Celebrating 50 Years Of Kenpo Karate In Ireland

By Dennis Lawson
Published on Jan 1st, 2013

In 2008, nearly 5 years ago now, I received a call from my associate, Mr. Gerry Lynch. Mr. Lynch runs the Red Dragon Kenpo studios in Dublin. That day he reminded me, February 26, 2008, marked the 45th anniversary of the first Kenpo class ever taught in Ireland. John McSweeny (the Father of Kenpo in Ireland) had trained with Mr. Parker in Pasadena, California and had traveled to Dublin to attend Trinity College. Teaching that first class was a pivotal change, through Mr. McSweeny’s effort, Kenpo was established in Europe. He laid the foundation for generations of instructors and students through the present day. Mark Brosten and I had the honor of teaching classes at Trinity College in March of 2008. Now anticipating the 50th anniversary of Kenpo Karate in Ireland, I wonder once again, what was it like for Mr. McSweeny to teach that first class in 1963?

So, I began looking back --- In 1963 ---

  • The Beatles had their 1st #1 hit in the U.K. She Loves You (yea, yea, yea)
  • Thomas Johnson becomes the first Irish Labor Party parliamentary leader
  • George C. Wallace became governor of Alabama and in his inaugural speech stated, --- “Segregation now, Segregation tomorrow, Segregation forever.”
  • The CIA’s Domestic Operations Division was created.
  • Patsy Cline died in a plane crash in Camden, Tennessee.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gideon vs. Wainwright that the poor must have lawyers to represent them in court.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and others are arrested in a Birmingham, Alabama protest for --- parading without a permit.
  • Dr. King writes his famous Letters from a Birmingham Jail during his incarceration.
  • The Coca-Cola Co. debuts its first diet drink --- TAB.
  • Dr. No, the first James Bond movie, is shown in U.S. theaters.
  • Vostok 6 is launched carrying cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
  • There are 15,000 military advisors in Vietnam.
  • In March, 200,000 French mine workers strike
  • On August 28th, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
  • The College of Petroleum and Minerals is established at King Fahd University by Saudi Royal Decree.
  • Pope John the 23rd dies and is succeeded by Pope Paul the 6th.
  • The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed by the U.S., Great Britain, and the U.S.S.R. takes effect.
  • During a South Vietnamese military coup, President Ngo Dinh Diem is assassinated and coup leader Duong Van Minh takes over as South Vietnam’s new leader.
  • Tottenham is the first English team to win the European Winner’s Cup
  • On November 22nd, the president of the U. S., John F. Kennedy is murdered in Dallas, Texas.
  • Writer C.S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, etc.) dies.
  • Writer Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, Doors of Perception, etc.) dies.
  • I Want to Hold Your Hand and I Saw Her Standing There are released in the U.S. and Beatlemania begins.

It’s not unusual for each generation to believe their challenges are unique. Living in the 21st century, we view the above news items as history --- part of the past, at the time they were hints of the changes to come. Mr. McSweeny’s first class in Ireland nurtured an incredible transformation for Kenpo. When any art form, including martial arts, is viewed from a historical context, the ongoing processes of innovation, acceptance or rejection of new ideas, revision, etc. are much easier to see. This process makes art a living thing; if not moving and changing, art is static and dead. This excerpt from “Talking Kenpo” addresses the class we taught in 2011 and the perspective of Kenpo as a living art.

Continuing the Spirit of Innovation or Rewriting History?

Throughout this book, I’ve emphasized the spirit of perpetual innovation that continues to characterize Ed Parker’s Kenpo. Yet, many of my contemporaries and I, have been taken to task for not teaching “traditional” Kenpo. I created a class to address this issue and, like this book, to give a special lesson to those beginning their Martial Arts journey. I taught this class in Ireland in 2011. As part of my celebration of teaching Ed Parker’s Kenpo for 30 years, I presented:


Here is a brief summary of the historical progress of Ed Parker’s Kenpo covered in that class:

I was fortunate to have Mr. Parker tell me his story. He was 10 years old and returning from church that Sunday morning, when he heard the bombs dropping on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Young Edmund and his family could feel the bomb’s concussions in Honolulu, nearly 8 miles away.

Fearing that an attack on Honolulu or an invasion of the Hawaiian Islands would be next, there was an evening meeting of the Self-Defense club of the Hawaiian Territorial Guard. We can surmise that attendees on that Sunday evening might have included:

William K. S. Chow, Professor Henry Okazaki (Kodenkan Jujitsu), James Mitose (Kenpo Jujitsu) others perhaps, Bobby Lowe, Joe and “Sonny” Emparado, and certainly Robert Montero, a student of Professor Okazaki’s and an officer in the Territorial guard

I started by demonstrating Tekki Shodan a Japanese kata. Stating, “The forms used in Kenpo Jujitsu looked something like this.”

Our class began by training exercises from, what was then known as
Kenpo Jujitsu. (Circa 1941)

Fitness and Hand conditioning were a primary training method.

We did knuckle pushups while I counted in Japanese.

