Francis Barrett is a traveller, from Galway. He lives on a caravan site in Neasden, north London and earns a living as a labourer, digging holes. He also happens to be Ireland's greatest boxing hope. He is a southpaw, or left-hander, and he's hoping to deliver the knock-out punch for his country at the Sydney Olympics. Richard Williams hears his extraordinary story. Photographs by David Gamble
The little Irish boy tugged on the priest's cassock. "Father Ned," he begged. "Father Ned, take me with you." Father Ned Crosby shook his head. But then he looked down and saw the urgency in the eyes of 11-year- old Francis Barrett. "Go and get your shorts and your runners," he said. A few minutes later they were leaving Galway for Ennis, and Frankie Barrett was heading for a rendezvous with destiny.

At Ennis they met up with Chick Gillan, a Galway barber. Gillan trained young boxers, and was planning to start a club of his own. It didn't have premises, but it had a name: the Olympic Boxing Club. "I'd never stepped into a ring before in my life," Francis Barrett remembered, 11 years later, "and I never did a bit of training before. Chick was saying, `Lead hand, lead hand.' I didn't know what a lead hand was. I didn't know anything about boxing."

Francis found himself in the ring facing a boy two years older - a boy who had reached the semi-finals of the Irish boys' championships. "And I destroyed him, I stopped him in the second round."

If this sounds like it should be a movie, it already is. The relationship between Francis Barrett and Chick Gillan is at the heart of Southpaw, a documentary which was premiered at the Sundance Festival a couple of weeks ago and opens in the UK next month. Made by the team responsible last year's I Went Down, an Irish road movie of widely admired wit and charm, it follows Frankie Barrett's progress to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and the aftermath of his achievement. But what makes Frankie really special is that he is a traveller, born and bred in a Galway caravan park. Today, aged 22, he lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their two children in a caravan in a similar park beside the North Circular Road in Neasden in north London, surrounded by a community of Irish travellers. He was the first traveller to box for Ireland at the Olympics, and the first to carry his nation's flag at the opening ceremony.

The film, directed by Liam McGrath, tells of the outrage expressed by some in Galway that such a person should represent their country. "Francis Barrett has never done a day's work in his life," one local politician roared. "He is not entitled to carry the Irish flag." In fact the boxer has worked as a gardener and a scrap merchant, and is currently employed as a labourer by Dennis Curren, the boss of a construction company, who is a boxing fan and accommodates Frankie's training schedules by giving him plenty of paid leave from digging holes for British Telecom cables.

Frankie is a light-welterweight, meaning that he needs to tip the scales at no more than 10 stone. He won his first bout in the Atlanta Olympics, against a Brazilian, with a record score, triggering euphoria in the Galway caravan site, where his family and friends were watching on TV. Further progress seemed assured. But in his second bout, against a tough and experienced Tunisian who had won the silver medal four years earlier, he lost a tight points decision. He came home to an appreciative civic welcome and to the preparations for a triple wedding - for himself, his brother, and the sister of his wife-to-be - which turned a church in Wembley into a set for an Irish remake of The Godfather. It was followed, just under a year later, by a triple christening of similar lavishness.

Frankie soon had his sights set on new objectives. He wanted to return to the Olympic arena, in Sydney, in the year 2000. But for 1998 he had a double target in mind. Moving up0 to welterweight, he competed for the British Amateur Boxing Association title and the Irish championship. He lost the latter, again to a vastly more seasoned opponent, but became the first man from the west of Ireland to win the British ABA title.

His failure to bring off the double was his own fault, he said, because he was not a natural welterweight, and he has now moved back down a category. "Last year I was too lazy to make the weight. I just didn't put my mind down to it, you know. I'd always been used to eating fries, anything that came in front of me, doing a light session of training, and being on the weight. But I blew up. I had some baby fat on me. Now that I'm training twice a day and I'm on a strict diet, I'm making the weight easy. I'm pretty confident. I have my mind set. I have to win the Irish championship this year. Then I have to go abroad for a couple of big qualifying tournaments for the European championships and for the Olympic Games. It's going to be tough, but my hope is to win a medal. Bronze, gold or silver. I don't care. If I win the gold I'll be the happiest man in the world. I know myself that I'm well capable of it."

When we met, he had just returned to his caravan from a training session at the Trojan Boxing Club, where he has been working with a local coach, Louie Leo, since he and Kathleen moved to London four years ago. When he's in Ireland, which is often, he still works with Chick Gillan. It's an arrangement that comes in for some criticism in the film, most tellingly from Nicolas Cruz Hernandez, a Cuban coach who has worked with the Irish Olympic squad. The well-intentioned pressure to rupture his old relationships seems to symbolise a tension within his life as a whole.

