One of the busiest areas in the capital for a good night out is the area at the junction of Wexford St, Kevin St and Aungier St in Dublin’s city center. With three colleges in close proximity, the local bars advertise student nights, cocktail specials and late night DJ’S. Whether you want live music or a pint after a match, this is the heart of student social life. So what were a group of serene looking, white robed men and women doing in the middle of an area like this on a Sunday night?
Sauntering through this junction one night, my eye was drawn to this scene that stood out as so strange in this vibrant area. Walking by an old building I’d passed a million times before but never noticed, I caught sight of a group of men and women dressed in what looked like white pyjamas, engaging in all kinds of strange movements! A sign on the window revealed them to be the Whitefriar St Aikido Club.
Intrigued, I took down the contact number and the next day called Brendan Dowling who runs the club. Brendan encouraged me to try out a class and before taking part I decided to do a little research on what exactly is Aikido. Aikido (a.i.ki.do) meaning ‘the Way of unifying (with) life energy’ is a Japanese martial art developed by Morihei Ueshiba in the late 1920’s. Ueshiba’s goal was to develop a martial art that practitioners (Aikidoka) could use to defend themselves, while also protecting their attacker from being hurt. Aikido blends the energy of the attacker with the practitioner’s energy and redirects the force, rather than opposing it. The Aikidoka ‘leads’ the attackers motion using entering and turning techniques known as throws or locks.
So, armed with only this amount of knowledge and the loose comfortable clothing I had been told to bring, I made my way back to the Cuffe St dojo (a place where Aikido is practised) to try the class. Arriving on time I was the only person there but soon a young student called Gabriel came in. He told me how he came to find this club. ‘I was on my way to Dicies to meet friends when I passed the building’. ‘I looked in the window and recognised an Aikido class’. Gabriel explained he had been looking for a Judo club in the area as he practices this martial art in Brazil where he’s from. However, he said on seeing this Aikido class, he decided to come along. Gabriel told me ‘it’s as much the philosophy and way of thinking about the world that attracts me to the martial arts, as the practice itself’. He is in Ireland to study English for a year in nearby DIT but he said he hopes to stay on for another year.
Soon we were joined by Hai, a Google employee from Finland and John, a Limerick man studying Politics. As myself and my group of merry martial arts men pieced together a big jig- saw of rubber mats on the floor, Thomas, a practitioner for over 10 years explained what would happen during the class. We began with a series of stretches and gentle movements, most of which form the basis of the throws or locks we would learn later in the class. The emphasis at this stage was to find what your body’s limit was for that evening and how far it would allow you to go in a stretch or lock.
Talking with Brendan after the class, he told me ‘at the centre of Aikido is the belief that there is enough violence in the world already, so why would we respond to a violent situation with more violence? Aikido teaches us how to respond to an attack with compassion for the attacker, it can be hard for people to get their head around this’. Brendan told me he first came across Aikido over 25 years ago after meeting a French man who was living in Ireland at that time. He said he learned from that man and then went on to train under different teachers in Japan.
Brendan said ‘people from all walks of life find Aikido, a lot of people I’ve met are drawn to it because they’ve experienced an abuse of power in some way in their lives and they want to find a way of responding to that without reacting in the same abusive way’. Brendan explained that attacks on people can be physical but also more subtle abuses. He said ‘the philosophy of Aikido challenges people to examine their beliefs about power and control’. Brendan teaches children’s classes in the center also and he said ‘the most important thing is that the kids get that they are not fighting. They have a way of redirecting force, that’s very important’.
On returning home I found I was fascinated to know more about Aikido and the history and philosophy behind it. What was it about Japan’s history that would allow an aspect of it’s culture to be so insightful in its beliefs about how to respond to violence? Aikido was born out of the hundreds of years of martial arts culture so rooted in Japanese history. Aikido developed into an art of non-violence from its roots in Daito Ryu Aikijutsu at a time when Japanese society was reassessing its relationship with militarism, following its surrender in World War II. At that time the country was forced to learn many crucial and difficult lessons about the great cost to human life. Within the practice of Aikido is the quest to know oneself and not a desire to dominate or injure others.
So, a walk around Wexford St to see where to go for a drink on a Sunday night, led me to discover a strange dojo, a new martial art, Aikido and introduced me to a new philosophy of thinking about power and violence. Just as finding this Aikido club in the middle of this party area of Dublin seemed so unlikely, I learned how Japan’s response to its own history and experience of violence, allowed it’s culture to develop a practice and philosophy that offers a way of responding to abuses of power both physical and more subtle with compassion. Aikido acknowledges we will experience attacks, however this practice offers a way of lessening the violence in our world that has seen so much already.