Falling and Ne Waza (groundwork) were an integral part of regular training; the class trained Back falls.

I introduced, and had the class, use the classical defensive postures which incorporated Kenpo hand positions.

We defended against a front kick using a basic (called Nami-gaeshi in Japanese, returning wave kick) from the kata I had demonstrated. We trained other “techniques” from that era, finally ending with a defense against a right punch using a figure four lock and throw, requiring a superior back fall to prevent injuries.

We moved on to:

1954 --- 1960+ Models in Ed Parker’s Kenpo Karate

Back then, techniques did not have names.

Basics and Fitness were a primary training focus --- Blocks – upward, inward, extended outward all used 90 degree angles (See Basics Chapter 2) vs. their later development from 1970+

The classical points of reference (Kenpo hand positions -See Above) were still being used.

Striking the Makiwara (punching board) was a big part of training. I asked, “Shall we do more knuckle pushups?”

We worked on any number of “techniques” detailed in Kenpo Karate Law of the Fist and the Empty Hand published in 1960.

The group, many of whom were Kenpo stylists, began to understand the process of Mr. Parker’s “Model” development when we countered a right punch from meditation horse position using an inward block, followed by a raking hammerfist to the temple, (similar to Flashing Mace with no step through) and pivoted to horse while thrusting a horizontal punch with a vertical outward block (similar to Shield and Mace). The expressions of recognition were obvious on many faces.

1960 --- 1968

I briefly discussed the increased development of Mr. Parker’s Kenpo during this period from the influence of Ark Wong, Lau Bun, Ming Lam, Bruce Lee and other Chinese Martial Artists.

Hand conditioning and fitness continued to be a primary focus, the question, “Shall we do more knuckle pushups” wasn’t even asked.

We trained the classical 3 point blocking drill to enhance our forearm conditioning.

We used the Box Set to train the Horse Riding Stance.

JJ and Diane demonstrated the 4 point Parry Vertical punch drill moving easily from the drill to recognizable technique models. Both instructors helped coach the class in the pattern.

In 1963, Mr. Parker published Secrets of Chinese Karate. Here he introduced the Universal Pattern for the first time. This idea is discussed in detail in Ed Parker’s Infinite Insights into Kenpo Mental and Physical Constituents (Book 4) pp. 161- 179. At that time, Mr. Parker and his students worked extensively with Tiger and Crane, Book Set and other traditional Chinese forms.

That time period saw the first developments of most of Kenpo’s unique forms and primary developments of Stance set, Finger set, Starblock, Staff set, etc.

At that time, Kenpo’s belt ranks were ---White, Brown, and Black.

Mid 1960’s to mid-1970’s The Ed Parker System of Karate (Kenpo)

This time period saw Mr. Parker’s first development of a standard curriculum for his studios.

He defined required basics for each belt rank including new angles on blocks.

We trained Upward, Inward. Extended Outward blocks with emphasis on the “new” angles.

Mr. Parker began using more analogies, metaphors, and other language (sayings) --- For example, “In every offense is a defense and in every defense is an offense” and specific definitions to refine his teaching methods.

Fitness and hand conditioning were still a part of the Art. “Knuckle pushups, anyone?”

Colored belt ranks were established Orange through Black. Techniques were given names and 32 techniques were required per belt rank along with required basics, forms, sets, etc.

Orange to Green-Orange techniques used the natural stance or neutral bow as a point of reference to begin a technique, moving away from the use of classical Kenpo hand positions.

A yellow belt was added later (about 1970) including Spreading Branch, Intellectual Departure, Aggressive Twins, etc.

We trained the self-defense technique - Attacking Mace (original version) then, the new version where we introduced the theme.

Theme: Attacking Mace introduces the use of Grabbing checks. Emphasizes the downward diagonal cross check and demonstrates the usefulness of reverse motion.

"Check your opponent's height and width zones by using a downward diagonal cross check." Ed Parker

The Green-Orange techniques were the original Brown Belt techniques
Extensions of Orange and some Purple techniques were developed at this time.
My time was limited to complete the lessons. We were unable to train either of the original extensions of Thrusting Salute or Flashing Mace. I also had to move quickly through the history lesson.

Freestyle Techniques were being developed (number and letter codes are used B1a etc.)

In 1968, Mr. Parker published Women’s Guide to Self-Defense and in 1975 he published Ed Parker’s Guide to the Nunchaku.

The original versions of the Kenpo Forms were developed through Long 6 – Long 7 (Knife Set)

The original Sets were in full development: Blocking, Kicking, Coordination, Striking

Black uniforms became the standard uniform for Brown and Black Belts.

Red tape (stripes) began to be used to differentiate Black Belt ranks.

Mid 1970’s to early 1980’s Ed Parker’s American Kenpo

Mr. Parker’s 2nd curriculum development --- for each technique he developed an overall theme (Infinite Insights Mental and Physical Applications Book 5 pg. 109).

In 1978, Mr. Parker published Inside Elvis, and by 1979 he published Infinite Insights Vol. 1 Mental Stimulation, the first in his five books series.

