Fencers the world over will all, at some stage, experience “the look”. This is usually given by a bemused gym-goer pausing on the way to the water fountain to look at us prancing around in white, waving what look like car aerials at each other. It is usually accompanied by a shake of the head, and a return to an altogether more rewarding and fulfilling session lifting heavy things and then putting them down again. But just as this generalisation cannot capture the intense and incommunicable satisfaction of a good session in the gym, so the few seconds of attention paid to fencing can in no way explain why members of the college fencing squad make the sacrifices they do to train five days a week. I make no claims of superiority in this regard on behalf of fencers – hockey players, rowers, runners and many others all juggle timetables to compete in college colours playing the sport that drives them. On the technical side, fencing shares several characteristics with other sports, such as boxing. Both place an emphasis on speed, accuracy, mental discipline and a sense of improvisation built on long hours of repetitive drills long before the pugilist dances under the lights. But when asked to write an article “in defence of fencing”, I realised that very few sports in this college, including the ones mentioned above, would be called upon to justify themselves in such a manner. The “no” we heard from prospective recruits during Freshers’ week was different from the “no” heard by other clubs. Our “no” was tinged with a certain measure of disdain.
This is not an uncommon problem for fencing clubs in Ireland. In response to perceived slights, some fencers will trot out facts such as that fencing is one of only four sports to have been present in every Olympic games since their inception, or that the tip of a foil is the second-fastest object in sport, the fastest being a speeding bullet from a rifle. Or even – clutching at straws here – that the lead singer of Iron Maiden fences sabre. But these responses are satisfactory only on one level. Instead of reaching immediately for stock phrases that in no way convey what it means to fence, fencers need to ask themselves whether the perceived disdain is directed against their sport, or against those who practice it. Both are separate issues and deserve different responses.
Unfortunately, as one journalist from a weekly Irish broadsheet claims, fencing still struggles with its reputation of elitism. In an article written late last year, he concludes with the words “if my interaction with the fencing clique is anything to go by, then insular, upper-crust exclusivity is still an issue in the Irish branch of this fascinating fight form.” Ouch. Although one can’t imagine him making the same accusation if a boxing club neglected to return his call, his criticisms deserve to be addressed rather than immediately dismissed out of hand.
The accusation of elitism is one issue that fencing in many western European countries has always had to struggle with. It is true that modern Olympic fencing has its origins in the duelling of the wealthy and privileged upper classes in France and Britain. This cannot be denied. However, to call those who fence today “elitist” makes about as much sense as labelling all Trinity students as such. Our college has a long and distinguished history and those lucky enough to represent it – whether in sport, debating or at academic conferences – are quite conscious of this. But each chooses the significance he or she will attach to the roots of the college. Fencers too are aware of the roots of their sport, but these roots are not something that they should have to justify or apologise for.
Nevertheless, one quite valid aspect of the “elitist” charge focuses on the financial cost of fencing. In my first year fencing, I paid a sum total of €5. This covered coaching, competition fees and use of equipment for the year. Leaving aside for a moment the argument that having access to a university sports club presupposes a certain level of material welfare, I nonetheless spent quite a bit more kitting myself out the year after. A full fencing kit costs several hundred euro, yet most people by their third or fourth year of fencing will have invested in at least a sizable chunk of this. I have to emphasise that this is strictly voluntary. Trinity fencing club opens its armoury to all its members, regardless of how long they have been fencing. Why then spend so much money? The answer is simple: we are passionate about our sport. If it still seems excessive, then ask a football fan why he or she spends a similar amount travelling abroad to see their team play or snaps up the latest replica kit at the start of each season. Madness? For those who have never and will never feel their adrenaline pumping as a fencer does, perhaps so.
But isn’t this a contradiction? “Pumping adrenaline” can hardly refer to what was described above as “prancing around” waving “car aerials” at each other, can it? Fair enough. But imagine for a second that you, and the person sitting next to you, both have a sword in your hand. The sword is roughly four feet long. Your task is to stand opposite each other and make the tip of your weapon land on his/her chest. That’s all fencing is. But oh! Your opponent steps back, he’s not making it easy for you. You’re crouched, tensed, waiting for him to betray where his next attack will come from, as well as the multiple areas it could land on your body. Your opponent steps back, he’s not making it easy for you. You increase your speed, he mirrors you. You extend your arm, a blur, he skips back; you cannot reach him. You become frustrated. Your legs are hurting from being crouched so low. Your hand aches from the constant manipulation of the blade; you think “how hard can it be to touch him?” If it takes years of mastery to achieve a proper poker face, imagine then the discipline needed to control your every movement, to avoid, in full flight, giving this information until the last possible moment. A fencer does not fence with only a sword, he fences with his whole body.
This description cannot do justice to the intensity of a fencing match. There are fencing videos online and there are numerous films that include a duelling scene. None of them will in any way compare to the first time you lower that mask over your face and with confidence raise your weapon and wait for the referee to tell you that you can begin to fight. To be confident going into a match is to believe in the speed of your arm, the subtleness of your fingers, the stamina in your legs and the fight in your belly that will enable you to stand and fight long after your muscles have called halt. To fence furiously, yet with a precision that undoes your opponent’s traps, to know that this is not a paradox, to move like a cat but grip your weapon like a bird, to claw for those– this is fencing. This is the sport I love.
But don’t take my word for it. Talk to the fencers, ask them why they do the sport they do. And, if any of what they say makes sense, come and train with us.