Higgins Family Boxing: Part II
(Blog entry #20)
Back on April 12th. of this year I published an instalment dealing with my family martial arts background. I was a bit hesitant in doing so for two reasons. First, I was disclosing personal information about family activities (some a trifle sketchy) in times of trouble and want. Secondly, this is primarily a Tai Chi blog and I wasn't sure that the Irish stuff would be appreciated. Since then, however, I've received some positive feedback, and I therefore feel at more liberty to expand on what I wrote earlier.
In 2011 I was approached by several of my more elderly Tai Chi students who enquired about the defensive use of their canes. Specifically, they were concerned about being assaulted when out for a walk and having their walking sticks taken and used against them. This was at a time when the local press was giving attention to incidents of physical violence directed at seniors in our community.
I according contacted Glen Doyle, inheritor and master of a family-style stick fighting system, who had a club in Milton, a town only a short distance away. Glen, along with some of his senior students, spent March 25th, 2012 with us in Kitchener going over the the three generations of development in his family system, the Rince An Bhata Uisce Bheatha (“Dance of the Whiskey Stick”). There are a number of short vids on-line of Glen giving lessons in his club at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d43qH9w5Dow&t=112s Further work with Glen was unfortunately not possible because of changes in his career plans.
In the course of his workshop with us in Kitchener Glen explained that, because it was the work of an ancestor who was a pugilist, the first-generation version of his family's style emphasized keeping both hands on the stick. This was of great interest to me because my own family had their own boxing method which I had learned from my father. We continued to train with the material we'd learned from Glen but, without continued access to his teaching (I understand that he has closed both his Bataireacht and Kung Fu clubs in order to pursue other artistic endeavours.), I saw the necessity of turning our attention to my own family's material and adapting what we had learned from him. What this has involved is a refocusing on pugilistic principles and then seeing how they are extended in the use of the stick.
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 Irish secular and ecclesiastical authorities. I learned to box as a boy from my father, Alan James Higgins. Both of his grandfathers, Jacob Stephen Higgins and Bill Hurley, were noted bare-knuckle boxers in their time in the Ontario lumber camps in the late 19th Century. Their fathers had immigrated to Canada in the Great Famine.
This boxing style is primarily for self-defence. It has little or nothing in common with the Old London Prize Rules or the Marquess of Queensbury Rules. In practising it, great care must therefore be taken to avoid inflicting serious injury. Oddly, you can see elements of it in the boxing style of the 1920's American champ Jack Dempsey!
The stance, as shown in the photo, is oblique with the right side presented to the opponent. One steps forward with the right foot and back with the left using either a shuffle-step or a forward falling-step. In striking with the left hand one pivots on the balls of the feet. An optional move at this point is to close the distance by lunging forward with the right foot and again striking with the right hand or going in for a throw. When possible, step on the opponent’s feet to take his balance.
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 crossing or hooking palm punch, the fingers are not extended but softly curled into the palm to prevent them from being injured or hyper-extended by being jammed by the opponent’s fist.
The arm rotates elbow-out as the punch is thrown. There must be no muscular tension. The front right hand is the “power hand”, the rear hand functioning as blocker or as follow-up. My father referred to this method not as punching, but as “cuffing”.
There is no effort at symetricality in technique. Get used to your favourite side and use it for everything.
The punch can also be employed with a shrugging of the right shoulder while tucking the head down. This allows the right to be thrown while shoulder-blocking the opponent's left.
The two strikes primarily used are the straight lead and the crossing punch. Other strikes are delivered with the forearm and elbow. 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 if what is desired is to punish the opponent and "spill the wine". This my father called “whipping”.
Low and sweep-kicking to the knee and shins are also part of this method, as are reaping throws, rotary throws from either the inside or outside positions, trips, and submission techniques such as the Higgins family head-lock. One throw is effected by hooking a finger into the opponent’s throat depression above the sternum and bearing down. Other methods include knee strikes to thigh, groin or head, as well as head butts and a method of eye gouging.
Training should be conducted with light contact and slowed speed. Allow the opponent's punch to develop before blocking or parrying. Full speed can be used for shadow boxing or bag work. The 'fist' should never be tensed. There should always be a focus on correct form and supporting structure.
Never use boxing gloves! It's great to have them hanging in the porch for family get-togethers, but they are for fun -- not serious training. Bag gloves can be used to protect the hand if you are using the stick (shillelagh), but not if the palm is padded.
Finally, there is very little support material for traditional methods of this kind. The late Ken Pfrenger established a Facebook site which survived his passing. It can be found at https://www.facebook.com/groups/irishmartialarts/ and features recently posted material. Glen Doyle's sites seem to be inactive. The displays of 'Traveller Boxing' on Youtube are generally crude, sordid and depressing. There is, however, a nice traditional Irish Boxing tutorial at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgEyQhz4B68&t=401s
Bear in mind, however, that all these are descriptive of boxing as blood-sport. My family's method is more purely defensive and a bit more extreme.