The original Yellow Belt techniques were revised --- included were Alternating Maces, Sword and Hammer, and
CAPTURED TWIGS (theme) --- Teaches the value of flank movements, by moving to the side (toward 9:00 or 3:00) of a front or rear attack, we may be able to more efficiently access our opponent’s targets. It teaches how to adapt to an overwhelming attack and recognize the availability of targets and weapons. This is especially important if the opponent is in Contact Manipulation Range.

For the class, I taught Tripping Arrow, a model with a theme similar to that of Captured Twigs. We worked both the ideal technique and the original extension (required for 2nd Degree Black Belt). We then trained two formulations (See Below --- Formulations) both related to Going to the Ground with the Opponent; the first emphasized Contact Manipulation by using a long arm bar, the other Contact Manipulation formulation went directly to a choke on the ground.

During this period there was a greater refinement of which specific Basics were required for each belt rank. The system was revised to replicate the Web of Knowledge. This allowed the technique structure at each belt rank to deal effectively with a variety of attacks, but also adapt to the developing skill and coordination level of the student.

The new curriculum included 24 Self-Defense techniques per belt rank along with required Basics, Forms, Sets, Freestyle techniques, sayings, terms etc. for each belt rank. In many studios, Self-Defense and Freestyle techniques were trained and tested on both sides. Various Brown Belt Techniques were developed.

New extensions for Purple, Blue, Green (some of the original Orange extensions were revised) were developed and became required standards for promotions from 1st Brown through 3rd Black.

Early 1980’s --- December 15, 1990 Ed Parker’s Kenpo

More conceptual approaches to training became increasingly evident --- three phases of a technique --- Ideal, What if, Formulation was included in the revised Green Belt manual.

Techniques are viewed as “case studies of motion”

“Principles of motion take precedent over sequences of motion” --- Ed Parker

Themes of techniques are fully defined and the Belt Rank manuals were re-written.

The Infinite Insights series through Ed Parker’s Infinite Insights into Kenpo Mental and Physical Applications (Book 5) was completed.

Mr. Parker standardized the forms and what each one would teach
He developed the Club Form (new Long Form # 7) and Long Form #8 (the new knife form)

The Sets (both #1 and #2) were standardized and defined as to what they teach.

Weapon Sets for; Staff, Club, Knife were refined, or developed, and defined by what they teach.

1988 Zen of Kenpo was published.

Formulations for Orange through Green self-defense techniques, following one or more specific themes, were developed to replace extensions specific to an individual technique model:


  1. Teach various new tactics and require more expert coordination levels
  2. Tactics may vary according to:
    1. opponent’s body position
    2. desired outcome
    3. focus of training
  3. No assumption of a single opponent is made unless designated for a specific exercise. An entire area of the Formulations is devoted to multiple attackers.
  4. The various areas of Formulation may and often do, overlap.
    1. Multiple Attackers
    2. Words of Motion
    3. Following Up on a Downed Opponent
    4. Using the Opponent’s Weapon Against Him
    5. Contact Manipulation --- Locking
    6. Contact Manipulation --- Choking
    7. Going to the Ground with the Opponent
    8. Offensive Techniques

A final point I’d like to make concerning “traditional Kenpo”; it was never Ed Parker’s intention! He was fond of uttering the following:

“A style is superior only when it can satisfy the self-defense needs of its time in history.” Ed Parker

“Although a new idea may be sound, it is difficult to gain approval from everyone.” Ed Parker

“A true martial artist is not one who fears change, but one who causes it to happen.” Ed Parker

“Kenpo never changes, it is perpetually refined.” Ed Parker

I salute my seniors and colleagues who’ve kept Kenpo alive and thriving in Ireland and throughout the world. May we all continue to do our best to make Kenpo the outstanding martial art form it is, can be, and will be, for our generation, and for those generations to come.

Filed under History

Author Bio :: Dennis Lawson

Dennis Lawson has trained for 4 decades in Ed Parker's Kenpo. During his varied career, Mr. Lawson has been an IKKA Regional Director for Region #3, has acted as Master of Ceremonies for the International Karate Championships, and has published numerous articles in publications for the International Kenpo Karate Association, The Martial Arts Learning Community (TheMALC), and Kenpo 2000.

Mr. Lawson has had the opportunity to study other Martial Arts and holds advanced rank in Aikido and Takemusu Aiki Budo. Dennis taught, competed in, and promoted events in the New Orleans area for 20 years. Among his list of favorite achievements is choreographing and performing Kenpo for the Dance Council of New Orleans. His academic background in psychology and love of music allow Dennis to offer a unique and entertaining approach to tailoring "the Art" to the individual. Dennis has taught seminars in Ireland, Jersey Channel Islands, The Netherlands, Portugal, and throughout the United States.

Dennis holds a Sixth Degree Black Belt in Ed Parker's Kenpo and was awarded the title “Professor” under the auspices of The Martial Arts Learning Community (TheMALC). Mr. Lawson was inducted into the International Black Belt Hall of Fame as Master Instructor of the Year for 2006.

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