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A Round With the 'Southpaw'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2000


    'Southpaw' Irish boxer Francis Barrett's story is told in a moving documentary. (Shooting Gallery 2000)
Francis Barrett's dream of boxing glory can be found in any run-down gym in almost any corner of the world. But in "Southpaw," there's something special about the Irish fighter's unassuming intensity.

In Liam McGrath's short (79 minutes), no-frills documentary, financed by Irish and British television, 19-year-old Barrett is radiantly simpatico. It doesn't take 10 seconds to like the pug-handsome, squinty-eyed light welterweight; his Irish brogue is thicker than peat and his absolute belief in himself is unshakable. In the thumpings of his chest, you can almost hear myth bumping against hokum.

What could be cornier, after all, than the rough-and-tumble, naively spirited lad trying to box his way out of poverty? And yet, what could be more mythic? There's nothing ironic about Barrett's desire to fight at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He makes myth win out over corniness. His dream is the real thing. Barrett, who did represent Ireland in Atlanta, is also a Traveller, the wandering community known more commonly as Gypsies.

When we first meet him in the late 1990s, he's living in a Traveller site in Galway, Ireland, a small area just outside town that is cluttered with trailers – or caravans, as they're called in Great Britain and Ireland.

But when civic action forces out the itinerant Travellers in August 1996, Barrett moves to London. While living there he marries girlfriend Kathleen McDonagh and trains for the British Amateur Welterweight title.

Before leaving Ireland for London, however, he makes that trip to Atlanta. In one of the most emotional sections of the movie, Barrett (who bore his country's flag at the opening ceremonies) takes on the world's best, watched at home by cheering Travellers and other Galway residents.

Clearly, the Atlanta visit is a matter of immense pride for Barrett, a boy whose training facilities consist of a trailer gym and one punching bag.

But what's most touching about Barrett – and this movie – is his loyalty toward his own people and friends.

He's umbilically bound to Chick Gillen, the barber and amateur boxing coach who turned him into a contender. Despite advice from others to upgrade his trainer, Francis insists on staying with Gillen, even if it means zero improvement. In fact, when he wins an event in England, his first thought isn't to enjoy the congratulations of his English coach; it's to push coins into a pay phone and call Chick right away. He tells Chick to pass on his best to Barrett's mother. Barrett's connection with Chick and his desire to fight for the Travellers are the things that make you remember him.

Director McGrath, whose "Boys for Rent" and "Male Rape" have done well on the international film festival circuit, gives us the bare essentials. It makes us hungry for more. We learn about the social stigma of being a Traveller in Ireland, but only superficially. Apparently, Barrett is only embraced by his wider, local community after becoming a nationally known athlete. But in this short film, there's little time for specifics. What was his childhood like? What traumatic incidents does Barrett recall?

For that matter, what is his day like? What's his training regime? What does he do besides box? What about his new bride and his family? Why do we spend little time with them? This is a movie full of ellipses and it's bound, I expect, by television time requirements.

The story is not yet over. Barrett is still dreaming of fighting at the Sydney Olympics, as an amateur. After that, apparently, he'll turn professional. What will happen then? Does he stay with Chick or hire one of the big boys? A million questions, sure. But if "Southpaw" leaves you hungry, this much is also true: The "food" was good in the first place.

SOUTHPAW (Unrated, 79 minutes) – Contains obscenity and boxing bouts. Some of the Irish-accented English may be hard to understand.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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