Wicklow People

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Speed and skill main focus of fencing

Reporter David Medcalf travels to Greystones where a couple from Hungary are busy teaching the ancient art of fencing to willing students across north Wicklow with a focus on speed, skill and top class reflexes.

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Fencing at Educate Together NS Greystones. Piroska Keresztes teaching Tasiana Griffin English

Fencing at Educate Together NS Greystones. Piroska Keresztes teaching Tasiana Griffin English

Fencing at Educate Together NS Greystones. Piroska Keresztes teaching Tasiana Griffin English

Fencing is truly a minority sport in an Ireland dominated by team games such as football (in its various connotations) and hurling. There are probably more members in the most junior of the junior soccer clubs in Wicklow than there are fencers in the entire county. In terms of numbers participating, fencing barely registers its existence, even over-shadowed by orienteering or trampolining or mountain biking.

The ancient sport of swordplay is largely confined in the wider public imagination to the exploits of The Three Musketeers or Zorro. Though widely enjoyed across Eastern Europe, it has largely passed Ireland by, habitually filed under O for obscure. But the fact is that, though it is not found on every street corner, fencing has its enthusiasts in this part of the world. Take note that it is likely practised in a gymnasium not so very far away from you - and new recruits are welcome.

Back in 2016, coach Lee Douglas told this column that his club in Blessington was the only one of its kind in County Wicklow. Now Lee's band of followers has been joined on the fencing map by En Garde, which does battle not only in Greystones but also in Roundwood. Perish the thought that this contest of skill, speed, reflex and dark psychological arts could become widespread popular.

Still, En Garde founders David Losonczi and Piri Keresztes are determined to broadcast the news that fencing is a pastime worth pursuing. And the couple from Hungary have found that Irish people are readily capable of picking up an epee. The club attracted recent publicity for its trip to the pair's native country where their eight strong young squad took on their peers from around Europe.

'They went to Hungary to get a grasp of the standard there, where they take fencing really seriously,' commented Keelan English, who has two children involved. 'It has taken them a while to grasp the tactics involved but it is one of those things you can do at a basic level straight away.' The boys and girls of En Garde are now a step or two above 'basic'.

They returned from their adventure in Budapest happy that they were able to compete with their more seasoned Continental rivals, having notched up a respectable number of wins. Keelan was talking at the recent open day staged by En Garde in the gym at the Educate Together primary school in Greystones. The event attracted a dozen more youngsters eager to join the experienced octet and try their hand on the piste.

The established club members were kitted out in new gear, perfectly white tunics, topped by dramatically black masks. They warmed up and delivered an exhibition of the thrust-and-parry, swish-and-retreat which has become their thrice-a-week routine. The tunics and swords are wired up to a device which looks a little like a car battery with a display to tell which contestant had tipped the other first. Sometimes the difference between the victor's first tip and the loser's second tip is a matter of milliseconds but the electronics ensure fair play.

Squad member Sophie Gallagher recalled the days when she used to do gymnastics and horse riding - but no longer. These days her sporting energy is channelled exclusively into the fencing: 'It is very exciting when you win. I like fencing because you are not counting on the team as much as in other sports.'

After two years honing her skills in Greystones, she was amazed at the intensity of the competitors from other countries she saw in action during the trip to Hungary. One girl screamed, literally screamed out loud, when a joust came to an end, Sophie remembered, and she also saw one boy cry opening when he lost. The reality is that some of the participants from Eastern Europe are immersed in fencing three hours a day, five or six days a week.

En Garde is not that intense by any means, though 13 year old Tasiana Griffin English reckoned the club nevertheless provides a good discipline. She was well kitted out for the exhibition in protective gear but revealed proudly that she still picks up plenty of bruises, especially on the hands.

She echoed the view that the Hungarian experience was amazing, giving her the opportunity to test herself against opponents from Bulgaria, Italy and Croatia. She acquitted herself well but admitted that she had no answer to the wiles of one especially talented rival from Ukraine.

As Tasiana chatted, head coach David was introducing the young newbies to the plastic foils which are handed to absolute beginners. The one safety rule, enforced even with these toy weapons, was that the tip must never be pointed upwards, for fear it may stray towards someone's eye.

He went through routines of checking to see who was left-handed and who was right-handed, followed by some exercises to test speed of reflexes. Then, after giving some preliminary advice on how best to stand, he paired everyone off and let them at it.

One of the mothers looking on was Teresa Dawson from Bray who reckoned that she had maybe hit on a pastime both of her boys could enjoy. Harry, she confided, likes something different while John is pretty good at the other sports such as rugby and hurling. At that rate both should find something to enjoy at En Garde.

While the children started throwing their shapes with plastic foils, Piri demonstrated some of the more elaborate equipment to parents who were sitting and watching. She allowed the adults handle epees, showing how the long blade is never quite straight and how fencers may choose between a basic French grip and the more sophisticated Belgian grip (her preference). She stressed that sessions are also organised for adult beginners and that fencing may be enjoyed too by wheelchair sportspeople.

Her own first discipline is gymnastics but she and fiancé David knew when they reached these shore that they wanted to open Irish eyes to fencing: 'It is not popular but it is building up slowly.' It certainly is popular in Hungary which produced many of the Olympic champions who took medals from the Games in Brazil. The winners are recognised in the streets by the general public and hailed as national heroes, prompting a new generation of fencers to sign up for the sport.

At the Educate Together gym, most of the open day youngsters expressed an interest in returning and Piri also enticed a few adults to indicate that they would like to try out. Maybe this was the start of a break-out from the most-minor-of-minority category.

Ten year old Elliot Wright from Kilpedder, one of the group which travelled to Hungary, recalled that the numbers taking part there were huge. He was one of 100 competitors there in his age group, all boys, with the girls in a separate event. After crossing swords with German and Ukrainian as well as local opposition, he was delighted to finish in the top half, despite the limits on his preparation: 'I really only have time for rugby, fencing and sailing,' he explained. 'I have to say fencing is the best.'

As the crowd left, Piri thanked everyone for coming and made sure that they had her phone number for future reference. Nine children and four adults appeared to be interested in coming back for more. As the place fell silent and everything was tidied up, she and David spoke to your reporter of their background and plans.

Of the two, he is the more accomplished fencer, having first picked up a foil at the age of nine. Now 33, he looks back at a career on the piste which took him to the height of silver medals in European under 20 championships, and a top ten finish at the under 20 world championships in Korea. He then gravitated towards coaching at his local club in his home city of Miskolc but, with Piri working more than 200 kilometres away, romance dictated that they find employment somewhere close together.

Piri wrote letters to eight different countries outlining their ambitions and qualifications but only Ireland sent a positive reply. They settled first in Kilcoole before moving to Roundwood where they run classes in the national school. They have found that Irish people tend to think that fencing is somehow dangerous, a myth which they find both baffling and exasperating. David laughs good naturedly at the notion that anyone who allows their offspring play rugby could find his sport dangerous.

'There are about twenty fencing clubs in Ireland,' he says, 'but fencing can grow and grow.'

He has discovered that there is actually a long standing tradition in this country of donning the white tunic and mask. He coaches a Dubliner called Michael Ryan who represented Ireland at the Olympics in Tokyo (1966) and Mexico (1970). With a little help from two Hungarian enthusiasts, there is no reason why Michael's exploits cannot be repeated - maybe bettered - at future Games.

Wicklow People