BERNARD Joseph Eastwood, better known as Barney Eastwood and one of Northern Ireland’s most successful business and sporting figures, sadly passed away on Monday (March 9) at the age of 87.

A spokesman for his family, confirming Eastwood’s death to the PA news agency, said: “BJ’s passing has brought great sadness to the family as well as the whole community in Holywood where he was a very visible resident for the past 50 years. All who knew him will miss his remarkable charm.”

Born in Cookstown, County Tyrone in 1932, Eastwood founded the Eastwood’s chain of betting shops, which he later sold for more than £100 million, developed properties, and left an indelible mark on the boxing world by virtue of his work with Barry McGuigan and many others.

One of nine children, Eastwood’s passion for boxing was ignited after watching fights at the US Army Air Force base near Ardboe, County Tyrone, during the Second World War. “There were some good fighters among them,” Eastwood told the Irish News. “Some of them had been pros and they used to hold these tournaments between themselves. I was always interested in it from there on.”

At school, he played Gaelic football and also boxed, becoming part of the Tyrone All-Ireland Minor Championship-winning team of 1948. (In fact, Barney’s four points made the difference as Tyrone beat Dublin to become the first county to win back-to-back minor titles.)

Beyond boxing, Eastwood had a nose for business and bought his first property, a public house, in 1954. The pub was in Carrickfergus and purchased by Eastwood, newly married to Frances (his wife for almost 70 years), for the sum of £2,000. He paid for it with his inheritance from his late mother. He was just 19.

Keen to build his portfolio and venture into other sectors, Eastwood later opened a chain of bookmakers, which, decades later, with 54 shops to his name, was sold to Ladbrokes for £135 million. “Everyone bets – they love a bet and they are fearless at times,” Eastwood, then 75, said at the time of the sale in 2008.

His journey into professional boxing, meanwhile, began in the Sixties when a friend of his was having difficulty selling a fight. Eastwood helped out, not knowing it would lead to him promoting countless boxing shows of his own before managing Barry McGuigan in the Eighties.

That famous and fruitful association helped make Eastwood a household name and helped McGuigan, someone whose ring success was a symbol of hope during the Troubles, become a world featherweight champion. Their apotheosis arrived at Loftus Road in 1985, the night McGuigan toppled Eusebio Pedroza to lift the WBA featherweight crown, about which Eastwood said: “It was a good time and great for the public. 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.”

Alas, the Eastwood-McGuigan dream team was, like so many relationships in boxing, later soured due to an acrimonious falling out and legal battle, which saw Eastwood awarded £450,000 in damages.

On Monday, McGuigan, commenting on news of Eastwood’s death, wrote: “I’m saddened to hear of the passing of Barney Eastwood. He was a big character who really knew his boxing. We achieved great things together and shared some amazing times. My deepest sympathies to his wife Frances and his family at this difficult time.”

Barry McGuigan
McGuigan beats Pedroza at Loftus Road in 1985

During the Eighties, Eastwood opened Eastwood’s Gym above his betting shop on Chapel Lane and also promoted a number of other world champions, including Dave McAuley, Crisanto Espana, Paul Hodkinson and Victor Cordoba.

“I wouldn’t have been a world champion without him,” McAuley, a flyweight who won IBF gold in 1989, told the Belfast Telegraph.

“He was a great man and a great friend and mentor. I could ring him up about anything and the advice he would give would be spot on. If you had problems and you shared them with him he would listen and then make them feel like they weren’t a problem any more. We were in regular contact and I’m really going to miss him.

“He was a man who was years ahead of his time and when it came to doing deals he was about six steps ahead of the other guy. One thing people don’t know is that he never took a penny off me my whole career even though he was entitled to 25%. We even had a deal for my world title fights that we would split the profit, 50-50. That was unheard of in those days.

“He had that great knack of making you believe you were a far better athlete than you were. The confidence he had filtered down to you and if you were in trouble in a fight he was the ideal man in the corner because he calmed you down and made you believe you were going to win. He put you at ease.”

The thoughts of everyone at Boxing News are with the Eastwood family at this difficult time.