Physically, Portland Row in Dublin’s north inner city probably couldn’t be more different to the places most readers of this publication inhabit. The green fields you know with great familiarity are buildings, roads and shops to people here.
But still, rural and inner-city communities – although they may seem worlds apart – are really quite similar in ways. They’re both tight-knit, and when it comes down to it, they support and celebrate their own with passion.
Undoubtedly, Portland Row was the epicentre of Kellie Harrington’s success. Not just her recent glorious gold, but all that came before and all that will go after it.
“I know personally, had I have come back with no medal, had I have come back with a bronze, a silver, whatever – I know they would have all still been proud and happy. I know they would have all still celebrated regardless,” says Kellie.
“I had no idea what was happening at home, but it was an incredible journey. I’ve seen the videos of the fights on the big screen, people knocking at my ma and da’s door, Mick the Busker singing outside my ma and da’s door. It’s just been incredible. It really has like.”
The good thing is, this lift, this sense of pride in Kellie and in who we are collectively as a nation, reverberated out and touched every corner of the country. From Ramsgrange, Co Wexford to Baltimore, Co Cork and Malin, Co Donegal, everyone felt it.
Speaking to Irish Country Living just over a week after her Olympic gold-medal win, Kellie has been able to shut off, spending time with her partner Mandy and her family after the excitement of returning from Tokyo.
Kellie’s humility is nothing short of striking. In this interview she’s happy speaking about her community, fiercely advocating for athletes’ funding and then, naturally, quite emotional discussing how far she has come.
Even now, mere days after her fight, she can clearly see a bigger picture and a bigger meaning to the medal.
“I can never thank the community [of Portland Row] for all the support and to the people of Ireland as well for just being such great people. All the thanks, all the cards, the good lucks and the well-dones, I’m an emotional wreck,” says Kellie with her trademark sincerity.
“I’ve to read a couple of cards a night, because I can’t like – I just keep crying every time I read them. That’s when it really hits home. When you’re hearing people say they’re 84 years of age, they’re from such-and-such a place and that I don’t understand how much of a lift it has given to them.
“How could you not cry, how could you not be emotional and how could you not be proud of what you’ve given to those people? That’s what it’s all about. Obviously it’s about winning a gold medal. But being able to give someone something more than a gold medal, that’s gold in itself.
“It’s this that I love. I love the medal as well of course, but what I really love is being able to see people happy. People are saying, ‘I feel like I know her. I feel like I know Kellie.’ That makes me happy, because they feel like I’m normal, I’m genuine and I’m down-to-Earth.
“That’s what I would class myself as; as an honest person, as an honest hard worker. For anything that I’ve achieved I’ve worked my ass off for it. I’m glad that people think of me that way. That’s the way I would like people to think of me.”
Working hard has certainly been associated with Kellie for a long time. Alongside training at an elite level in boxing, Kellie works in St Vincent’s Hospital Fairview, where she has been both a domestic worker and worked in catering. She worked right through the pandemic, taking on more hours at times.
When she returned home from Tokyo, even in the middle of all the madness, Kellie sent out a clear message about funding for boxing. She feels there should be better arrangements in place for Government funding for elite level boxers and more funding available for boxing clubs.
As an athlete herself, Kellie didn’t receive funding for a number of years, despite boxing at an elite level. She has strong views on the topic and what can be done.
“Funding makes a massive difference because you’re not worrying about your finances, really. I think personally – without getting into all of this – but personally if you’re on the social welfare and you’re trying to compete for your country; yet you have to go down to the social welfare and lie and tell them, ‘Ya, I’m looking for a job’, when really you’re not, you’re actually trying to compete and get medals for your country. That’s just very disheartening for an athlete,” explains Kellie.
“I think there should be some kind of deal done between Sport Ireland and the social welfare, they’re both Government-funded. I think there should be a deal where athletes are given the lower tier of their funding without having to worry about going down and signing on.
“They’re trying to become the next Michael Carruth, Katie Taylor, Kellie Harrington or Michael Conlan. That’s what they’re trying to do and that’s across the board in all sports. I’m not saying that you need to give every athlete in the country this pass, but the high-performing athletes who need that pass.”
Equally, Kellie would like to see more funding for boxing clubs and youth clubs. Youth clubs stop children going down the wrong path and put them in touch with local sports clubs. That’s how it worked for her, she says simply. On funding for boxing as a whole, Kellie feels there needs to be more of it, pointing out that of Ireland’s 35 Olympic medals to date, 18 are from boxing.
If you’ve seen or heard anything from Kellie before, you will know she wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s nothing if not honest. I ask about that time in 2015 when she considered giving up boxing. We chat about how far she has come.
“I think about three days ago I had a morning of just crying. Just thinking of where I’ve come from, from the start like, you know. I’m going to go again,” says Kellie, her voice breaking slightly and her eyes welling up. Thankfully, these aren’t tears of sadness, but just pure, raw emotion.
“I’ve had an incredible journey and there have been times when I’ve wanted to pack it in. Growing up as a teenager I’ve had it rough like, not through my family, but just developing as a teenager into an adult.
“Then you’re obviously in boxing and things aren’t going your way. Fights, winning and losing. Within the boxing circle I’ve had my fair share of heartbreak. While I’ve said I wanted to give up, many, many times, I don’t think I could ever possibly give it up. I probably would pack it up for three weeks and then I’m back again. I’m already itching to get back training.
People say, ‘Oh you deserve it because you’re a lovely person.’ Personally, I deserve it because I work really, really hard for it
“That’s just in me. I just love training, I love working out, I love hitting the bag, I love the morale in the boxing club. It’s special, you’ll never get it anywhere else. The craic does be 90. I’m glad that I did stick it out and I’m glad that I’ve the head to surround myself with like-minded people.”
Kellie says self-doubt is something everyone experiences, but knowing that you’ve done all the necessary work and preparation can ease this. For any aspiring athletes, or indeed anyone at all, she would tell them to back themselves.
“Self-doubt is something that everyone has and you wouldn’t be normal if you didn’t have it. It’s just a normal human thing to have self-doubt. But, you also have to realise that you’re there because you’re good enough to be there. You’ve done the work.
“People say, ‘Oh you deserve it because you’re a lovely person.’ Personally, I deserve it because I work really, really hard for it. I do think I’m a good person as well, but I’ve worked for it and it helps that I’m a good person on top of it.
“I think people with self-doubt need to look back on what they’ve done to get to where they are. Have they worked hard? Have they done all the right training sessions? Have they done everything right? Once you know you’ve done all of that you should be thinking, yeah, I shouldn’t be doubting myself.
“So embrace it. Embrace that feeling that gives you nerves. Nervous energy is good if you can control it right. Nerves are good, they make you feel alive and they make you feel sharp.”
Whether you’re from Portland Row or Portmagee, Kellie Harrington is undoubtedly a woman of the people. She’s someone who’s not afraid to show who she really is, and that has made all the difference.