History of judo in Northern Ireland

In 1948, the Central Council for Physical Recreation (CCPR) which later became the Northern Ireland Sports Forum, opened an office in Northern Ireland with a special grant from the Ministry of Education for the development of post school sport. By bringing over "expert” coaches to residential Easter and Summer Schools, the CCPR helped introduce new sports such as Basketball, Fencing, Netball and Judo. Matt Doherty was the Technical Representative until 1954 and was succeeded in 1955 by George Glasgow.

One of the first visiting ‘judo disciples’ from Japan was Gunji Koizumi, 6th Dan (later to become 8th Dan) who continued to offer advice and support from his London base through the early years of judo. Some of those who attended these schools were "graded” and went on to form clubs.

Belfast Area

The Belfast Judo Club was formed around 1952 with Mrs Leslie Murray as the Honorary Secretary. The club met in a hut at 1a Hertfort Street, Belfast using a mat with a wooden frame filled with 3-4 inches of sawdust covered by a taught canvas which had to be removed every few months so they could rake the sawdust flat, making the mat a permanent fixture. Regular school courses provided an opportunity for more to take up Judo. Raymond Christy formed a club in Bangor while Charley Simms (who later became a big name in Aikido) established the RUC Judo Club.

The Ulster Judo Club sprang up around 1954 and was based in Corporation Street and run by their guru, of about green belt grade at that time, Gerry Nevin, who came through the Belfast Club. Gerry Nevin went on to become the first ever black belt in the island of Ireland in 1956 when he cycled to Glasgow to compete for his Dan grade which he won by completing a line-up of  6 or so brown belts; the only way in those days. Having a black belt holder was a great boost to Northern Ireland Judo because Gerry was now entitled to grade players up to green belt and later to brown belt (1st Kyu). It was not until the late-seventies that Northern Ireland had Senior Examiners and no longer depended on examiners from the UK mainland to run Dan gradings. Tony MacConnell and Jeff Hawksby had been regular visitors for this purpose.

Gerry Nevin invited coaches over to the Province on a regular basis and one of these was a Japanese gentleman called Yamada, after whom the famous Yamada Kwai was named. The Yamada Kwai was an amalgamation of Belfast and Ulster Clubs. This was later forced by high rentals to become established in Gardiner Street off Peters Hill. The club had two dojos, one downstairs for the lower grades and one upstairs for the higher grades. Downstairs you had such players as Sean Montgomery, Thomas (Tucker) McGeough, Mickey Kearney, Gerry McEldowney, Oliver Brunton, Eric Small and Walter McFarland. Shortly after this Walter took time out of judo to play soccer for Crusaders. Later he returned to judo, gained his 1st Dan and is still an active coach at the Valley Club in Newtownabbey.

If one ventured upstairs at the Yamada Kwai, there was an array of black belts such as Gerry Nevin, Tom Smeltzer, Joe Brady, Raymond Canning, Paddy Agnew, Sidney Glenn, Roy Hanna  and of course Jack Carabine. Not long after Paddy Agnew had been defeated by Jack Carabine in the NI President’s Cup Paddy moved out of Judo to play rugby and was eventually capped for Ireland. When the troubles made attendance difficult for members, the Yamada Kwai moved to premises in Royal Avenue where in addition to judo, they played chess! Black belts were scarce in the early days, especially among females with Carol Castles, Marietta McGrellis (Northwest) and Gwyneth Barker being the first and only Dan grades in the Province at that time.

Once a few clubs were established, George Glasgow took the initiative of establishing the Northern Ireland Area of the BJA and became Chairman on a “temporary basis”, a position he held for some 12 years. For his services, George was made a life member of the BJA even though he had never actually practised judo! Raymond Christy was the first Northern Ireland Hon. Secretary and there were numerous Hon. Treasurers who usually produced the accounts on the “back of envelopes” until Maurice Scott (2nd Dan) took over and did a more professional job.

