Bernard Cairns was all of 17 when he climbed the scaffolding inside Holy Cross Church in Belfast and hanged himself. Earlier that day in 2003, Cairns had attended the funeral of a close friend, another suicide victim, at the same Catholic chapel where he chose to end his life, becoming the latest in an alarming trend in Northern Ireland’s capital.

That’s also the day Eanes Keenan, Charlie Quinn and others from the rough-and-tumble Ardoyne neighborhood of Belfast resolved to do something about it by founding the Ardoyne Holy Cross boxing club in the church basement. Both men had learned plenty about fighting during the height of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles, and they figured boxing could provide reassurance for youth who in many cases had little for which to live.

Earlier this week, Keenan, Quinn and other adult chaperones brought a group of those teens and young men to the nation’s capital to participate in the fourth annual Belfast-Beltway Boxing Classic on Saturday at The Westin Grand ballroom. The event matches the foreign-born fighters against 10 District opponents of similar age and skill level, all of whom train out of gyms located in some of the city’s more disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The dearth of hope in Belfast was especially profuse, Keenan said, in the years after the Good Friday agreement in 1998 that signaled the de-escalation of violence between the British and Irish governments. Rampant crime, drug and alcohol use, and unemployment, among other ills, coupled with the constant threat of more insurgency often was too much for many young men to bear, thus leading to a rise in suicides particularly among that demographic, according to a recent study by the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland.

“So we decided we had to try and get these kids off the streets,” said Keenan, who serves as the head trainer for AHC. “Thank god we started the boxing club, and from there, things have calmed down. There’s still suicides, and there’s still the drug issue and things, but we know we’re helping a lot of kids.”

Jasmine Marcellus, left, and Taylor Jones, 6, watch Michael Peoples, 15, R, guzzle water as he trains at Tony's Gym in Anacostia for Saturday's bout against a team of boxers, disadvantaged kids from Northern Ireland and England. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)
‘The same problems’

Quinn’s son Manny got the inspiration to launch the Belfast-Beltway Boxing Classic after attending another charity boxing event roughly five years ago. Manny Quinn spent his early years in Belfast where “there was always a boxing club” but moved to the United States when he was 15, and his vision, along with contributions from donors, has facilitated cultural exchange between young adults with dissimilar ethnic backgrounds but who share a love of the sweet science.

The vast majority of the money raised by Manny Quinn’s D.C.-based nonprofit called the Belfast-Beltway Boxing Project goes toward the athletic exchange program, including airline tickets and hotel accommodations for the visiting contingent as well as the cost of the event itself and equipment for all participants. BBBP also has purchased equipment for area gyms and donated other necessities to fighters who train there.

Among the local beneficiaries of the project was Shaka Williams, a 14-year-old D.C. resident who is completing the eighth grade at Meridian Public Charter School in Northwest. The BBBP last year provided boxing shoes for Williams, who last month won the super heavyweight title at the Silver Gloves national amateur tournament in Kansas City, Mo.

Williams, 6 feet 1 and 210 pounds, is on track to be a freshman at Spingarn High. There he does much of his conditioning with the NOMIS Youth Network, whose executive director, Robert Simon III, is also Williams’s trainer.

“Kids in D.C. who live half a mile away say, ‘I’ve never been to the White House.’ It’s crazy,” said Manny Quinn, the bar manager at Bobby Van’s Grill. “It’s madness, so we try to take them. To watch these kids from different countries handle themselves and say, ‘I have the same problems here as you do there,’ it’s amazing to see.”

‘It’s like a life-saver’

Among the most promising boxers on Saturday night’s card is Northern Ireland’s Patrick Gallagher, who won the gold medal in the welterweight division at last year’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India. Gallagher’s opponent, as well as the rest of the card, was set on Friday night at the weigh-in at the Westin. The Potomac Valley Association, the local arm of USA Boxing, sanctions the matches and provides officials and a medical team.

Gallagher grew up in an area in northern Belfast he called “not exactly luxury.” He recounted tales from his parents about religious strife impacting the community to its detriment and how some adults would just as soon spit on one another rather than permit their children to befriend someone of another denomination.

Now Gallagher is part of a delegation comprising Protestants and Catholics, and the most comforting part, Keenan said, is not being able to tell the difference. Then he pointed to the reordered Irish flag embroidered on his team’s warm-up jacket. Normally with the Catholic green stripe first followed by neutral white and Protestant orange, this accounting of the flag has the orange and green portions flipped as a symbol of peaceful co-existence.

That’s just the message retired D.C. police officer Tony Bell is imparting to his impressionable pupils at his self-named boxing gym in Southeast, where both the foreign-born and D.C. fighters in this year’s event participated in a training session. Bell is a retired D.C. police officer of 25 years who has provided District fighters for the boxing classic.

“Two or three of these kids, if I hadn’t gotten them involved with boxing, they might not even be alive right now,” Bell said, “because they’re from a part of the city where kids get shot almost every weekend. There’s a lot of drugs in the community and everything, and the ones that we can get to stick with this program, it’s like a life-saver.”

Micky Ward, the former WBU junior welterweight champion about whom the Oscar nominated film “The Fighter” was based, will be a guest of honor for the Belfast-Beltway Boxing Classic. Organizers are hoping Ward’s presence will help raise the event’s profile and help facilitate the legal and financial logistics necessary to allow the program to become a home-and-home series.

“We want it both sides,” Manny Quinn said. “The Irish guys are almost somewhat embarrassed because they’re like, ‘I’d love for them to come over, have dinner, share each other’s stories.’ I mean that’s ultimately what it’s about. It’s as simple as that.”