By Eoin Glackin
Eoin Glackin sits down with Karate Master Shay McNamee as he looks back on his life so far in the martial arts.
It’s a Friday afternoon and Shay McNamee has just finished teaching a Kenpo Karate class. I know before we begin our chat that to ask how many classes, let alone students, he has taught over his career would be futile. It has been a lot.
On the class floor and beyond, he is known to his students as Sifu Shay. “Sifu” means “teacher” in Cantonese, a nod to the Chinese roots of his chosen art.
At 73 years of age, McNamee stands on the verge of a great achievement. At the beginning of 2022, he will celebrate 30 years since opening his first professional martial arts school. As anyone will tell you, remaining in any business for 30 years is an achievement, but for that business to be one’s true passion is a blessing.
Born in 1948 and reared in Ranelagh, one of ten siblings, with six brothers and three sisters, McNamee remembers his childhood fondly.
“My parents owned a shop on Mount Pleasant. My Dad worked for ESB from the age of 14 to 65, so Mam mostly ran the shop. We were always hanging around there or down swimming in the canal. We were always on the go. I spent more time mitching school than I did in the place, but we had a great time,” he said.
From school, he went on to train as a baker, and made that his living for many years. It was also during this time that a new passion began to emerge.
“I was involved in the boxing for a few years in Ranelagh. I loved it and got a lot out of it but as a smaller-built fella, I started to become interested in other ways of self-defence. I saw these Karate guys were using feet, knees, elbows, headbutts, different ways of moving and using the body. I thought that might work better for me,” he said.
Although the Karate and martial arts scene in Ireland was still in its infancy during the 1970’s, it was healthy.
John McSweeney had begun teaching Kenpo Karate in Dublin in the 1960’s but the first commercial Karate Club in Dublin, if not Ireland, was in 38A Upper Fitzwilliam St. It was there that McNamee had his first ever grading, for yellow belt.
The grading committee was made up of four well-respected martial artists: John Conway Snr, Tommy Jordan, Morris Mahon and Jim Rice. The four were of the first generation of black belts awarded by Senior Grandmaster Ed Parker.
Although Conway Snr passed away, aged 63, McNamee’s connection to the Conway family endures to this day. John Conway Jnr, based in California, remains a close confidante of McNamee. In fact, it was from Conway Jnr that McNamee was awarded his ninth-degree black belt in 2019 in recognition of his dedication to the art.
“Myself and John Jnr were both trained by his father. We go back a long time and are great pals. We both sadly lost children who were the same age, we have a strong bond together. We are brothers in Kenpo,” said McNamee.
It was Ed Parker who formalised what is now known as American Kenpo, drawing influence from many systems, methods and philosophies. As a hybrid art, it continues many of the hallmarks of traditional styles that came before it, such as forms/kata, but the focus is practical self-defence.
Parker gradually adapted and formalised his modern American Kenpo over several years, before setting the syllabus for each belt as they are taught today. While it is important for the sake of preserving the art that the techniques be taught in a particular manner or “ideal phase,” teachers and students alike can and should tailor each technique to fit their own ability, physicality, style and situation. Once the basics are established and, most importantly, understood.
This appealed to McNamee from the beginning. He took his first-degree black belt in 1979 and began teaching part-time in Ranelagh.
“I remember our junior’s class in Ranelagh at the weekend became like a babysitting service for the area,” he said.
It was when he lost his job with Johnston, Mooney and O’Brien’s that his life began taking a different course.
“I travelled to Mr Parkers funeral in America in 1990, after he sadly passed away at only 59 years of age. He was a great man who I was blessed to meet and train under across the years. My own teacher, Mr Conway was living there at that time and invited me to stay and train for my fifth-degree black belt. I had a bit of money after only just leaving the job, so I jumped at the chance,” he said.
When he returned from California in late 1991 after a long stretch of hard graft and study, McNamee decided it was the right time to open his own professional school.
Professor Shay McNamee’s Martial Arts Academy first opened its doors on Leeson Street in early 1992 (Professor is a title given to fifth-degree Kenpo black belts).
