With the UCD Fencing Club now in its 59th year, Shane Hannon speaks to current club captain Aoife O’Mahony about the sport in general, the Irish Fencing Federation and how to get involved.
It is a little known fact that the UCD Fencing club is one of the oldest sports clubs in the University. Although interest in the sport is decidedly limited in Ireland, it is one of the largest sports in the world in terms of participation. It is the national sport in Hungary and extremely popular in France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. It is quite strong in North America and China too and just about every country in the world has an active fencing organisation.
Fencing itself is divided into three main categories; Épée (pronounced EPP-pay), Foil and Sabre. But what exactly makes them different? According to O’Mahony, the main differences between the three are in terms of the weapon used, and where on the body the competitors get points for striking. She notes that “Épée is probably the most straightforward to explain. Basically you have a weapon with a button on the end, and when that button gets pressed by hitting something a light goes off, and in Épée you can hit anywhere you want.”
Foil, meanwhile, has its roots in duelling and in this discipline, you can only hit the body. Foil fencing action tends to be fast, punctuated by halts as the president makes the decision to award a point. Finally, as O’Mahony notes, “Sabre is a similar thing, except you can hit anywhere on the blade and you can hit anywhere on the top half of the body.” Épée and foil share their roots in the duelling discipline, whilst Sabre developed from swordfights on horseback.
Fencers often tend to specialise in just one of these disciplines. The weapons differ in the way they are used to score hits: in foil and épée, only a thrust with the point of the weapon counts, whereas in sabre a hit can also be made by the side of the blade. O’Mahony herself is a keen competitor in Épée, and is currently ranked 17th in the Irish Women’s Épée rankings. She also finished an excellent 7th place in the Irish intermediates in October. When asked if it was commonplace for fencers to specialise in one of these disciplines O’Mahony replied, “It depends. Some people like to do all three. In some competitions there can be prizes for all weapons so some people like to do them all, but most people do develop one.”
Fencing has been included in the modern Olympic Games since their inception in 1896. Along with swimming, gymnastics, and athletics, it is one of only four sports to have been contested at every Summer Olympiad. Clearly the sport’s popularity worldwide is unquestionable, but O’Mahony warns those entering the sport for the first time not to be expecting an easy ride, “One thing I’d say for anyone coming into the sport is don’t underestimate how much time and effort it takes to do a good job.” O’Mahony herself is a full-time Nursing student and knows from personal experience how hard it can be to train to a high level and keep the studying on track simultaneously, “Saying it’s hard to juggle both is an understatement – it’s very difficult!” What makes her own individual and team performances for UCD so impressive is the fact that she hasn’t even been fencing for all that long, “I only took it up (fencing) in college so I’ve only been at it four years.”
Ten years after fencing featured at the first modern Olympic Games, the sport formally came to Ireland in 1906 when the Irish Fencing Club was founded in Dublin. Ireland has a long tradition of sending fencers to the Olympic Games, most recently Siobhan Byrne in the Women’s Sabre event in 2008. Well-known Irish Fencers include Peter O’Toole and William Butler Yeats (taught by Ezra Pound while Pound was employed as his secretary). These days any hits on the body are scored electronically, but O’Mahony notes this wasn’t always the case, “They used to use chalk. They would use the tip and it would be chalked and you would see the hits on the body.”
The 1912 Olympics introduced the Modern Pentathlon, which features a one-hit variant of épée fencing intended to simulate a duel to first blood. O’Mahony says that “The Pentathlon athletes have the highest standard of fencing in Ireland because they have such good resources so they’re all doing brilliantly, going to world cups and the likes.” UCD student Arthur Lanigan-O’Keeffe even competed for Ireland at the London Olympic Games in 2012 in the Modern Pentathlon.
The Irish Fencing Federation is over the sport in Ireland and O’Mahony admits the organisation is “kind of going through a reform at the moment. It kind of got a bit stuck in a rut, but there are a lot more fresh faces coming into it now.” The future does look bright however, “It’s improving. Even this year there are more tournaments being organised with the different weapons and leagues which I think is only going to improve the game in Ireland.”
O’Mahony clearly possesses a love of the sport, but it’s not just the competing, “I like the social aspect to it too. The fact that I’m captain and was secretary last year means I know a lot of fencers in Ireland.” As for budding UCD fencers out there keen to join, “You can either contact myself or the secretary. We do encourage people to join because we do have beginners’ classes. But most people join during eithers Fresher’s or Refreshers’ week.” So why not join? With the sports’ popularity on the rise worldwide, you’d be mad not to.