Soft coverings, hard truths: The world of Limerick’s champion powerlifter

Ger McNamara, a former European and world champion, tells Brian Strahan about his rise to the top, training young people for free, and what the community lost with the closure of his gym in Limerick

Not to be confused with weightlifting, powerlifting is a sport on the margins.

Despite that, it’s a competitive and celebrated sport in its own circles. And what’s distinctive from an Irish perspective is that Patrickswell, Co Limerick is home to a multi-European and world champion.

After leaving school at just 12, Ger McNamara dedicated himself to three things. Upholstery, powerlifting and helping others.

Under a low-hanging Spanish arch off Little Gerald Griffin Street in Limerick City sits General Upholstery Services – encased by a fusion of new builds, settled terraced houses and, on a Saturday morning, a bustling street market.

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McNamara, now 59, has finished for the day. Half-day Saturdays. But, as the multi-European and world champion sits and tells his story, he obliges a late customer with a broken coil cushion zipper. He has always been clear of direction in his own life. Now he directs others in Southside Barbell on the Old Cork Road. His own gym, Patrickswell Powerlifting Club, sits idle, yards from where we sit.

In powerlifting, athletes compete in the squat, bench press and dead lift, generally with three attempts to reach their maximum weight. A total is determined by adding the heaviest lift in each exercise.

McNamara retired in 2016 but still fields regular requests to consider coming out of retirement. So would he?

“Not really, no. You see, the level I was at, at world stage, if I came out of retirement now, I’d want to get back up to being the best again and I could seriously get hurt. Even now, when I see the guys competing, I don’t have any goal now to do anything, I don’t have the ambition to go back to competing. Even though I train and I coach, I don’t have that drive to go back.”

McNamara talks about winning titles, and about being so far ahead of everyone else. “Even on a bad day I could have entered a world championship and won it, I was so far ahead. But now I don’t have the motivation. But if I did, I would want to get back to the top level.”

There isn’t a smidgen of hubris in his voice. Simply knowing that with a life dedicated to the sport, he achieved all he could and then some.

So, what of training others?

“I coach two girls, Rhianna (a world champion lifting at 67.5kg) and Aisling (lifting at 56kg) and one guy, Brian. It’s great coaching girls. Girls are like a sponge, they absorb everything, their pain threshold is unbelievable. Completely unbelievable. As a coach [of women] you have to take some things into perspective. When they have their period they tell the coach and the coach has to cater for that. They are losing blood so their oxygen levels that’s going through their body isn’t as much. They have a higher threshold than any man, they can go on for longer.”

Many competitions are abroad but McNamara gets no funding and his students pay their own way. “The thing about it is, funding is too hard to get. If you apply for funding you got to have tax clearance certificates and all that rubbish and nonsense that you have to go through to get the funding. It’s just not worth it.”

McNamara references Patrickswell Powerlifting Club, which lies defunct 30ft away(with redevelopment looming, the club was closed). “We got funding of €4,000. With what we had to go through to get the €4,000 it wasn’t worth it. We were buying equipment out of it because we had two special needs people there and we couldn’t draw down the funding for these lads.”

The two lifters were in need of specialised lifting bars, plates and strapping, but tax clearance certificates stood in the way. McNamara never has charged any of his students. “I never charged a penny, I paid the ESB bill myself. The guys that were entering competitions were never charged anything because they were in the gym. No one in the gym – and we had 30 lifters – none of them paid a penny for that facility; this is one of the roughest parts of town here.

“I did this off of my own back, I let everybody in, I coached everyone for free, I never charged them a penny, and we couldn’t get funding. We got €1,000 for two bars for the special needs lifters about a year ago and not one TD in Limerick could draw down the funding for us. They don’t care. They are all for votes, ‘oh we’ll do this and we’ll do that,’ not one of them helped.”

Following the redevelopment plans, McNamara couldn’t find a new home for the Patrickswell Powerlifting Club, despite what it was giving locals in return. “None of them would help us get a premises.”

McNamara is unyielding in what a gym can provide for young people. What he gave, he believes he got back. “I had a camera [in the gym] and the camera went missing. So, I shut the gym and I said the gym will stay closed until the camera is back. The fella who took the camera arrived in with 10 members of the gym to give me back the camera back and say sorry.

“Now I didn’t throw him out of the gym, I let him train away. But, the 10 guys are some of the roughest guys in Limerick. They brought this guy to me that took it, because they didn’t want the gym closed. The gym was open 24/7. They all had keys to go in and out, and that guy was the only guy who ever stole anything from that gym, a camera, in the 16 years it was there. It [the gym] was too important.”

Ultimately, though, the powerlifting club closed. “Now, you would see them at the side of the road and they’re drinking bottles of beer and wine and they’re telling me: ‘You shouldn’t have shut up the gym, Ger, we’re sorry to see it go.’ But they know that it was out of my hands.”

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Ger McNamara grew up in St Mary’s Park in Limerick city – an area he describes as a rough part of town but inhabited by great people. At 13, he started in Seanie Bullman’s gym. He trained there and then in the Garryowen weightlifting club. He met the late Pat Phelan, who gave him his start in upholstery. McNamara describes a full life. Education may have ceased – for now – but when he wasn’t working, he was training.

“No one would employ you when you gave them your address. A lot of good people came from there, a lot of people did well out of there [St Mary’s Park]. But you’d have to be up and motivated to get a job.”

Over 40 years later, he continues in the same trade, which he says he loves. “I left school at 12. I went back when I was 21 to do business organisation because I knew I’d be doing this. I had to actually go back to school. I’d be in from 10 in the morning until 3.30 and then I was coming into work after that.”

He was 21 when he returned to Cresent Comprehensive on O’Connell Street. He wasn’t fazed. Maybe the confidence to return to education came from competing in powerlifting. He had started to enter competitions at 15. The first was the Irish Championship, which he won. The European Championship followed and McNamara finished in a respectable ninth.

“Four years later, I won the World Junior Championship. That was my first ‘Worlds’. I was a world champion at 19 in the junior category. Then 1987 came and I won the World Championship in Norway. That was the best one because everything was geared towards that.”

A sojourn to Perth in Western Australia fell in between before he returned and started his business.

His father-in-law Mike – who had spent 20 years working alongside McNamara – died last year.

The death of his own father, after a heart attack, occurred two weeks before Christmas in 1988. “I went down and was talking to him at one o’clock, and Paula (Ger’s partner) was there. I left for work and by two o’clock he was dead. He was cycling down the road on his bike and he collapsed. Dropped dead on the bike. I was about 28.

“Mam was telling me he had a few warnings. Dad was a heavy drinker and he didn’t look after himself with food and stuff like that. When he went for a few pints, he wouldn’t just drink, he’d fall down the road.”

McNamara’s mother and his sister still live in the family home. McNamara and Paula have two sons, Martin and Samuel. McNamara is a grandfather now too.

In 1993, he bought in Patrickswell, a 20-minute drive from where he works. “Forty-one thousand pounds. I thought I’d never be able to afford that. I remember when I got the mortgage; it was £50 a month. So, every year I’d up it and within 10 years I had it paid off. This business has been very good to me. ”

Alcohol is now gone from his life and he turned to veganism in recent years. His energy levels are “through the roof”.

When we tour the old Patrickswell Powerlifting Club, the walls heave with murals and pictures from past glories. In a small room he shows me a space where a homeless man slept for a long period of time. He shows me where pot noodles, a kettle and clothes were kept on the timber shelving. He makes little of it.

Someone was in need and he gave back.