The main technical inputs during the fifties and sixties were judo books and annual visits from Geoff Gleeson, 5th Dan at that time and BJA National Coach who travelled over with his wife in a campervan to run courses for players and coaches. Geoff had a big influence on the early development of Northern Ireland Judo. In addition to the Yamada Kwai, another leading Belfast club in the 60’s and 70’s was the Belfast YMCA under the guidance of coaches Herman and Derek Harpur. It was from this club that Richard Briggs, Shaun Greg, Colin Savage, Campbell Hamilton, Alan Pearson, Frankie Gargan, Alan Murdoch and many others emerged. Colin Savage, now a 5th Dan, was a member of the British squad during the eighties and a Commonwealth Champion in 1988. He moved to London where he became a coach at the Budokwai, the oldest club in the UK. The latest news of Colin is that he is coaching Judo in the Middle East. 

Other famous early clubs were the Mariners in Nelson Street, coached by Jimmy Houston and the Queens University Club, coached initially by Gerry Nevin but taken over by Jack Carabine. Following a career in the ship yard, Jack Carabine, 4th Dan became full-time Coach Development Officer for the NI Judo Federation, a post he held until his retirement.  Jack’s position was filled by Yorkshire man Dermot Heslop (now 6th Dan) who made an important mark in the development of Northern Ireland judo.

Early Home Internationals

The very first home international was held in the Ulster Hall in the 1950’s. Countries competing were England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland. The England team had Brian Jacks, George Glass, Sid Hoare and Ray Ross among others. The most notable on the Scottish team was George Kerr (now 10th Dan). Ireland included Noel Whelan, Anton Clark and Paddy Murphy. Northern Ireland had Gerry Nevin, Raymond Christie and some of those mentioned earlier. One of the most memorable contests was between George Kerr (then 4th Dan) and Ray Ross (4th Dan). Both had just returned from Japan. George won by Ippon from a left hand Uchi-mata. Another memorable match was between George Glass and Anton Clark. Anton threw George with left Seoi-nage for Waza-ari, George then returned the compliment with a right hand Seoi-nage for Ippon. During the interval Oliver Brunton (1st Kyu Judo) who converted to Wado-Ryu Karate introduced Mr Tatsuo Suzuki from Japan who was on a worldwide tour showcasing Wado-Ryu. Tatsuo Suzuki is now 8th Dan and recognised as the foremost authority on Wado-Ryu karate. Now a 7th Dan, Oliver Brunton is the highest graded non-Japanese Wado-Ryu Karate exponent in Europe.

A second noteworthy match, also staged in the Ulster Hall, was between Wales and Northern Ireland in 1971. The Northern Ireland team was Gerry McEldowney, Frankie Gillespie, Terry Watt, Richard Briggs and Victor Catling. Gerry and Frankie were beaten and Richard drew. Terry threw his opponent for ippon with uchi-mata and Victor demolished the huge Welsh heavyweight to leave an overall team draw. It was agreed that the drawn match would be re-fought. This happened and Richard won by an ippon scored in newaza giving a tremendous victory to Northern Ireland over Wales.


While judo was developing in Belfast, other clubs quickly sprang up around the Province.

In the early 1950s Terry Doherty, who was originally a wrestler, introduced Judo to Londonderry. The first club was called the Ko-saka Judo Club. The name came from Steve Kingalis whose club in Scotland was called the O-saka. Steve made a valuable contribution to northwest judo in those early days. Steve provided teaching and held promotion examinations. It was the Ko-saka club in Londonderry which founded the Northwest Championships, an event organized by Marietta McGrellis and now by Lisa Bradley and Jim Toland.

The original Ko-saka coach was the late Bobby Brady who also had some wrestling knowledge and introduced Terry Watt to Judo in 1962. Terry was the first player from the Northwest to be promoted to 1st Dan which he achieved in 1967 and in the same year was the first NI player to represent Great Britain. Terry won a bronze medal at the 1968 World Student Championships and represented Ireland at the Munich Olympics in 1972. He is now the highest graded Northern Ireland player at 7th Dan and a World Masters Champion.

