Shihan – as ever the best place to start is at the beginning. How did you come to start training?
Kyokushin in Ireland began in 1978, when Gerry O'Sullivan, then a 1st kyu, opened two clubs simultaneously, in Mallow Co. Cork and Finglas in north Dublin.
There were two classes a week in Dublin with Dave Kelly, a 4th kyu, taking one class and Gerry commuting from his native Cork once a week to take the other. Noel Kelly, Dave's brother, told me about the new Karate club that had just opened and was I interested in going? I replied that I had a football match and we left it at that, but there was no football match that day because the pitch was waterlogged, so I went along for something to do. Although I found the training very hard going, I enjoyed it so much that I gave up one of my three weekly football matches.
I started training once a week but soon found that this wasn't enough so I dropped another one of my football matches. I was finding the karate more of a challenge than the soccer and eventually I gave up the football altogether and concentrated on the karate"
In 1978, while I was still a 4th kyu, the club moved to Mountjoy Square in the heart of the inner city. For anyone who trained there, indelible memories were imprinted on them. Getting to Mountjoy Square was a hazardous enough occupation as it was in a very rough part of town; the dojo being surrounded by derelict or condemned buildings.
The dojo itself was a low ceilinged structure with no windows and no insulation under its flat roof, so that in winter it was virtually the same temperature inside as outside; (although some would argue strongly that it was in fact, colder inside than out!). In the summer time it was hot and stuffy and clammy; oxygen being a much sought after commodity. The changing rooms were wooden chairs, (the kind you would use at a church fete), lined haphazardly against the wall and the toilets were a 50 meter dash from the dojo to the main building.
There are two things I remember most about Mountjoy Square. One is that the weather was such an integral part of our training. The Winter Freeze and the Summer Swelter; and if it rained the floor played host to myriad lakes, as the ceiling leaked. You always tried to pick a spot for yourself in the line so you'd miss the pools of water, but if a higher grade arrived late, the whole line shifted and then you could end up snookered; sliding forward in Zenkutsu Dachi pulling along a trail of lukewarm water, and trying desperately not to fall on your ear.
The second, and most important thing I remember, is the spirit. It didn't matter whether there were three or thirty, the training was always hard and the spirit was always strong; regardless of the splinters in the floor or the lights constantly flickering or the small pieces of plaster occasionally falling from the ceiling, the spirit was immovable, powerful.
Can you tell us a little of your knockdown experiences?
Gerry O'Sullivan did say to me that I would never fight knockdown because I was too small and too light. Shihan Liam encouraged me to take part and worked quite a lot with me, taking me to the top clubs in the BKK.
I entered my first Knockdown Tournament in 1984, and in those days there were no Novice Sections, so, greenhorns and experienced were pitched against one another. My thoughts before the fight were twofold; (i) let's get out there and see what it’s all about, and (ii), when this is all over, I'll be able to relax and have a pint. After the fight, I thought; I'm going to do better next time! I fought in two tournaments yearly until 1986.
I fought in the BKK regional tournaments and entered the BKK national in Crystal Palace on a number of occasions. I was lucky to fight at a time what I consider to be the "Golden period" of knockdown, Fighters like Michael Thompson, Any Hug, Nick De Costa all fought around the same time.
There were knockdown tournaments held in Ireland in the early 1980s. Is this something that you would like to revive and make a regular part of the calendar in some form or other?
Yes, this is something we are planning to put back on the calendar, either as a yearly event or bi-yearly.
How did you come to be Chief Instructor?
It was a gradual process. Gerry O'Sullivan who started Kyokushin in Ireland requested more assistance. Shihan Liam Keaveney got involved, and I volunteered to give some assistance with teaching and the administration. Gerry was no longer able to continue so a committee was immediately formed and I was selected to run the show because I was the highest grade.I took over as a 2nd kyu.
I didn't realise how much I'd signed on for. I thought it would just mean teaching the various clubs in Dublin, but, it gradually began to take up all my time. Also, besides running the Dublin clubs, and all that that entails, there were meetings with the other styles to keep abreast of what was happening within the Martial Arts clubs in Ireland.
It was also around this time that we began bringing high grades over from England, as I was still only a 1st kyu and the clubs needed to advance. I also started making trips over to England, learning as much as possible over a week-end; taking notes after the classes , and bringing it all back to Ireland, letting it slowly sink in. Sensei Liam Keaveney was the first of the high grades to come over, becoming a frequent visitor to these shores. We began to form a special relationship with him, and I think I can safely say, without fear of contradiction from any member of the I.K.K., that he has been a constant source of inspiration to all of us.
You were the first person in Ireland to attain Shodan grade. Can you tell us about the grading and how you felt?