“It was an exciting time. I have trained 1000’s of people over the years and am proud to have awarded over 50 black belts, across a few locations, but I will always have a real fondness for Leeson St. All of a sudden, this was my living. I loved it,” he said.
McNamee has trained under and with some legendary martial artists over the years, from the aforementioned Ed Parker to John Conway Snr, and even spending some time in Los Angeles’ famous “Jet Centre,” where he paid for his space in the dormitory by teaching self-defence classes.
There, he spent time learning from the late Lily Rodriguez (nee Urquidez), one of the greatest kickboxers of her generation and sister of Benny “The Jet” Urquidez.
The lineage of instructors that McNamee has trained under speaks for itself, as does the quality of his own students over the years. Although the word Sifu means “teacher,” it also means “father.” As it was expected in the traditional martial arts that a Sifu be a parent figure to their students. This is an aspect of the role that McNamee seems to have embraced over the years.
Professional stunt performer, Phil Condron is a third-degree black belt under McNamee:
“When I first started, I had no money to pay for classes. Sifu Shay told me if I washed his windows, he would give me a free class each time. To give me such an opportunity taught me the value of helping others to grow and succeed.
“That along with discipline, hard work and humility through the martial arts has allowed me to become successful in the film industry as a stunt performer. It’s tough work but I credit my resilience to Shay McNamee, and the gift of being selfless to others… each one, teach one!” said Condron.
Darren Butterly, now a sixth-degree, began training under McNamee in the 1980’s in Ranelagh, before the Leeson Street club. They train together to this day.
“I met him when I was 12, he became a second Dad to me. He and the whole Kenpo crew were like a second family. I started going everywhere with him. I’d never experienced anything like the fun and camaraderie. He always looked after me and if there was anything that I needed outside of Kenpo, he always seemed to know someone who could help, if he couldn’t himself.
“We were devastated when he left to train in America, but delighted when he came back and we started in Leeson Street.”
The Kenpo itself that Butterly learned from McNamee has come in useful on a few occasions.
“I remember a guy came at me with a bottle outside a party. I instinctively used various techniques to disarm him but I was able to avoid hurting him. Sifu Shay had that drilled into me; physically, mentally and spiritually. It was for self-defence. I was taught to de-escalate, I never went picking fights or seeking to hurt anyone unnecessarily,” he said.
Co-owners of Wild Geese Martial Arts on Pearse Street, Paul Cox and Dave Hedges each received their black belts in Kenpo under McNamee before starting their own commercial venture.
“Training with Shay was always a great experience. The man has a wealth of experience, but the thing that really stood out was the lengths he went to in ensuring all students felt welcome and comfortable in his studio,” Hedges said.
On a personal note, this writer began taking Kenpo lessons from Sifu Shay in my teens. He knew I had an interest in music and songwriting and so asked if I was a fan of Bob Dylan. When I answered that I didn’t know much past the “hits,” he replied that he would have something for me at class the following day. After our next class, he presented me with a CD box set of early Bob Dylan albums and sent my life on an entirely new path. The mark of a true Sifu.
Although the variety of martial arts being taught in Ireland has exploded over the decades since he began his own journey, McNamee is optimistic about the future of Kenpo.
“I think Kenpo is in a good place. There’s been a new wave of interest in martial arts generally after Conor McGregor’s success, which reminds me a little bit of the Bruce Lee explosion in the 1970’s when suddenly people were showing up at clubs wanting to learn how to use nunchucks!
“I don’t know if Kenpo will ever be as big as it was when Mr Parker was around, but I think it is an art with so much to offer, that will go on,” he said.
So, looking back on 30 years in professional business, plus many more before as a part-time teacher, how does he feel about it all?
“It’s my life. I still train every day. I still teach most days. As soon as guidelines allowed, I started having a few students out in my back garden, training safely. I had really missed it. It was great to get back in the hall when we could.
“Kenpo has been very good to me. My wife Maria is a fourth-degree. It’s such a huge part of both our lives. It’s never been a huge money-spinner, but I’ve always made a living and it’s been rewarding in so many ways. I wouldn’t change it.”
For information on classes visit http://www.martialartsacademykenpo.com