Barney Eastwood obituary: 'I had a great eye for fighters'

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Barney Eastwood
Image caption,
Barney Eastwood started the Eastwoods bookmaker chain in Carrickfergus in 1954

With a string of bookmakers and world title-winning boxers to his name, Barney Eastwood was a giant in the worlds of sport and business in Northern Ireland for decades.

For many he will always be associated with one of Ireland's greatest fighters, Barry McGuigan, who he managed when the Clones Cyclone became world featherweight champion in 1985, although their relationship would later end in acrimony and legal action.

But boxing promotion was just one part of a wide-ranging career, which included his chain of betting shops and property development.

He was even the subject of a comedy song, Thank You Very Very Much, Mr Eastwood, a 1985 single by Dermot Morgan of Father Ted fame.

It made light of the bounteous praise heaped on the manager by McGuigan and featured references to an array of the era's most high-profile figures - from Pope John Paul II to Bob Geldof.

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
The names Barry McGuigan and Barney Eastwood were synonymous during the 1980s

Born in Cookstown, County Tyrone in 1932, the future millionaire was one of nine children and his parents ran a hardware store.

His first glimpse of the sport with which he would become synonymous came from watching fights between US Army soldiers, based in the area during World War Two.

"There were some good fighters among them, some of them had been pros and they used to hold these tournaments between themselves... I was always interested in it from there on," he said in an interview with the Irish News.

At school, he was a keen boxer and Gaelic footballer.

He was part of the Tyrone All-Ireland Minor Championship-winning team of 1948 - Eastwood's four points made the difference at Croke Park as Tyrone beat Dublin to become the first county to win back-to-back minor titles.

'Everybody loves a bet'

It was only a few short years after this success that a teenage Eastwood would make his first foray into business.

In 1954, newly-married to Frances, the 19-year-old upped sticks and moved to the unfamiliar surroundings of Carrickfergus, buying a pub for £2,000.

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
McGuigan and Eastwood's relationship soured and led to a legal battle

The investment would prove to be the genesis for the Eastwood chain of bookmakers and, decades later, he would go on to sell his business of 54 shops to betting giant Ladbrokes in a deal worth £135m.

"Everyone bets - they love a bet and they are fearless at times," he said, after making the sale in 2008.

The mega sale did not signal a stepping back by the then 75-year-old, but rather saw his interests turn towards property.

The deal with Ladbrokes saw him retain ownership of the sites, and he retained stakes in various developments across Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK.

'I had a great oul' eye'

Once his foothold in the fledgling world of legalised gambling was firmly established, his passion for boxing was reignited.

Drawn into promotion by a friend who was having difficulty selling a fight, he was moving towards being a professional promoter by the middle of the 1960s.

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
Barney Eastwood publicising his biography in 2010

"I always had a great oul' eye for fighters," he told the Irish Times in 2008.

A dispute with the Northern Ireland Area Board took his life in other directions, but he re-emerged as a major promoter in the 1980s, with his most famous fighter being multiple world champion Barry McGuigan.

Alongside his promotional efforts, he opened Eastwood's Gym above a betting shop on Chapel Lane in 1980s Belfast.

Besides McGuigan, Eastwood also promoted world champions Dave McAuley, Crisanto Espana, Paul Hodkinson and Victor Cordoba.

'Truth was on my side'

The high point of Eastwood's relationship with McGuigan came with featherweight world title success against Eusebio Pedroza in 1985.

"It was a good time and great for the public," said Eastwood in 2010.

"It was during a period when people were crying out for something to lift things, brighten life, someone they could support in sport.

"He just came at the right time."

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
Barney Eastwood and his wife Frances after winning his libel action in 1992

Their highly-publicised split came after McGuigan lost his title to Steve Cruz in Las Vegas a year later.

The contentious bout saw McGuigan take on the plumber's assistant under the heat of the Vegas summer sun, resulting in him being hospitalised for dehydration.

McGuigan claimed Eastwood had allowed him to go into the fight while injured - an accusation which ended in an acrimonious legal battle that saw Eastwood awarded £450,000 in damages.

"Truth was on my side," said Eastwood, speaking after the decision.

"I am just walking away now to forget about everything, to get on with my life, my work."