In Cabra, an Award-Winning Martial Arts Club Fights for Survival

Nicholas Duffy casts his mind back to the day he started training in taekwondo. He wasn’t yet nine years old, he says.

Taekwondo was on in his local playground in Hill Street in the north inner-city, he says.

“A few of my friends from school joined too,” he says. “At the time there were 45 of us in that particular class in school.”

Duffy is 50 years old now. As far as he can work out the only men from his class that survived were the ones who trained in martial arts, he says.

The others mostly died from drugs, he says. Some took their own lives. “That was the statistics at the time, the drug epidemic in the 80s in the inner city. That is how bad it was.”

Martial arts started him and his friends on a different path though, he says. “Only for the martial arts was there, God only knows where we would be.”

By the age of 14, Duffy was teaching kickboxing and taekwondo and he started a club in Cabra, he says.

Nowadays, together with fellow coach Darren Doherty and an active committee, he runs Korean Kickboxing Cabra (KKC) a kickboxing and taekwondo club with around 250 students, among them world champions.

But despite success in medals, the future of the club is in jeopardy. The converted warehouse where they’ve coached and trained for the last ten years is mooted for demolition.

They are struggling, says Duffy, to find a new home.

Tenets of Taekwondo

Inside the KKC martial arts studio on Bannow Road, “Pain is Temporary. Glory is Forever,” is painted on the wall in big, bold, red letters.

Red and blue mats line the floor. There are murals of combat sport legends, Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee.

There is a gym area with treadmills, a fighting ring and a line of five punch bags.

“This is what we teach them,” says Doherty, a coach, as he points up to two large posters on the wall which outline the oath and tenets of taekwondo.

These tenets are also the rules of the club. “Courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit,” he says.

Training in taekwondo also means the child is on a path to becoming a teacher, he says. Because once they get a black belt, they are encouraged to teach others, no matter how young they are.

National kickboxing and taekwondo champion Ella Murtagh just turned 13 and got her first black belt in taekwondo, says Doherty. Now, she will begin training others.

That experience offers kids the chance to develop a career in personal training, he says.

Coaches continue to supervise their teaching, says Duffy.

Indomitable Spirit

“We have been all over the world fighting with great success,” says Duffy. “What you put in is what you get out of it.”

“Plus the kids from Cabra are tough,” says Declan O’Reilly, a KKC committee member, with a laugh.

But KKC also takes students from all over the Dublin region and as far away as Bray, he says.

“That ring is an Olympic-sized ring,” says Duffy, gesturing towards the fighting ring. “We have been striving towards recognition all the time.”

In 2018, the Olympic Committee granted kickboxing provisional recognition, a step towards inclusion in the games.

KKC won three gold medals at the last world championships of the World Association of Kickboxing Organisations, says Duffy.

“One day one of these kids will win an Olympic medal and then everyone will want to know them,” says O’Reilly. “But they don’t see all the hard work that goes into it.”

Some students have gone on to professional sports careers, he says. His son Aaron, aged 20, has just gone pro in boxing.

As has another student Lloyd Lynch, says Duffy. Tristan Barnett has gone professional as a UFC fighter.

Duffy says that his niece, the world champion boxer, Kellie Harrington, also started out at KKC.

For All

O’Reilly says that he encourages young people to join the club if they are having problems with drugs.

“We have had guys come in here with massive drug issues who went on to be national champions, went on to be coaches,” says Duffy.

But the club is not just about elite athletes who might go pro or represent Ireland, says Duffy.

They also run programmes to teach children with special needs. “We don’t treat them any different and we don’t want them to feel any different,” he says.

Doherty has taught basic martial arts to young vulnerable adults as part of a programme called Kicks, he says.

He is currently teaching on Zoom, hoping subscriptions will help cover rent and bills, he says.

The KKC fees go towards covering the costs of running the club, says O’Reilly. But if parents can’t pay “we would never turn a child away”.

Duffy says he has applied for many grants without success. Instead, they fundraise constantly for equipment and for cash to cover travel costs to take kids to fight at home and abroad, he says.

“We try to keep the burden off the parents so we do run our own raffles, race nights, kickboxing shows,” he says.

The coaches have full-time jobs. They dedicate evenings and weekends to training others. “We all love what we are doing otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it,” says Duffy.

The club gets a huge amount of support from the parents, says O’Reilly.

Facing Eviction

Thirty-six years ago Duffy was involved in setting up a club called the Irish School of Taekwondo, a kickboxing and taekwondo club in Cabra, he says.

“I was competing in kickboxing from 12 and started teaching both disciplines at 14,” he says.

They moved out from the inner-city to Cabra to attract more students, says Duffy. The first premises they got was in a school and later they got a spot in a community centre.

Ten years ago, they moved again to the rented premises at 280 Bannow Road, where they are now.

But the owners of the building have applied for planning permission to demolish the building for 69 build-to-rent apartments.

The eviction date has passed. “The parents are coming here, saying are we going to be kicked out?” says Duffy.

The kids are starting to worry too, says Doherty.

Dublin City Council is trying to help but doesn’t have a suitable premises in the area, he says.

A martial arts club needs a matted floor and a fighting ring so it can’t just operate from any old gym. They need a lot of space.

Earlier this month, the club launched a petition to spread the word and call on Dublin City Council to divert funding they get from development levies to build recreational amenities for the area.

As of 27 October, 1,294 people had signed and 347 people commented in support of KKC’s work.

“This club has changed my 2 lads from being brats into dare I say polite good lads,” wrote Daryn Zayden. “Keep up the great work.”

A Possible Fix

The council should ask TU Dublin to give KKC a space in their planned sports campus at Broombridge, said a motion from Fine Gael Councillor Colm O’Rourke at a meeting of the Central Area Committee on 13 October.

That motion was agreed. The council will write to TU Dublin to ask them to consider that, says O’Rourke, by phone on Thursday.

TU Dublin hasn’t yet responded to queries about whether they would consider the idea.

O’Rourke says it would mean TU Dublin could build links with the local community and that it may inspire more young people from Cabra to consider university.

Students of TU Dublin would benefit too, says Duffy. They could train with KKC.

Says O’Reilly: “It would be a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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