50 years ago this weekend: ‘Smokin’ Joe’s ‘Fright night’ in Castlerea

Aoife O’Rourke’s brilliant, career-defining qualification for the Olympics coincides with the 50th anniversary of a visit to Castlerea by a boxing legend, an episode that has gone into local folklore!

Here at your favourite local newspaper, we never tire of recalling the extraordinary appearance in Castlerea of the then reigning World Heavyweight Champion, Joe Frazier, a superb boxer who will forever be linked with the great Muhammad Ali.

‘Smokin’ Joe’ Frazier’s visit to Castlerea wasn’t in a boxing guise, but as part of a bizarre career diversion into the world of singing and entertainment. No doubt to cash in on his celebrity status, Frazier and his band (‘The Knockouts’) went on a tour that included performing in several locations in Ireland. Unfortunately, Frazier’s ‘gig’ in The Casino Ballroom in Castlerea turned into a night of chaos. Incredibly, the superstar and his entourage arrived in town while he was World Champion, and just a few months after Frazier had defeated Muhammad Ali.

There were three Gardaí on patrol duty in Castlerea on the night of 11th of June, 1971. One of them was Garda John Cawley, a Ballina native. I spoke to him this Wednesday about his memories of the night.

“I served in Castlerea from 1969 to 1999. On the night in question, I was in the squad car with Sergeant Pat Mullarkey and Garda Harry Farrell.

“At around 1.10 am we got the word that Frazier and his entourage were arriving. There were huge crowds…I recall there being lots of people gathered at the bridge, in addition to the people inside the ballroom.

“He arrived in a big car, hired from the Shelbourne Vehicle Hire Company. The vehicle was immediately surrounded by crowds. Straight away we could see that Frazier was afraid, he didn’t know what to make of the crowds or what might happen…”

John estimates there were about 200 people assembled outside The Casino Ballroom, and 450-500 already inside.

There was chaos outside. Three vehicles were damaged, eggs were thrown, glass was shattered, and there were reports that one Garda was struck with a stone.

“We shoved people back, trying to let the car get close to the door. In those days it was ten shillings’ admission to attend a dance there, but the price had been increased on the night to one pound. The people outside were angry about that. They didn’t want to pay the pound.

“They were shoving against the door, glass was broken. Frazier’s car was damaged. We (the Gardaí) managed to get Joe Frazier and his entourage into the hall. Then we had to try to keep the crowd out”.

Once inside, a somewhat shaken Frazier and his band began to perform. With tensions outside still very high, Joe Frazier and The Knockouts were on stage until about 2.30 am. Now the challenge was to get Frazier safely out.

John Cawley: “Frazier’s car was still at the front, and the crowd outside expected him to come out that way. There was one man on duty in the Garda Station. We told him to close the station and come down. I reversed the squad car up to the side entrance…we got Frazier out the side door, and he got into the squad car with us. I drove him to the Garda Station”.

In the station, the World Heavyweight Champion had to sit on a very odd seat – “It was the back seat of a car which we used as a couch” John said this week, laughing.

Frazier was friendly, and grateful for being ‘rescued’. Meanwhile, his entourage eventually made it as far as the station in the hired vehicle. Shortly afterwards, Frazier and the visiting party departed from Castlerea. Court proceedings followed, but there were no convictions.

It all unfolded 50 years ago, on June 11th 1971.

Just three months before his frightening experience in Castlerea, ‘Smokin’ Joe’ had defeated Muhammad Ali in the ‘Fight of the Century’. In all, they fought three times. Frazier remained world champion up to 1973.