Frank Gervin’s heroic human barricade protest to save beloved Clonoe Boxing Club

The Clonoe Club after the digger tore down its gable wall
The Clonoe Club after the digger tore down its gable wall

As the tributes flow in for Coalisland legend and boxing stalwart Frank Gervin, the Tyrone Times recalls one of his landmark acts of heroism - the day he lay down in front of bulldozers in a desperate bid to prevent his beloved boxing gym being razed to the ground.

It was September 2005 and Frank was in the middle of a bitter ownership battle over the premises when the bulldozers moved onto the property at Washingbay Road, Coalisland.

“I got a call very early in the morning that the club was going to be knocked down, so I had to do it,” said Frank at the time.

“It was an awful thing to see young lads going up past the club crying. It was their club.”

In fact it was 6.45am when Frank and his wife Susan arrived at the gates, which had been locked by the demolition men. The couple shouted at the digger driver, but to no avail, and Frank was forced to scale the perimeter fence and launch his human barricade protest.

As news of the demolition circulated in Coalisland, a tense stand-off developed between locals and construction workers.

One witness at the time said there was a “bad mood” in the town. Police had to move in to protect the digger driver and escort him from the premises.

Frank’s brave gesture ended with him injured and rushed to hospital. He secured a stay of execution for the club and became the focal point of a community campaign involving local politicians and sports people. His heroics sparked so much interest that enrolments at the club swelled, and the organisation went from strength to strength.

The story made the front page of the Tyrone Times and the Irish News, with the headline ‘Knockout Blow’.

Unfortunately, the bitter legal battle that raged afterwards took its toll on Frank, and he suffered a number of legal blows in the courts,

However, he always clung to the club he fought to keep alive and to which he was devoted since its formation in 1972.

His commitment made him Northern Ireland regional winner of the 2008 BBC Sports Unsung Hero, an award which recognises and rewards outstanding contributions by everyday people to sport.

Frank represented NI alongside 14 other regional finalists from England, Scotland and Wales at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards.

Back in the Seventies, the first batch of boxers to come through the club included local hero Tommy Corr who fought at the Los Angeles Olympics.

In those days, it was more than a boxing club. Paddy Campbell joined the club in 1975 and remembers the bad times.

“Frank kept lads off the streets when the troubles were bad, he saved lives really. He kept the community together, there’d be no club but for him,” said Paddy.

In more recent times, Frank organised Amir Khan to visit the club. He’s always had a way to the big names, from having lunch with Muhammad Ali in the early 1970s to former World champion Barry McGuigan.

Frank’s first fight was back in 1954 against Martin Taylor, brother of snooker legend Dennis. Ever since, boxing has been in his blood.

He’s also a renowned international coach, having led Northern Ireland’s boxers to the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

Despite travelling the world, Frank is devoted to home life where he and his wife Susan have eight girls, two boys and 16 grandchildren.

Remarkably, it does not end there as Frank and his wife have fostered an astonishing 100 children over three decades.

“We started in 1981 and we’ve had children coming and going here ever since,” said Frank. “One boy came for two or three days and is here now 11 years!

“I feel that we should put a bit back into the society we live in. People think about nothing but money and how they can get it, but that’s a bit selfish to me.

“All you need is happiness, a bed and a roof over your head,” said Frank.