only good traveler is a dead traveler. If I could have all the traveler boys castrated and all the girls’ tubes tied I would. They deal drugs, contribute nothing, and their fighting is ruining this country.”
“Even John Joe Nevin?”
“He’s called on me a few times. He’s a nice fellow. But the rest of them?”
Forty of “them” have convened at Martin Nevin’s house. Unwelcome in town, Martin wanted a place to have a proper pint, so he built his own pub in the backyard: two wood-paneled rooms complete with pool table, bar, several small tables, old-school jukebox and dartboard. The walls are covered with hundreds of photos of friends and family, a handful of boxing title belts and a sizable tribute to David Nevin, John Joe’s cousin and a talented amateur boxer who died of a heart attack in 2012 at the age of 25. This is the Irish equivalent of an American man-cave, the major difference being that here the TV is a 32-inch afterthought tucked into a corner. Travelers don’t huddle around the boob tube. They banter, play games and drink. And drink. And drink. It’s only five o’clock and already I tally 300 empty Carlsbergs.
This crowd, predominately male, under 40 and related by blood and/or marriage, doesn’t drink lattes. They do not go to spin class. They’re a hardscrabble lot, 84 percent of whom are unemployed and only 30 percent of whom will live past the age of 60, according to national statistics. The men are all named John Joe, Paddy, Huey, David, Michael or Christy. They all sport crew cuts, goatees and large tattoos bearing either the family name or that of a wife, a son or fallen kin. Travelers are, above all, about family. Nevins pride themselves on the scope and closeness of their clan. Martin, one of 18 siblings, boasts there are 400 Nevins living in the Mullingar area and upward of 1,500 worldwide. “Family is the most important thing in life,” explains John Joe as he sips a beer. “I don’t go a day without seeing everyone.”
While the love of family abounds, the love of a reporter asking questions and scribbling notes does not. Outsiders are anomalies in traveler communities, and for the most part I am received as warmly as an IRS auditor. I don’t fear for my life, but if some of the revelers have a few too many, I don’t rule out bodily harm.
I stick close to John Joe. Despite his fame and experience in the outside world, he is treated, at least within these walls, no differently from anyone else. With good reason. Aside from boxing, he has led a typical traveler life. He dropped out of school at 14. He married as a teenager and has a four-year-old son named, unsurprisingly, Martin. He lives in an estate house in west Mullingar among other travelers. When I ask if he has ever considered moving (the prejudice, the golf club attack, etc.) he looks at me as though I’ve suggested he become Protestant. “Move? Never,” he says. “This is my home.”
I venture for a bathroom break, the toilet being enclosed in a small shed in the driveway. On my way back I’m corralled by Martin, who introduces me to cousin Ollie, an olive-skinned man built like a bank vault. I have heard of Ollie. In an off-the-record conversation, a veteran Mullingar Garda described Ollie as the most dangerous Nevin and possibly the most feared man in Mullingar. When I mention this, Ollie is pleased. He freely offers an example of his gift. “Last fight I had was against Hughie Fury, cousin of Tyson. About six-foot-six and 20 stone,” says Ollie of his 280-pound foe. “And God as my witness he didn’t do nothing to me. I gave him a punch and broke all his inside teeth.” I inquire about his nose, which looks rather off-kilter. “I broke my nose once but not with a man’s fist,” he says. “Was with a pool ball.”
The two men then turn to a more serious matter, one involving John Joe. (At this point I must address the issue of elocution. Traveler conversations are, by and large, difficult to follow: See Pitt, Brad as Mickey O’Neil in Snatch. And when they get their load on, they sound like drunken Swedes mumbling in their sleep. I can piece together this “serious matter” only after listening to the recording a dozen times.) A cousin of theirs, a boxer, had slipped into John Joe’s weight class, and the two fought. John Joe could easily have stopped the lad but didn’t. Brought him “nice and handy” through the rounds. Yet for some reason the boy’s uncle was mad—he wanted the boy to win. The following Thursday all the parties involved were going to be at the same wedding, and Martin expressed concern.
“Won’t be a problem,” mumbles Ollie.
“Don’t want a problem,” mumbles Martin.
“I’ll make damn sure of it. Have it cleared. I’ll personally see it.”
This conflict, to an outsider like myself, sounds absurd, pointless, much ado about nothing. But within the traveler community there is a minority, a very loud, vocal, persistent group that gives the Palestinians and Israelis a run for their money when it comes to fueling conflict. There are feuds between various traveler families. There are quarrels within traveler families. There are incidents between travelers and settled people. The reasons are often a mystery. The by-products are not. And the very public and headline-catching incidents haven’t been the best PR for travelers.
