Blog installment #3 (timely, since I'm conducting a session on stick and pugilistics this Sunday!)
An Autobiographical Note on Irish Family Boxing.
I’ve hesitated about whether or not to post this instalment as it is rather personal, dealing as it does with my family background. However I think it does fit into the parameters of this site as an investigation of the circumstances martial arts come from. The fact is that while the modern practitioner may have the luxury of practising his or her art as a method of self-fulfilment, all martial arts originate in suffering and in a need to struggle.
One need only look at the terrible history of Chen Village in WWII after a famine caused by the depredations of the Japanese, the Kuomintang and finally a plague of locusts. The Chen Village of this time has been described as a ruin littered with unburied corpses. Think also of the great catastrophe of the Taiping Rebellion of the 1800’s which fostered the development of the Yang and Wu families’ combat arts.
Ireland experienced its own disaster in the Great Hunger of the 1840’s and 50’s, a time which saw the Irish diaspora, including some of my own ancestors, carry some of the traditional fighting arts of the Irish to Canada.
My first martial training took place under my father’s hand in the back yard of the old farm house in Northern Ontario. He was not a martial artist in any sense. His fighting skills were not the outcome of any effort at self-improvement. They were the product of his struggle to survive during the Depression and the result of his desire to return home alive at the end of one of his business trips in the 1930’s.
My father was a working man, a survivor of the Canadian industrial labour wars of the Great Depression. In those years he was one of the four men who started a labour union in Sault Ste. Marie - the Algoma Steelworkers’ Union. At the time he had to be wary of a company agent ‘accidentally’ dumping a load of hot steel on him or of the municipal police lying in wait to intercept him on his way home after a shift. He carried a stitched pig-skin lead-loaded ‘billy’ club up his sleeve on the way home and walked a different route every night.
When my father’s own death by misadventure was a foreseeable outcome of his continued employment at Algoma Steel, he left. There followed a stint of homelessness, riding the rails with millions of other unemployed men who were all looking for work. He found work for bare subsistence wages in the lumber camps of Kenora and Michipicoten. In these camps he had to fight for his life on at least one occasion.
He was acquainted with people who were engaged in the shipment of liquid goods into the United States during Prohibition. This may have been because of a family relation who was a mob boss in New York City (Charles “Vannie” Higgins, deceased 1932 at the hands of “Murder Incorporated”). My father took employment escorting Canadian businessmen who needed to visit occasionally unscrupulous clients in places like Chicago, New York and Atlantic City. His job was to get them safely home. Dangerous - but any job counted in the Depression.
He had acquired some combat skills from a Chinese cook in Detroit for whom he had washed dishes as a child. He made a concerted effort to acquire hand-gun skills. These he supplemented with Jujitsu techniques learned from books. Realizing that his life might depend upon these studies lent an urgency to his practice which modern hobbyists like myself can only imagine. But he also had a prior combative foundation in the boxing method that had descended to him from his Irish forebears.
An acquaintance with Pugilism or Boxing is a basic element in acquiring self-defence skills. Boxing has been particularly identified with the Irish from the late 1800’s when the native Irish tradition of stick fighting was being suppressed by the secular and ecclesiastical authorities. Both of my Dad’s grandfathers, Jacob Stephen Higgins and Bill Hurley, were noted bare-knuckle boxers in their time in the Ontario lumber camps of the late 19th Century. I have seen a video of a similar method which today survives in Ireland among the minority “Travellers” community.
The Higgins family boxing style my Dad taught me is for serious self-defence only -- not for competition or casual recreation. It has little or nothing in common with the Old London Prize Rules. In practicing it great care must be taken to avoid inflicting serious injury.
What distinguishes this Irish style is that most punches are delivered with the heel of the palm, or with the edge of the palm which lies between little finger and wrist. In this palm punch the fingers are not extended but are softly curled into the palm to prevent them from being injured or hyper-extended by being jammed by the opponent’s fist. My father referred to this method not as punching, but as “cuffing”. Most strikes are delivered with the forearm and elbow, driven by pivoting on the feet and twisting the torso. The back-fist is also used in recovery from a palm-method crossing punch. It can be reversed so as to strike back-and forth with the second knuckles of the hand, if what is desired is to punish the opponent. This my father called “whipping”. Low kicking to the knee and shins are also part of this method, as are reaping throws, trips and submission techniques such as the Higgins family head-lock (which inflicts blinding pain). Other methods include knee strikes to thigh, groin or head, as well as head butts, ear-clapping and eye-gouging (Yes, there is a technique to this!).
So is this a ‘martial art’?
I think not; but this is what martial arts come from. Tai Chi, Karate-do, Kung Fu --- all come from the basic logic of how to apply violence in the cause of defending one’s self or one’s family (or as a way of earning one's living).
I am now 66 year of age and have been teaching martial arts since 1986. Over that period of time I have often wondered whether what I learned in the back yard from my father should be passed on, or should it die? But I also remember how, when I was visiting at home on a break from university, my Dad asked me what I thought the role of the police was in society? “To maintain law and order!” I replied naively. “No!” he said slowly. “The role of the police is to maintain the State’s monopoly on violence!”
Such an old-fashioned hard-core radical response!
Should the State have a monopoly on violence? Is the ability to apply violence perhaps a birthright of the law-abiding citizen?
Most of us today practice martial arts in service of self-development. Self-development can be conceived of in terms of meditation, therapy or healthy athletics. But what about the capacity to engage in hard core self-defence?
With gratitude I’d like to acknowledge the role of my father and others like him, whether in China, Ireland or North America, who bequeathed to us a body of knowledge enabling the weak to resist oppression by the strong.