Faces of IOGKF – Ciara McGrath

Featured article-By David Lambert

When something grows as big as IOGKF International (the largest Okinawan Karate organisation in the world), you can be sure you’re always going to be in great company. Thousands of people the world over are involved in the federation and even though it is home to some of the world’s best Goju-ryu instructors, it is the little people that help make IOGKF so big. Hard working, motivated and dedicated Karate-ka from over 60 different nations working towards a common goal.

Faces of IOGKF is a continuing series that gives us the chance to highlight those special people within our organisation that might not be the highest graded instructors or even country leaders. But rather the before mentioned characters that help make our organisation what it is. From Sensei Howie ‘International man’ Hamilton of IOGKF Canada, to Sensei Beppe Manzari of IOGKF Italy, our Federation is eternally blessed to have an endless supply of wonderful people who don’t walk Karate’s spotlight, but are still loved the world over.

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Today, we head to Great Britain and more particularly to the Tooting Karate Dojo in London, home of Sensei Linda Marchant. Here, training hard constantly, we find the bubbly ‘Energizer bunny’ herself, Ciara McGrath.

Ciara McGrath has become a devoted IOGKF member and in recent years seems to show up at every IOGKF event form major International Gasshuku’s to National and regional gatherings. Her beautiful Irish accent, infectious smile and quick sense of humour has led to her becoming a regular and adored cornerstone of many IOGKF events.

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Ciara was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1975. An energetic child, those who know Ciara will probably not be surprised to learn that it was a constant struggle for her parents to channel her seamlessly never ending stream of energy.

I reckon I was a bit of a nightmare as a child, I could never sit still, always up to some sort of mischief. So it’s probably no surprise that at school it was always the ‘has buckets of capability, should try harder’ message that came back from parent teacher meetings.”

“I was sent to play a traditional Irish sport (for girls) called Camogie. It’s played with a very hard ball and a stick called a Hurley and pretty much everyone grew up wanting to play for their county. I went to a few training sessions, loved the training and the skills work but couldn’t see the point of running around a field with a ball and a stick!”

Later on in her childhood, Ciara’s family moved to Cork, in the south of Ireland. They lived in the countryside in a small cottage. Having four sisters under one roof meant that the family home was never quiet. The rural area they resided in was a tight knit community where ever one knew everyone else and the McGrath family quickly became the talk of the town when they were the first house in the area to have a telephone.

Ciara’s uncle Robert McGrath was involved in what was then called a ‘foreign sport’ by locals. Robert McGrath was a black belt in Wado-ryu Karate, a rank that was very rare for that time in Ireland. By the time he was 19 he had won the all-Ireland senior Wado Karate Championships and went on to hold this title for 5 years.  He had also traveled internationally to train and compete which was unusual for an Irish Karate-ka of that era. He had visited what Ciara then described as ‘the mystical land of Japan’. Robert McGrath was the family sports hero and Ciara’s idol.

 “It was my Uncle’s brother, my Dad, who saw how I had watched Robert train and he took me to the local Karate club. I absolutely hated it, until we started playing games; that I can see now were based on Kumite. Those I loved and as time went on and we started to do proper Kumite, I knew I had found my sweet spot.”

“The club was a Shotokan Club that had classes three times a week in a hall that was freezing in the winter and roasting in the summer. Once I had recovered after the initial shock and pain of training, I was hooked and quickly looking for more training sessions! The Sensei was affiliated to SKIF (Kanazawa Sensei’s Association) initially and so the first few grading tests that I did were with that association.”

“The club then moved to follow the line of Sensei Kase and by the time I was about 15, I was regularly travelling to Gasshuku’s and to the European Honbu Dojo in Hasselt, Belgium. Additionally I also invited to train with other instructors to learn Kobujutsu and different styles of Karate. I only realised the significance of this additional training many years later as it was someone I met in Kobujutsu who was an IOGKF member.”

By the time Ciara was old enough to be studying at University, she was training with local, national and University teams and as a result travelling internationally for competition.

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“I could easily have drifted to the competition part of Karate entirely, but my first Sensei had drilled the importance of ‘Karate for life’ and as a result I always maintained a link back to my traditional roots.”

Ciara’s tournament career highlights are impressive to say the least. They include:

  • Member of Junior Irish team 1986-1991.
  • University Team member- Undefeated in Kumite, also placing in Kata.
  • Irish team member from 1991-2008 various titles (Irish, European, World Championships) all kumite.
  • UKTKF team member various titles-Kumite
  • EGKA (IOGKF England) National Champion x3
  • British Open-Gold Kumite.

