Noel with Andy Lee in 2014. Below with Agnes and the girls of St Francis Boxing Club
IT’S a clear and fresh Sunday morning and 89-year-old Noel Griffin eagerly sits up in his bed in Milford Hospice readying himself for this final interview, after a battle with prostate cancer, days before he reunites with the love of his life, Aggie.
Before we speak, three generations of the Griffin clan stand by his side, while his loving sons sit outside his room, recalling tales of the Garryowen man, who has devoted his life to a love of family and sport.
Sipping from a can of Fanta, Noel smiles and throws his arm out for a firm handshake. He says he found it difficult to move over the past few days, but regained his energy on Saturday evening.
“At the moment,” he says, with an exuberant expression, “I am feeling pretty good. The nurses here are angels, and they won’t let you suffer.”
Knowing that your days are numbered is a prospect many dread. But for the man known as Limerick’s ‘Mr Boxing’, he has come to terms with death and has “made peace with God”.
Noel is the honorary president of St Francis’ boxing club, after serving the boxing community for 60 years. His sons tell me that he is “a man of few words, but those words carry a lot of weight”.
Now, the words roll off his tongue.
“I have lived a great life. I raised a good family, and I am ready to go. It takes a little common sense. At 90 years of age, what more can I expect? And all I hope is that I never done anything wrong to anybody, but I don’t think they would have let me!” he chuckles.
Noel's sense of humour is unyielding throughout our honest, hour-long chat about life.
Noel was born to working class parents Michael and Margaret Griffin, on December 14, 1927, on Little Glentworth Street, and had four brothers and two sisters. After attending CBS Sexton Street, he became an apprentice surgical shoemaker, and moved to England in the 1950s. In 1952, he met his first and only love Agnes ‘Aggie’ Long, in a small dining hall on the outskirts of London.
“I’ll admit, she was the first girl I ever dated. I went on the date, and four months later, I proposed to her. I was madly in love with her. And then we were married in January 1953.
“We were happily married. We were best friends, and we shared everything. We had no secrets from each other. And we never had a row, and people never believed us,” he recalls fondly of his late wife, who died in 2013.
“Now, I am ready. And hopefully, she will be there waiting for me.”
Together, Aggie and Noel raised a happy family of eight children in Garryowen, and he provided for each of them by having three jobs on the go; late night shoemaking, full-time at a block yard, and part-time at Krups. He later accepted a full-time job at the old Roxboro factory.
“I had to do it. I had a whole family. I had to think of them. And, evidently, as you can see, I have been more than repaid; with my family, my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And all my children are doing so well, so I don’t mind going now.”
Just before Christmas, Noel enjoyed his last pint with the family in the Square Bar. His son Noel Jr says “he was absolutely thrilled with it”. A huge fan of hurling, he took pride in making the McAuliffe sliotars, used in many top championship matches in the 1970s.
“Have you any regrets?” I ask, to which he quickly and simply responds: “I have no regrets.” Instead he speaks, at length, of his cherished memories, many of which revolve around his love for boxing. In 2004, Noel was inducted into the Irish Amateur Boxing Association hall of fame for his contribution to the sport.
As a member of St John’s boxing club, he co-organised Ireland’s first international boxing cabarets at the old Parkway in the 1970s, broadcasted by RTÉ. Ahead of these events, Noel would send scores of handwritten letters to potential sponsors around the country, and not seal the final envelope until 5am.
“And I enjoyed it all. Isn’t that what life’s about?”
He says his clubmates often enjoyed pints at the old Punch Bowl pub on John Street. And when the club closed, he was asked to join St Francis’, where he immediately became close friends with coaches and boxing champions Seamus ‘Archie’ Moore and Eamon Ryan, who both passed away in 2010 and 2008.
From day one, he says, “it has been one big success story”. And since then, he has held numerous top positions in the sport, including Munster representative on the IABA council.
I ask him if he ever boxed competitively. He says modestly, “I realised at a very early stage that I would do more good for boxing outside of the ring than inside of the ring.
“I saw a lot of champions go through that boxing club,” he says, and then adds with a smile filled with pride: “But Andy Lee was the champion.”
Noel, along with Seamus, Seamus’ wife Anna and their son Kenneth, saw the rise and rise of the former WBO middleweight world champion, since he entered their ring in 1998. “Andy is a gentleman. And my relationship with him was very good, and it still is. I was very proud to see that champion rise.
“But it was always great walking into the boxing club, and seeing the young lads come over to you showing off their medals and their trophies, and there is a great feeling there.”
However, boxing was never the same for Noel when his best friends Seamus and Eamon died, as he was the last of the St Francis legends to remain in the club.
“Me, Eamon and Seamus were the dream team. But when Eamon and Seamus died, it was so sad. We were friends for life, and we met every night and went everywhere together. But like everything else, time changes and time moves on.”
His son Noel Jr tells me that his father was “always the peacemaker. That was something that he instilled in us, growing up. He always said to respect other people, and you had to earn your respect as well.”
The 89-year-old says that being kind has been key in his life. “And do you know what? It costs you nothing. You get pleasure out of it, by helping others.”
The person at the centre of his boxing success was Aggie, he says. “She encouraged me, which was a huge help. But she also had her Ladies Club. She was doing her own thing, also. We let each other do our own thing,” he explains.
Through the years, Noel’s interests included science fiction, gardening, and travelling Ireland’s west coast.
After Noel orders a beer from a nearby nurse, he reminds himself of halcyon childhood days; riding a bike with two friends onboard, just to see the hurling every Sunday; going to Matterson’s bacon factory on Roches Street to find a pig’s bladder, blow it up and play a game of rugby; and making a ball out of rolled-up newspapers to play soccer on the streets.
“And us, being so young, we thought we were the best in the country.”
After a brief silence, 50 minutes into our insightful conversation, he quietly says: “And that’s my life.”
Nearing the end of his final interview, I ask him what he thinks happens next, if there is an afterlife.
Honest as always, he says: “There are some people who dread this. But I would hope there is a hereafter. I am a firm believer that there is, and that is why I am quite happy crossing over. I have embraced and enjoyed life very much.
“We have to go sometime, don’t we? Some die peacefully and some people have it harder, but you know what? I have accepted it. I have made my peace with God, and I have told my other one [Aggie] to get ready to meet me,” he laughs.
As we say goodbye, Noel firmly shakes my hand once more and says, with a great smile: “Now it’s time for the next adventure, and hopefully, she will be waiting for me.”