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John Twomey, Champion Fencer

February 20, 2012
by the gentle author

“Ten years, ten medals, ten bells!”

Ten years ago, when John Twomey became landlord of the Ten Bells in Commercial St, he had achieved the distinction of winning the Irish National Fencing Championship ten times – an unsurpassed record in the history of the competition – yet the challenge of taking over the pub led him to forsake his fencing career. But now, in an audacious move, he has decided to return to his beloved sport and attempt to reclaim his title once more at the 2012 Championship in Maynooth, County Kildare, on March 25th – where a contingent from Spitalfields will be present to offer encouragement.

Over this past winter, John has been training conscientiously with Russian Fencing Master, Alex Agrenich, at the magnificent eighteenth century Hanbury Hall in Hanbury St. And so, last week, Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven and I decided to go along to show John our support and see how his preparations are shaping up.

“A year ago, when I first started training again, I realised how far back my fencing was,” John admitted to me with a grimace, soberly confronting the task he has embraced, “My reflexes are as fast as ever but my technique has suffered from ten years’ neglect.” Central to these training sessions has been the process of honing John’s style with the epée, his chosen weapon. “I tend  to overreact quickly,” John confessed, “So we have been minimising the technique, because you don’t want to waste movement.” This approach is in line with the Russian school of fencing, of which Alex Agrenich is an exponent, characterised by a lack of flamboyance and a pared-down movement. A tall man of phlegmatic temperament, possessing inscrutable humour and undisclosed insight, Alex had John working very hard in response to seemingly effortless gestures on his part.

Even after we opened the windows, the heating, which is permanently on in the Hanbury Hall at this time of year, still served to intensify the hot-house atmosphere the training has acquired in these critical weeks approaching the contest. Tension and temperature rose in tandem, as Alex took John through a series of exercises designed to clarify his method, testing him hard, yet requiring him to do less in reaction.

I took refuge at a distance as the hall resounded to the accelerating rhythmic shuffle of their feet and the repeated click-click of the epées clashing, while John and his fencing master took on a strangely inhuman presence in their insect-like black mesh masks. Yet as the momentum of the physical engagement escalated to breaking point several times, I was surprised when they both took off their masks to reveal relaxed smiles in apparent contradiction to their accumulating perspiration. Though, as John’s wet hair stuck to his brow, his eyes acquired a sparkle that indicated his ferocious intent.

The training consists of repeated individual segments of movement, attempting an attack or a hit, moving on to practising the thrust and exploiting the angle between the blades – all serving to perfect John’s economy of movement, thereby increasing his accuracy and speed. John has been working furiously here for months now with his fencing master three days a week and working out with an army physical trainer on the other two weekdays. “In your forties you have a choice,” he revealed to me boldly with a grin, wiping the sweat from his brow, “whether to live as younger or older.”

As much as those actual contestants John will face in Ireland next month, I could not help but feel that John’s psychological opponent was his own younger self – that he aspires to match once more – which makes this a courageous endeavour indeed, yet one which John has shown he has both the guts and the commitment to accomplish. In the meantime, the toast in John’s majestic nineteenth century tiled barroom is, “Ten years, ten medals, ten bells!”

John Twomey competing in Tallinn in 1990.

Wires attached to this button register when a hit is made.

Russian Fencing Master, Alex Agrenich.

On the roof of the Ten Bells.

John Twomey’s Irish Fencing Championship 2012 attempt is sponsored by The Ten Bells.

Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    February 20, 2012

    Was the roof shot taken to get yet another angle on Christ Church, Spitalfields – Oh, look, it’s behind you!

    Or was it to see the ghostly image of the man himself on the roof tiles behind his epées?

  2. joan permalink
    February 20, 2012

    I love the fact that some of these pictures, especially the one of John and Alex, look like images by Holbein. I guess John’s beard contributes to that.

    In these slightly further eastern parts fencing is enjoying quite a surge in popularity. The Newham Swords are very successful and, unsurprisingly, popular with Eastern European kids in Newham. The local newspaper often reports on their victories.

    Best wishes,


  3. Dawn permalink
    February 22, 2012

    Greetings, gentle author, from across the Pond. I enjoy your blog very much and try to pour through it at least once a week (as my hectic schedule allows). I was part. delighted to read this story: as a former fencer myself (Hungarian school), I wish John the very best of luck. The art of the sword is often called ‘Physical Chess’. It’s a mind game of strategy and insight as much as physical combat, and John’s age – with its accumulated wisdom/technique/craftiness – could actually be his greatest asset rather than a weakness. Go on my son!

  4. Matthew Davis permalink
    October 23, 2012

    John, if you read this say hey! It’s Matthew from SF.

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