Google “Irish traveler fighting.” In addition to thousands of hours of video of bare-knuckle fights and traveler lads calling out other traveler lads, you’ll find a variety of colorful links such as “Travelers fight in a church with slash hooks at a funeral” and “Irish travelers fighting in shopping center” and “Armed Gardaí at scene as fight between rival travelers reignites this morning.” The repeat offenders are often familiar traveler families: Nevin, Myers, Dinnegan, Joyce and Quinn McDonagh. John Joe knows very well of his extended family’s involvement. In 2009 a judge called Patrick Nevin “the villain of the peace” and gave the then 20-year-old a two-year sentence for a broad-daylight beating. Christy “Ditsy” Nevin was the alleged ringleader in a 2007 attack on a family home and the infamous 2008 riot that involved 200 people in the Mullingar Dalton Park housing estate. (According to reports, the feud began over unpaid bets on a bare-knuckle fight.)
I believe John Joe when he says he’s never seen a bare-knuckle fight in person and hasn’t taken part in any skullduggery or violence. Still, he knows firsthand how one can become a casualty of tribal jealousy and family squabbles. Enough time has passed that the young fighter doesn’t get emotional when talking about the brown, uneven inch-and-a-half-long scar on his right leg where the bone sheared straight through the skin.
That Saturday morning John Joe and Paddy Boy had driven to the nearby Ardleigh Crescent housing estate to try to settle an ongoing dispute between their cousin John Joe Nevin and his father (their uncle), Michael. A fracas broke out. John Joe the cousin claims he feared for the safety of his wife and infant. John Joe the boxer asserts the savage golf club assault was unprovoked and based purely on jealousy. Whatever the case, the fighter obviously got the worst of it. Paddy Boy grabbed a toy hurley stick from the car and came to his brother’s aid. The whole event lasted maybe three minutes but left a bloodied and broken boxer en route to the hospital with his career hanging in the balance.
“At first I went into a deep depression,” admits John Joe. These days he feels the experience made him stronger as a fighter. “I cherish boxing now.”
As for his cousin? “He’ll have to meet his maker one day. Get his judgment then,” says John Joe. After nine months, the two made peace over a pint and dropped the case. “It was just the right thing to do.”
Fore! Welcome to the Mullingar Golf Club, a 6,685-yard, par 72 course created by famous Scottish designer James Braid. Stroll around the clubhouse and you’ll find a plethora of stuffy old-school country club types straight out of Caddyshack. A perfect place for a couple of travelers, right? Well, the lads are here—John Joe, Paddy Boy, cousin David and other cousin Joe—participating in the Irish Autism Action charity outing.
I catch up with their foursome on the fourth tee (they started at the third hole), adjacent to the clubhouse. While other golfers are decked out in spikes, khakis and argyle patterns, the lads prefer more personal fashion statements. John Joe wears a black polo, jeans and sneakers. Paddy Boy and David are in sneakers and sweatshirts. In black dress slacks, black shoes and a translucent white button-down, Joe looks like a waiter, his massive NEVIN tattoo clearly visible across his back.
Paddy Boy is the first to tee off. In all my years I’ve never before witnessed a golf stance like his. Hands a foot apart on the club, he crouches low, as if hovering over a toilet seat. He swings, and the ball—not a shocker—trickles a few feet. “Fuck’s sake!” he cries. John Joe is next. As he tees up, a handful of young boys by the clubhouse recognize him and excitedly begin to take photos and shoot video. The boxer takes a massive hack and the ball bounces a paltry 30 yards. “Don’t put that video on YouTube, lads,” says John Joe with a chuckle.
The four are a golf course’s worst nightmare. They leave a trail of unreplaced divots and unraked sand traps. They walk across active fairways and hit into a foursome ahead of them. The damp, blustery conditions and aggressive black flies don’t help their play. Frustrations arise.
“You can’t use tees on your second shot. That’s disqualification.”
“What’d you score? I lost count.”
“The two lads are cheating the most.”
“I just want to win one hole.”
“Boxing is way easier than golf.”
After five holes, the lads call it quits and head for the clubhouse. With all the golfers still on the course, the dining room is empty and the four of them pull up chairs by the bar. The place is posh, formal, and the stern faces of former club chairmen stare down at us from the walls. I wonder what they’d think of travelers in their midst. The bartender happily serves John Joe and his kin their pints. Brings them their food without an iota of indignation.
I ask John Joe about his future, whether he thinks a title can help bridge the gap between the travelers and the settled people in Mullingar. “I don’t know if it would,” he replies. “But if I become world champion I’ll just buy my own bar in town. Show everyone up. And I’ll let everyone and anyone in.”