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Irishman (72) is first European inducted into martial arts hall of fame in North Korea

A 72-year-old Irishman has become the first European inducted into a prestigious martial arts hall of fame in communist North Korea.

Pensioner Robert Howard, now a grandmaster, travelled to Pyongyang to be awarded the ninth degree black belt in taekwon-do.

He is one of nine people in the world with the title Sasung, and has been ranked number eight overall.

Grandmaster Howard, a retired roofing contractor from Dublin renowned for smashing tiles, said he was honoured to receive the accolade.

"In the Guinness Book of Records this is the most lethal form of self defence because it can kill," he said.

"Over the years other martial arts have been watered down a bit but you still do the breaking of tiles and sparring in taekwon-do - you toughen the hands and punch the wall."

Two-fingered press-ups are a regular training exercise.

Grandmaster Howard took up the Olympic sport - created by South Korean army General Choi - in 1966 and within five years became one of the first Irish men to reach black belt standard. He won two silver medals in the 1978 world championships in Oklahoma.

"When I started in taekwon-do back in the 60s I never thought I'd be still training today, and still with my original instructor, Grandmaster Rhee Ki Ha," he said.

"Perseverance is one of General Choi's five tenets and I've always tried to live by them."

One appeal of the sport is the lethal flying kicks and punches and the training which teaches the art of smashing tiles, bricks and wood.

Grandmaster Howard, who has been practising taekwon-do for 46 years, featured on The Late Late Show in 1973 when he broke his hand demonstrating how to break through roofing tiles.

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"I'd say there's more accidents now at football than what we do," he said.

"But when you break your hand, especially on The Late Late, you don't run around telling anyone. We'd a few drinks after and I dropped the wife home, god rest her, and headed down to the Mater (Hospital).

"The nurse asked how it happened and I was surprised. I said, 'were you not watching The Late Late?'"

Grandmaster Howard, who teaches more than 80 youngsters in Cabra, was promoted at a special ceremony at the 17th world championships, which ended this week in Pyongyang.

"The adults really want to keep the kids off the streets, off drugs," he said.

"After learning taekwon-do you can see they are much more mannerly, you are kind of rearing the kids for the parents, even in schools you notice it - they are learning Korean words and that opens a new part of the mind.

Taekwon-do means to strike or break with foot, with fist, and the way or art.

Mr Howard added: "The way is the most important - moral culture, a good manner and code of conduct."

Mr Howard was honoured alongside two North Koreans and a Vietnamese man living in Canada.

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