Media Irishtimes

A rapid response to street violence

A new self-defence course teaches street-fighting techniques to help people deal with random attacks. Joe Humphreys attends one of the classes.

‘Ya bleedin’ b*****d!” yells a stocky young man as he lands a punch on the cheek of a passer-by. It’s a “haymaker”, to be precise, the most common form of attack on men in street violence. Or so the assailant explains.

“Most women are attacked from behind. But for guys, the average attacker is likely to go for you with a haymaker. Police studies show it’s used in 90 per cent of attacks.”

The speaker, Dubliner Patrick Cumiskey (36), should know what he is talking about. A second-degree black belt in karate, he has spent 14 years learning martial arts, and a related form of street-combat self-defence known as Krav Maga, which he now teaches in what’s believed to be the first class of its type in Ireland.

Cumiskey, a management consultant by day, learnt the Israeli army-endorsed “fighting system” in the UK, and has modified it with knowledge he gained training with police in Sweden on how to handle confrontation verbally. The result is Krav Maga Ireland, which this month began its first condensed self-defence course. The service is a direct response to increasing concerns about random street violence, and comes complete with simulation exercises and even sound effects.

“Bloody hell!” Cumiskey cries as he defends himself from a haymaker landed by his training partner, the former passer-by. Both are delivered in slow motion to show the punch’s lumbering trajectory in full. “We deliberately train using bad language to prepare people for what to expect,” says Cumiskey. “We also look at the language that can be used to try to talk an aggressor down from a situation.”

Participants train in their ordinary clothes, some having come straight from work for this 15-strong night class. They include a woman who works as a human resources manager, a third-level student and an IT engineer – “a good cross-section of middle-class Dublin,” as Cumiskey puts it. Without exception, the motivation for joining is fear over unprovoked street attacks.

“Everyone here has their own story to tell,” notes Tom McManamon from Stillorgan. “Everyone has their own little spooks.” Indeed, one member of the class was set upon recently by a group of youths in the city centre. Others speak of assaults on friends or family members.

Robert Hanley, a dentist, originally from Galway, says he was attracted to the course because it worked on “simple” techniques that didn’t take long to pick up. “You basically learn how to wind the guy and run. There’s no fancy stuff,” he remarks.

Running, indeed, is the number one ploy taught by Cumiskey, and he underlines its importance by starting each class with 30-second sprints on the spot. “The two most important things in self-defence are these,” he says, pointing to his legs.

“Fighting is a mug’s game. Even if you win you lose. So the first thing we teach is: don’t fight. Run if you can. If a guy is giving you trouble at a bar the bravest thing to do is to get out of there. You should be thinking ‘I don’t want to enter into his world’.”

The third most important thing, by all accounts, is confidence. Cumiskey elaborates: “Muggers are not looking for a fair fight. They are looking for a victim. When they come up to you at first they’ll often ‘interview’ you. They’re looking to see how you’ll react. If you come across as confident and in control of the situation they’re less likely to strike.”

He advises “victims” to take a “boundary-setting” stance whereby their hands are held up to the assailant, both to act as protection from a blow and to be “in the right place if you need them”. Short-cutting lessons on punching technique, he teaches the “palm shot” instead, a firm slap which seeks to stun the attacker into giving you time to flee.

The training is naturally somewhat crude. It also has its sceptics.

Paul Dowling, a seventh-degree black-belt tutor with Dublin’s Rathdown Kenpo Club, believes there is no quick route to self-defence. To be in any way proficient, he says, one would have to reach brown-belt level in martial arts, something which “takes the best part of four years”.

While he says he has only read about Krav Maga and cannot comment about it in detail, he is sometimes asked to provide condensed self-defence courses and he finds participants “have false expectations about their ability to handle themselves if they are attacked”. He says: “You have to remember a mugger could be attacking people a couple of times a day and is used to fighting. He won’t be in fear of being injured, unlike someone not used to physical encounters.”

Even with experience, Dowling notes, people can be caught off-guard. “One of my students had an encounter recently, and what took him by surprise was the verbal assault which preceded the physical one. The other guy’s aggression and hatred almost froze him. Luckily, he got out of that situation. But someone training only six months or so might not have been able to.” If one is attacked, he notes, the first thing to do is “make noise” to attract attention. After that, run, if possible. “Hitting back is a last resort,” says Dowling.

Cumiskey doesn’t disagree but believes some preparation is better than none.

“Most people don’t have the time to go to karate and train three times a week for four years. They want a quick way of learning how to take care of themselves, based on their instinctive reactions.”

Emphasising the defensive nature of Krav Maga, he adds: “I have no intention of releasing a gang of Ninjas on Dublin, a group of middle-class professionals going around beating people up.”

Whatever about the merits of the street-fighting system, it has certainly found a market both in Ireland and abroad, helped no doubt by celebrity practitioners such as Jennifer Lopez. It also appears to have tapped into a desire among women to take part in more contact sport. Dominic O’Rourke, president of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, says the number of girls and women joining boxing clubs has increased dramatically in recent years. “Most are joining to keep fit but fears about violence on the streets may be playing a part too,” he says.

For Cumiskey such fears are very real, so much so that he is thinking of becoming a full-time Krav Maga coach.

“The demand is there. Most people thought they would not get into trouble if they did not cause trouble. But that view has changed. The idea of walking through town and being set upon by two or three gurriers doesn’t seem so unlikely anymore.”