Sunday 15 May 2022

Captain Robert Nairac: Boxing in Life and Death

Captain Nairac posing with fellow soldiers of the Grenadier Guards (left) and working the heavy bag as an amateur boxer while a student at Oxford University.

Captain Robert Nairac, the British Army Guardsman who was famously kidnapped and killed by Irish Republicans during the Northern Ireland troubles, was a man of many talents. At Ampleforth College, a Catholic public school, and then Lincoln College at Oxford, he combined his studies with a range of sporting interests.

He played rugby for his school and continued this both at university where he was selected for the Oxford University 2nd XV and at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy where he played for the first team. Nairac was also a keen boxer. He was a leading boxer at Ampleforth which had annual “needle” bouts with the Royal Grammar School, an independent school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

He is credited with reviving the fortunes of the Oxford University Amateur Boxing Club and subsequently became an "Oxford Blue", defeating Cambridge opponents in four varsity boxing contests.

The appeal of boxing to the adrenaline-seeking adventurer is with hindsight not surprising. While it contrasted sharply with his leisure pursuits of fly-fishing and falconry, he must have been attracted to those elements of the sport which are kindred with those of good soldiering: discipline, tenacity and fitness.

His army career was destined to take him to the northern part of Ireland, an island where the sport of boxing had long found a natural home. And it was by twist of fate that Nairac would cross paths with two Irishmen who like him had a passion for boxing.

It is claimed that while at Oxford in the late 1960s, Nairac went three rounds in a boxing match with a young Belfast docker named Martin Meehan.

Meehan would later become a commander of the Irish Republican Army.

Meehan was sworn into the brotherhood and became a member of the Third Battalion Ardoyne. Ardoyne, a district of Belfast, was his birthplace, and it was at St. Gabriel’s Amateur Boxing Club that he first laced the gloves.

The streets of Ardoyne would become familiar to the guardsman Nairac, who patrolled them during several tours of Northern Ireland. One of the last pictures of him was taken as he spoke to a group of Ardoyne children three weeks before he was seized in South Armagh and spirited over the border where he was tortured and killed.

Nairac, who was serving as an intelligence liaison officer, was on a mission in what was dubbed “Bandit Country” by Merlyn Rees, a serving Northern Ireland Secretary, because it was a hub of paramilitary activity and an extremely dangerous area for members of the security services.

At the Three Steps pub, in Dromintee, South Armagh, Nairac contrived an elaborate disguise that included an Ardoyne accent when attempting to engineer a meeting with a mysterious contact. Nairac’s stagecraft included singing Republican songs with the resident pub band.

The irony is that a former amateur boxer was at the heart of Nairac's downfall on that night of May 14th, 1977. 

Terry McCormick, a painter by trade, had been an Irish boxing champion at juvenile, schoolboy and adult levels. He had boxed with the Star Club of Belfast and knew that Nairac's affected Ardoyne accent was nothing like the accents which he had grown accustomed to hearing in North Belfast.

He believed Nairac, posing as “Danny McErlean,” an “Official Republican” from Ardoyne, was a security operative, and at closing time (11.45pm) sent two of his friends, both IRA sympathisers, to invite the undercover soldier to meet him outside.

McCormick’s intention was to give Nairac a good hiding.

One story tells of Robert Nairac using his boxing skills to fend off the group of men who escorted him to the car park for a while before he was overcome. In all likelihood, it appears that Nairac, who had been unarmed while in the pub, had got a hold of his Browning pistol in his Triumph Dolomite, but was felled by a heavy blow thrown by McCormick.

Overpowered by his attackers after a brief scuffle, Nairac was bundled into a car and taken across the border into the Irish Republic. He was dragged from the car when they got to a bridge which crossed the Flurry River in Ravensdale Forest.

Nairac employed his boxing skills in attempting to fight his way out and came close to making his escape on four occasions. But outnumbered and on the receiving end of McCormick’s crushing punches, Nairac was eventually beaten into a semi-conscious state.

Knowing Nairac’s life was ebbing away McCormick posed as a priest of the Roman Catholic Church and sought to extract a confession from the man whom he thought was an SAS soldier on a reconnaissance mission.

The ruse failed as did the tortures inflicted on the Oxford fighter whose uncomplicated fighting modus operandi had been built on the objective of absorbing punishment to dispense more punishment on his opponents.

An IRA man named Liam Townson was summoned and soon arrived at the field where he shot Nairac in the skull.

Nairac was 28 years old.

Townson’s tribute to Nairac, one which doubtlessly aided the decision to posthumously grant Nairac the George Cross, bore the attributes of an epitaph for a departed pugilist:

"He was the bravest man I ever met. He told us nothing. He was a good soldier". 

© Adeyinka Makinde (2022).

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England. He has interests in military history and the sport and culture of boxing.

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