"Francis Barrett has a great talent and great potential," Cruz says in the film, "but it will have to be developed. It will be very difficult for him to leave his coach, and difficult for his coach to see him going to someone else and to work with them. But that will be the way, I think. Never forget the coach who brought you up to this level, but go somewhere else and do what you haven't done before."

His argument is reinforced by the views of Tom Humphries, an Irish sports columnist. "To get the extra 20 per cent to make him a realistic contender in Sydney," Humphries says, "he needs to go places where people can video his technique. He's got to decide if his life is going to be as a boxer first and a traveller second, which is hard for Frankie to do because he's so attached to his home and his family. But if he makes that break, anything's possible."

More than two years after Atlanta, however, Frankie is still being trained by Chick and Louie. Sitting with a cup of tea in his caravan, surrounded by boxing trophies and religious icons, and with Kathleen feeding their two infants, Frankie Jr and Whitney, he explained why the arrangement still suits him.

"I'm very comfortable with it, you know," he said. "It has to be what's in your own mind. When I'm over here, I'm happy that Louie looks after me really, really well. I'm thankful for that. And when I'm at home I'm very, very happy that Chick looks after me. So I have people to look after me on both sides. When Louie met me first, he never changed my style. Chick rang him and said, `Don't change his style.' He's just trying to get my style better, because that is my style, you know. Ah, Louie's a lovely fellow."

But the relationship with Chick goes far beyond that of a coach and his athlete. "I wouldn't leave Chick for the world," he said. "I ring him every Sunday. Every single Sunday of every week. How's things going at home, how's things going over here? I like training with Louie and I like training with Chick, and that's the way I like training. So that's why I have the best of both worlds. If I'm going to win a medal in the Olympic Games, I'm going to win it for Chick and I'm going to win it for Louie.

"If I went abroad, say I met a French trainer or a German, or a Cuban, even, it would take me five or six months to get used to them. And another five or six months to trust them. And I don't know if I'd get better or worse. It's what's in your mind. And I wouldn't like to leave the family. I like to stay close to my children. That's my priority. Boxing is a sport. I'll always love it as a sport. But at the end of the day my family comes first."

The arrangement may not make much sense in terms of sporting achievement, but it's clear that to Francis Barrett the sporting achievement wouldn't have much value without the arrangement. Similarly, his life as a traveller has its own logic. What would he do, I asked, were he to turn pro, win a world title and make a lot of money, as he believes he can?

"My life won't change, no. If I went pro and I made money out of it, I'd look after my family first. I'd buy a nice chalet for Kathleen's mum and dad. I'd buy a lovely chalet for my father and mother. And I'd buy a chalet for myself." A chalet? He pointed through the caravan window at a larger dwelling on a neighbouring patch. "It's like a house with wheels. Bigger than this. You can buy a good big one for pounds 10,000, pounds 15,000, pounds 20,000. I'd buy three of them and I'd bring them all to Ireland. And I'd live at home and become a trainer and get young lads off the streets and away from drugs. That would be my aim."

Other boxers would be more likely to respond by buying a mansion in St John's Wood or Hampstead. "I don't know about that. My mind wouldn't be on it. This is the life that I'm reared in. I've been living in a caravan since I was a baby. It's real relaxing. In a house I'd find it really strange. I'd be all right for about a week or something, you know? At home now, if my father moved into a house, he'd never get any visitors. You'd never see no one around. But living in a caravan, he gets an awful lot of visitors."

His parents live in a caravan park in Hillside, near Galway. There is a long-running dispute with the local council, which has failed to build a permanent site for them and their fellow travellers. In Ireland, Frankie said, travellers get a harder time than in England. "Over here they don't know who you are. But at home, people give travellers the bad look. Myself, no. I was always involved in boxing and I've been in the newspaper since I was 11. If I'd never been in the paper, people would probably be looking at me that way, too. A lot of people when they look at travellers they think of fighting and stealing and messing and this and that, but a lot of travellers are not like that."

Chick Gillan's work with boys from the travellers' community has brought him trouble in Galway. "He was immediately ostracised and he lost his club premises," Calum Flynn, of Ennis Boxing Club, says in the film. "After that he used to train his kids on the sidewalks, under the street lamps, up on the hillside, even in his own house." Even now, despite its success, the Olympic Boxing Club still has no headquarters of its own, and has to make use of a community centre for its 25 young fighters. "Every time we went down to a boxing club we used to be run out of it," Frankie said, "mainly because we were travellers, and a lot of people didn't like us." On an Irish TV show a few weeks ago, he made a appeal for the council do to do something about it, in practical recognition of the value of Chick's work to the community.

"There's talk about a gym getting built in Westside, just down the road from us. If they build it, and get the equipment in, that'll be lovely, just lovely. Hopefully the corporation will pay for it. After all, we've done so much for Galway, and for the kids, we deserve it"

Southpaw opens at selected cinemas on 19 March