Rejected by 13 publishers, gripping book on boxer Eamonn Magee wins second major award
"I’ve been beaten with baseball bats, I’ve had my throat slashed, I’ve been kidnapped and exiled out of the country... I’ve been shot twice, I’ve been in prison and my son’s just been stabbed to death."
Among all that, Eamonn Magee says, he was welterweight champion of the world while drinking the bar dry and doing enough coke to kill a small horse every night.
Magee felt his archaic life story would be better captured on the silver screen - and it may yet be - but author Paul D. Gibson has done a remarkable job of telling it through 314 gripping pages.
The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee captured the eir Sport 'Book of the Year' prize in Dublin, on Monday, and claimed a prestigious double. Just a fortnight earlier, the book had won the William Hill accolade in the UK. Success on both sides of the Irish Sea and a shot in the arm for a book that was rejected more times than an old penny in a vending machine.
"It's important for writers, and important for the people they write about, to have any sort of recognition like this," said Gibson.
"And I'd like to thank Mercier Press. People don't realise, I think it was rejected 13 times by publishers due to it not being seen as a commercially viable project, which is a pretty depressing indictment of the publishing industry.
"So, it is good to see Irish publishers, and Mercier in particular, had the balls to back something and weren't just worried about whether it would hit the magic 10,000 sales."
Having swept to the two leading sport book awards in Ireland and the UK, it may have no trouble surpassing that 10k copies sold mark.
— Inpho Photography (@Inphosports) December 10, 2018
Magee was a star of the Belfast boxing scene and one of Ireland's top welterweight prospects on the world scene. His upbringing, in the Catholic enclave of the Ardoyne, was filled with chaos - men of all ages hauled off under draconian internment measures, houses burnt to the ground, neighbours and friends shot by British soldiers and paramilitaries - but boxing gave him a grounding, of sorts.
'The Lost Soul' provides a stunning historical sweep on a time of utter terror and families trying their best to get by against odds that were stacked against them.
Gibson and Magee first discussed the idea of a book by phone, in 2015, and met soon after in Madden's bar in Belfast. The retired boxer is an alcoholic so it surely must have planted a seed of doubt in Gibson's mind, that day, as his proposed subject sipped away and his tongue got looser. This would be no easy story to tell, but both left their first meeting convinced it had to be told.
"Boxers naturally provide great human studies," said Gibson. "Out of all sportspersons, they are the ones that need to sell their personalities to a certain extent so they are naturally much more open. I knew I'd get the truth out of Eamonn, and I knew that the truth hadn't yet been told.
"And I'm from Belfast and I've been involved in the boxing scene a long time. I'm probably 10 years younger than Eamonn but I lived through the tail-end of The Troubles. I thought I knew what life might have been like in Ardoyne in the 1970s and 80s, and I knew it would provide an incredible back-drop to tell the story."
'My heart was broken'
To Magee, he was not just interested in someone recounting or packaging his stories. He wanted the truth on paper, in stark black on white, as tough as that might prove to bear.
"It's been hard," he said, "sitting down. There's been more crying, more happiness, more sadness... It's not a story, it's a fact. I just wanted my story to be told right...
"It took me about three months to read it, after I got the first draft... I was crying that much; my heart was broken. It's hard to read about yourself, trust me."
Asked what it meant to him to win the award, Magee raised his cap to thank all that were involved in getting his story out there. That hat was also raised to the others that made the three-book shortlist - Tony O’Reilly with Declan Lynch (Tony 10) and Andy Lee with Niall Kelly (Fighter).
This is the fourth year of the eir sport Sports Book of the Year. Previous winners include John Leonard’s renowned ‘Dub Sub Confidential’, Kieran Donaghy’s ‘What Do You Think of That’ and ‘The Choice’ by Philly McMahon.
SPORTSJOE'S TOP BOOKS OF THE YEAR
- 'The Obsession' by Sean Cavanagh with Damian Lawlor
- 'The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee' by Paul D. Gibson
- '110 Per Cent Legend - Tony Keady Biography' - by Liam Hayes
- 'Fighter' - Andy Lee with Niall Kelly
- 'Tony 10' - Tony O'Reilly with Declan Lynch