John was born in the Pound Loney, West Belfast in 1932. He remembers a close, friendly community: “The people were great, they all looked after each other, there were no locks on doors, people just walked in and out, you can’t do that now.”
John trained to be a boxer. He had his first fight with Paddy Graham in the Ulster Finals, Paddy won but the following week in Dublin, John beat Paddy and won the Irish title.
At the age of 19 John won the silver medal at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki in the Bantam weight division, the first Irishman to do so. On his return home to Belfast, John remembers the crowds of people welcoming him back.
“There was a hero’s welcome, all the people from the Loney, the Falls, York Street and the Shankill.”
In 1953, he was a member of the European Golden Gloves team representing Europe who went to Chicago and St Louis where he beat three former American Golden Gloves champions. The same year he would go on to win the bronze medal in the European Amateur Boxing Championships held in Warsaw.
In Germany he was awarded Honorary German Champion, for defeating the country’s three former bantam weight champions in the space of a year. “I fought two German champions in Dublin and one in Newry and it was after the third one they made me Honorary German Champion.”
John turned professional in 1954 but did not enjoy it. “It ended up I didn’t like professional compared to the amateur because all anybody wanted from you was money, I just didn’t like it at all.”
John wrote a book with Barry Flynn about his life entitled John McNally, Boxing’s Forgotten Hero. “Barry wrote another book about me the year before, ‘The Legends of Irish Boxing.”
John retired from boxing in 1962. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Dublin in 2008.
Reflecting on his life as a boxer: “Boxing is the easiest to get into, if you are good you are well taken care of, but what I like about the boxing fraternity is they are all one religion in this country, the only religion they have is boxing.”