Ciara McGrath graded to Yondan in Shotokan before leaving Ireland to relocate to London, which happened ten years ago, when work opportunities presented themselves. Upon arriving in London, Ciara quickly got to work on finding herself a new Karate Dojo to train at. Being involved in such a close and nurturing Dojo environment in Ireland, she was hopeful of finding a similar home in London.

“Naively I thought I would find something similar to my old Dojo. The truth was a shock on a number of levels. The variation in standards was immense and nothing resonated with me. I became so disillusioned I even considered leaving Karate altogether!”

It was only by pure chance that Ciara ended up continuing her martial arts journey and became such an active member in IOGKF. While attending an event in Scotland, Ciara bumped into the IOGKF member she had once practiced Kobujutsu alongside. It was Sensei Callum Dick of IOGKF Scotland (SGKA).

“When he heard how I was struggling, he suggested that I look up Sensei Linda Marchant. ‘I couldn’t recommend her enough’, he told me. A few weeks later, clad in my brand new white belt I went along to one of Sensei Linda’s classes. I know now that if I hadn’t gone to extra Kobujutsu training I would never have met Sensei Callum and by result would never had started to train with Sensei Linda and IOGKF.”

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A few weeks later, white belt around her waist and not quite knowing what to expect, Ciara made her way to take her first training session under Sensei Linda Marchant.

“At that point I knew nothing about the IOGKF and if I am being honest Goju Ryu, but after that first class I knew I had found something special. I wasn’t worried about grades or anything like that, I just loved the training. My mind was totally opened! For example I had never seen a chi-ishi, we didn’t use them in Shotokan, or any other hojo undo for that matter, and I had certainly never seen a woman as strong as Sensei Linda.”

“Each class brought more and more focus on the weaknesses in my training thus far and because I hate to be beaten, I was even more determined to work hard and progress. In the beginning there was so much to learn, there are fundamental differences between Shotokan and Goju Ryu that 30 odd years of training had ingrained. I literally had to have a beginners mind and re-learn everything, hip position, blocking and of course Kata!”

“In the end there was no choice to be made really. I was blown away by the depth of training in Goju Ryu and the instructors that I met both in the EGKA and the IOGKF. After some years Sensei Linda asked me to grade with the EGKA and it’s no secret that when the results were read out I was so overcome I couldn’t speak!”

Today Ciara can spend time attending up to 2-3 IOGKF Gasshuku a month. Her dedication and commitment to learning has made her a well know face around the Gasshuku circuit. Along with having trained in many IOGKF countries in Europe, she has also attended events in India, Canada, Argentina and of course Okinawa.

“I had the pleasure to train many years ago with Steve Cattle (1947 – 1995), a legend in UK Karate. He was a bundle of energy and spoke energetically about the need to look at your own training with new eyes as often as possible, to train with people who are different, who will challenge you and to never to be afraid to learn.  I try and do all of these things as much as possible.

That said I don’t think that the only way to progress is to attend Gasshuku’s, there is a wealth of knowledge in Goju-ryu and a clear methodology to progression. We hear stories about the garden dojo and self training and whilst Gasshuku’s are a great way to extend your network and learn from different Sensei’s there needs to be a balance also between these and self-training.”

When asked what is the all-time highlight of her martial arts career, Ciara answered with the following:

“I don’t think there is just one thing, for me it is all about the journey. When I started karate it was in a rural town in Ireland and I had no idea about where Karate could take me. I have been very lucky to train with some great Shotokan Sensei’s. If I am name dropping then I would include Sensei’s Kase, Shirai, Kawasoe, Naka (of Kuro Obi Fame), and more recently the incredible EGKA and IOGKF instructors. However, if I am being honest,  I still can’t quite believe that this Irish girl has done these things.”

“Competition took me to places that most of my classmates at school had only seen on TV. Places like Russia, Bermuda, Romania and many more, but behind all of this was hours of hard work packing grocery bags in shopping centre’s to fund these travels and so the pressure to do well was immense. I felt such pride to represent my club, association and country and today I still feel that pride when attending Gasshuku’s. I have made wonderful friends learned about many different customs and cultures, and have seen so many different ways of life.”

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This inspiring Karate-ka, now an assistant instructor at the Tooting Karate Dojo, epitomizes the correct and positive attitude that traditional Karate aims to instill in all of its practitioners. Next time you see Ciara at a Gasshuku, which you are sure to eventually, be sure to say hello.

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