In 1987 I attempted my Black Belt at the British Summer Camp in Wales. The grading itself was four hours long but was held at the end of the Camp so a lot of hard training had been done even before the grading started. At the end of the Camp the names of those who had been successful in their grading were called out. When they were finished, I wasn't unduly worried. I thought they were going to make a special announcement, seeing as I was the only student from Ireland attempting the grading. However, the crowds dispersed, and I was left standing alone, with only a deflated ego as company.
In September, 1987, I attempted it again and this time I passed. If I had originally thought that the pressure was going to ease off after getting my Shodan grade, I was very much mistaken. I was much more aware of my grade as I realised people were now looking at me in a different light. I had attained a high standard and people were expecting me not only to maintain it, but to raise it, and to keep raising it.
Continuing the discussion about tournaments can you tell us about the preparation for the Womens European Clicker Championships?
We had entered a clicker tournament with the BKK the previous year, so we knew what the standard was like. Most of our ladies team were yellow/green belts and hadn’t reached their full potential. We devised a plan which entailed a high work rate, upsetting the opponent’s rhythm, keeping our own limited techniques simple but good. In essence, we put them under pressure! Training was very hard given our game plan; there was even the odd death threat from the team members!!
What were your hopes at this tournament?
Definitely to win. We had bought seven bottles of champagne the day before the tournament. There was one each for the team members, and one each for myself and Liam Keaveney. It wasn’t arrogance; it was just the hunger to win at the highest level.
After the Tournament, it was decided to concentrate on expanding Kyokushin in Ireland, opening more clubs in Dublin and throughout the west of Ireland. As the years progressed, more high grades joined the Shodan ranks and the dilemma of being in ten places at one time diminished.
I was able to get around all the clubs now and had a little more time to concentrate on myself. After all, it had taken me ten years to get to Shodan and now only four years later I hope to attempt my Nidan grade.
At first the only dojo was in Dublin. How did the west of Ireland come on board?
I got a phone call from John Brawn in Westport, making enquires about Kyokushin. The students in Westport were doing a quasi between Shotokan/Kyokushin at that time. I agreed with John to travel to Westport and give a class. They joined up, and I did a weekend course at the end of every month for about a two year period. I have a lot of fond memories of the "early days" in Westport and the many friends I have made from that part of the country.
I worked out recently that we have participated in at least one Knockdown tournament a year since 1992 and only once did we fail to take home a trophy. That's a very good record for such a small organisation. To what do you attribute this success?
Yes, it's not a bad record. It is really down to team work. The more the organisation pulls together, the more successful we are.
The BKK resigned their membership of the IKO in 1991 and we joined them in forming the IFK. Was this a difficult decision to make?
No not at all. Our closest links were at the time and are with the BKK. Hanshi was a natural leader to follow with his experience.
In recent years we have been focusing a lot on our junior’s. We have been to three Severn Challenges and two World Tournaments. Are you happy with the progress we are making in this area?
Yes, we are making what I consider steady progress. The juniors are the future of the organisation. They have achieved, 3rd place in the team even for the last two world tournaments. That’s not bad but I do think that we are not too far from championship level.
Last year you were promoted to Godan. What does this mean to the IKK and to you personally?
I think it means a great deal to the IKK, as it demonstrates how far we have progressed as an organisation. For me personally, perhaps it simply just means I'm getting that bit older!!
At certain points in the last thirty years when memberships dipped and running the organisation on your own was a struggle what made you keep going?
To put it simply Osu, by this I mean to persevere and keep going no matter what we are up against. We have always done this and will continue to do so in the future.
What have been the highlights of the last thirty years for you?
Winning the Ladies European tournament in 1988, completing my 20 man kumite for my second dan, the many weekend/summer camps with Shihan Liam Keaveney. The many great friends that I have made throughout the years both in the IKK and BKK.
What are your plans for the future of the IKK?
To take a more active role in the IFK, to move the organisation to the next level, it's onwards and upwards.
As I mentioned earlier I would like to see knockdown again in Ireland on a more regular basis and perhaps the event we are staging for our anniversary is a first step in that direction.
Any final thoughts you would like to share with us here today?
When I started to teach, my philosophy was to give them hell; the harder the class the better; now, the classes are still hard, but, I try to emphasise technique; so, as the style has developed, I also have, in many respects.
As chief instructor of the IKK I have my responsibilities and challenges, but it’s the challenges I always enjoy. I enjoy Kyokushin because it is difficult and demanding and always requires 100%.
For the future, I want to promote Kyokushin in Ireland. We will never be the biggest style of Karate in this country, but we will be the strongest and our standards will always be the highest.