Following Terry’s promotion to 1st Dan, northwest judo blossomed and other coaches emerged such as Jimmy Lyttle, Hugh 'boots' McCann, Marietta McGrellis, John Rogan, Brian Houston, Paul Green and Gavin Abel. Marietta McGrellis was the first NI Kata expert and served on the BJA Management Committee as well as being Chair of the western region for many years. Jim Toland and Lisa Bradley took over from Marietta and have been instrumental in promoting Judo in the western region for many years.

Other Clubs

The long standing Ren-bu-kan club in Dungannon was founded by Harry McGuigan and produced several judo protégés, notably Avril and Joyce Malley. Avril Malley was the most successful Northern Ireland Player to date. She was number one on the British squad at u72kg, British Open Champion and won medals at many international events including the European Championships. Avril competed at the first ever Woman’s World Championship in New York in 1980 where she won a bronze medal and was also Commonwealth Champion. In 1988 Avril represented Great Britain at the Seoul Olympics. Avril’s sister Joyce was also a British Squad member and won many medals at home and abroad, notably bronze medals at the World Student Championships in 1982 and the 1992 Auckland Commonwealth Games. Joyce is still an active competitor and a current World Masters Champion.  

The QUB Judo Club started in 1955 and was coached by its founder Gerry Nevin. The first Queen’s student to gain a black belt was Colin Gray in the mid-sixties. Colin was a leading Northern Ireland International and was the first student to be awarded a university Full Blue for Judo in 1964.

The Queen’s Club originally met in the old Sans Souci gymnasium off the Malone Road and moved into the current PE Centre when it opened in 1972. Jack Carabine took over the Queen’s coaching from Gerry and coached throughout the seventies and eighties. Jack was the ideal coach for Queen’s, combining a high level of technical ability with an appreciation of the social needs of students! He had a fine singing voice and was an accomplished tin whistle player.

Between 1968 and 1975, Queens won the Men’s Intervarsity team event 6 times in succession and also won the women’s title several times. This was during the era of Club Captain, Richard Briggs, Tom Boyle, Michael Watt, Jaroslav Zdan, John Stewart and Ojide Okunaiya from Nigeria competed. It was during this period that a full Irish Team was selected by CUSAI to compete at the 1972 World University Championships. From Northern Ireland, Richard Briggs, Terry Watt and Harry Crooks were selected and the remaining two were IJA players Tommy Rea and Gerry Keys. In the 1980s another group of strong players emerged and dominated Irish judo for several years. These included Greg McMahon, Dominic Sherlock, Hugh Quinn, John McLaughlin, Aidan Mitchell, Paul Stewart and Una Monaghan the first woman to be awarded a university Blue for judo. Several of these players represented Britain and Ireland at the World Student Championships. During the nineties, Eric Small, Kevin Farry, Gerry McCabe and Jim Toland all made significant contributions to the development of the Queen’s club and produced several good players including Paul Green, Joe Fegan, Paul Stewart and Dominic Sherlock. 

Of particular note was Lisa Bradley, who was awarded a Judo Blue in 1993, which was re-awarded every year until 2000. Lisa went on to win a silver medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and graduated from Queen’s with a PhD in the same year. Coaching during Lisa’s studentship was mainly by Irish Olympian (Barcelona and Atlanta) Ciaran Ward who coached the Club from 1997, followed by Stephen McCluskey and then Chris Donnelly. Ciaran Ward came from the Yama-Kwai (Black Mountain Club) which was then under the leadership of his father, Jimmy Ward. Jimmy started judo late in life after a distinguished career in Gaelic Football. He gained his black belt and went on to run one of the most successful clubs in the country. In addition to Ciaran, the Yama-Kwai produced many outstanding players including World Schools Champion, Stephen McCluskey and Irish International Sean Sullivan who now coaches St Peter’s Judo Club in Belfast.

A centre for judo excellence during the 1970s and 1980s was the Antrim Forum Club where the randori sessions were famous and featured such players as Raymond McKay, Brian McAlynn, Rodney Coleman, Jack Larkin, Richard Briggs and the legendary Roy Scott (father of current NI Champion Ross Scott). Having practised judo in Canada, Roy came to the Antrim Club as a green belt. He quickly progressed to 2nd Dan and represented Ireland at the World Championships where he came within a whisker of defeating the Japanese Champion, as seen in a famous photograph in a popular judo book.

The Murakwai Club was started by Ellen and Billy Coulter in the late 1980’s and is still thriving today under the leadership of Scott Mayne, 4th Dan and a protégé of that club. Also during the 1980s the Glen Judo Club run by Sean Gregg (originally from the YMCA) and Tucker McGeogh (Originally from the Yamada Kwai). Tony Best and Joe Rea (originally St Josephs) were prominent members at that time and at one stag the entire N.Ireland team was drawn from that club. Once in the Antrim Forum the club won the mens, ladies and intermediate titles. Kevin McKenna, a teacher at St Augustines secondary at this time and member of the Glen Judo Club made a significant contribution to school Judo over several years and was also active as a referee. Other famous clubs still running today are the Newry-based Tamna Judo Club with Eamonn Rooney and the Shinken-Shobu-Ryu Judo Club in Warrenpoint which is under the leadership of kata guru Martin Savage.

Although Northern Ireland Judo goes back to the early 1950’s, the Northern Ireland Judo Federation as an autonomous governing body within the BJA was not formed until the 1970’s. This change took place under the Chairmanship of Londonderry man, Peter McKee. It was about this time that the NIJF logo appeared as the result of a logo competition which was won by Dr Joe Rea, a protégé of St Joseph’s College Judo Club and one of the youngest players to gain his 1st Dan. The next Chairman was Herman Harpur followed by Richard Briggs who held the position for many years. After Richard, Antonio Lupari became Chairman, he was followed by Robbie Irwin who held office until 2011 and the current Chairman is Ricky Sloane.

The first President of Northern Ireland Judo was Erik Utitz from Shrigley Mills who was elected in the early 1950s. When Eric retired, Gerry Nevin became President and held the position until his untimely death in 1999 whereupon Richard Briggs, the current President was elected. In addition to the coaches and players Northern Ireland Judo owes much to those who provided administrative backup over the years and include such people as Dr Carol Castles 1st Dan, Marie Murphy (Hon Secretary or many years), Alan Chowney, 1st Dan, Ann Long and most importantly Robin Newett, who despite having never done judo has been a very effective Hon. Treasurer for over 20 years. 

During the middle years of judo in Northern Ireland much technical input came from the Old Bushmills Sports Academy which was an annual multi-sport summer school where visiting coaches could run courses in coaching and refereeing. These visiting coaches included Colin McIver, Roy Inman, Neil Adams, Steve Gawthorpe, Mick Leigh, Peter Bent, Graham Turner and many others.

In recent years players have represented Northern Ireland at Irish, British and World events including European, Commonwealth, World and the Olympic Championships. The Federation has hosted many prestigious international events including two Commonwealth Championships (1988 and 2006). The recent development of Masters Judo has been greatly influenced by Terry Watt, Gavin Abel and Joyce Malley who did much for the past World Master Athlete Association and the recent links with the IJF. In addition to hosting the World Masters in 2005, Northern Ireland hosted the British Masters in 2012. Another noteworthy recent development was the selection of Lisa Kearney from the Ward School of Judo to represent Ireland at the London 2012 Olympic Games. 

From modest beginnings in the early fifties under the leadership of George Glasgow, the Northern Ireland Judo Federation has grown to over 2,000 members and is still expanding. The current NIJF Executive Committee is striving to keep pace with modern trends in sports governance with plans to become a 'Company limited by Guarantee'. This will pose yet another challenge for our gallant team of volunteers, whose lively enthusiasm and teamwork is bound to ensure a bright future for Northern Ireland Judo.

Dr Richard Briggs, 5th Dan
President,  NIJF

As this is an evolving account of judo history in Northern Ireland additional material is always welcome and should be emailed to:  rpbjudo@hotmail.com

Thanks to those listed below for contributions already received :
George Glasgow
Terry Watt
Eric Small
Dr Joe Rea 

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