Lauren Ireland

Guest Instructor Interview - Lauren Ireland, York School of Defence

Q) Who are you?
I’m Lauren, I’ve been studying HEMA for a decade and I’ve been dabbling my toes in instructing for a number of years. I sometimes take the messer classes when Chris (the head instructor and owner of the York School of Defence) is busy working on something else, and I run a regular weekly antagonistics class looking at Victorian and Edwardian self-defence techniques including Bartitsu, Suffrajitsu, Défense dans la Rue and similar. I had taught messer at a variety of different events around the world and I also study Judo.

Q) What got you interested in HEMA & how did you start?
I’d always loved medieval swords and weapons and wanted to learn how to use them like a proper knight would have. Re-enactment never really appealed to me and I was very picky about the types of weapon I wanted (basically, I think I wanted to be Disney’s fox Robin Hood with his awesome arming sword) so I wasn’t really interested in sports fencing or any of the traditional Eastern martial arts because the swords just weren’t right for what I wanted. (Shallow, I know, but the heart wants what the heart wants, and mine wanted to be a Medieval knight!) Until about 10 years ago I had no idea HEMA existed, some work colleges were organising a weekend long event and they told me about it and suggested I go along. My excitement at finally being able to learn “proper” swords was ace but the thing I came away loving most from that weekend was actually grappling. Going from having never done anything martial arts related before to suddenly being able to throw somebody twice my size over my shoulder was the most amazing feeling! I wanted swords and I wanted to throw people around. Luckily I soon found out there was HEMA club in York, so I emailed, went down for my first session where I not only got to finally learn how to use the swords I’d always admired but also how to throw someone to the ground with one! This was the martial art for me.

Q) And related to that, what makes HEMA fun for you? Why have you stayed with it?\\ Initially it was the physical fun of hitting people with swords and getting thrown around but that soon changed into my wonderment and admiration for how scientific and logical it all is; learning techniques and the physics behind how they work just blew my mind. There was so much more to fighting than I had ever realised. The fact that good use of timing and mechanics allow you to amplify your own strength to defeat opponents bigger or stronger than you is just wonderful. Moving your sword 1cm can be the difference between you getting stabbed in the face or you being able to keep yourself safe and kill the other guy instead. Knowing where to put your leg and how to control your centre of gravity means that you can counter someone who’s trying to throw you and instead make them land on the ground instead. What really blew my mind though was the realisation that there is synergy in all things and what one master said 700 years ago in Italy is exactly the same as what they were teaching in Japan 200 years ago and that’s what they were saying in Germany 600 years ago and what Britain was teaching their troops in WW2 and that it is visible on ancient Greek pottery. It’s just unreal! The other thing that keeps me in HEMA is the people. I have met some of the greatest friends I’ve ever had thanks to HEMA and even the people I only get to meet casually at events are just so fun and delightful. HEMA is filled with loving, open, and inclusive people, most spend their time hitting each other with swords and trying to make the world a better place and I’m always so happy to meet them. '' Q) Do you have pointers for how to approach interpretation, how would you go about it?''
Don’t get frustrated. Don’t put time pressure on yourself and don’t let people bully you into believing their way is the only and correct way. You are allowed to disagree with someone who’s been doing this longer than you. Give them consideration and listen to what they have to say but don’t feel that just because you’ve only been doing this a year means you don’t possibly know or see something they might have missed. Especially where languages are concerned. (If you have use of post-grad uni students who specialise in the particular language your source is written in make sure you take advantage their expertise. I would trust them and their grasp of language working directly from the source over something that was translated via two or three other languages and several different people before becoming something you can read.)
Be careful not to use “frog DNA” to fill in gaps in a system or jump to conclusions based on what you already know. Lots of techniques look similar to each other but there are always fundamental differences so be careful and double check your work with the text again.
If at first something doesn’t work how you think it should don’t immediately discard it or assume it’s wrong. Timing and responding to an exact thing your opponent is doing is often the key to making these things work, if you’re trying your technique too early or against the wrong counter then of course it won’t work. Unfortunately the masters weren’t always explicit in when and where we were supposed to try these moves so that’s where the extra fun comes in to interpreting it now.
I’d also suggest looking at as many different sources as you can. None of them are complete systems (despite what some people say) so even if you’ve got a favourite and want to focus all of your time on that it’s still worth cross referencing with others. Sometimes the language used in a different treatise might be exactly what you need to let something click into place. Or something fundamental may not be mentioned in your source but may be found in another. It’s quite common for treatises to be written with the assumption that the reader already has a good knowledge of basic fencing so they quite often don’t mention crucial points a modern fencer is not necessarily familiar with.

Q) Linked to the above, having gotten your interpretations, and thus your techniques, any advice on how to maintain technique under more pressured sparring conditions?
Don’t try to win all the time. Use your sparring time to work on keeping good form and trying out techniques you’ve studied but have never gotten to work outside of drill (or even during drill! Quite often the techniques only work against one particular movement and require perfect timing, if you’ve always failed to find that moment while drilling you may find it accidentally while sparring!)
Have fun and challenge yourself, don’t just stick with easy moves that you know you can pull off. Embrace the advice Johannes Leckuchner gives… Show off and and impress your masters. Sparring is the perfect time to practice these complicated moves that will allow you to do exactly that.
Winning with style and good technique is way better than winning with cheap shots that you know you can get against your regular partners but won’t actually help you improve as a fencer or a person.

Q) Do you have a favourite technique (any tradition) and why?
I’m very distracted by shiny new things so my favourite technique is usually the one I’ve just discovered. (Although when planning a class for an event I usually include techniques requiring some beautiful, magical use of the bind or awesome body mechanics leading to some humiliating finisher)

Q) Do you have a favourite non-HEMA specific type of training or exercise that has improved your fencing?
Burpees. All the bloomin’ burpees! (OK, I hate them but they’re so darn good for everything!) Seriously though, general, all over physical exercise. Just lifting weights or running for miles on end may feel like it’s doing good but if you only limit yourself to one or two types of exercise then you’ll be neglecting other types that will help other areas. Varied interval work that ups your cardio and works all your muscles is the best thing for all round fitness, building stamina and improving movement and flexibility. The more you work your body the more you get to know how to use it and the easier it will be to make it do what you want it too in all aspects of life. Lots of bodyweight exercises (lunges, squats, press ups, crunches etc.) combined with high intensity cardio exercises (like sprinting, skipping, jumping jacks etc) will do wonders, finish that off with decent stretches and you’ll be sorted for pretty much anything. I also love Kettlebells as you get the benefit of added weight resistance for strength building but still get the dynamic movement and cardio training necessary to improve general fitness, coordination and stamina.
Alternatively just start wrestling. That has all the benefits of the above exercises but with the added bonuses of being super duper fun, creating great friendships and improving all the other key things you need for any martial art (timing, improving your fast twitch , removing your fear of the ground, learning to feel and understand what your body is doing and when, keeping your centre of gravity steady and balanced. The list is endless! So seriously, try wrestling!!! 😊 )

Q) Do you have any pet theory, idea, or interpretation that differs from the norm? Or is there anything you believe generally is not done enough/given enough attention that you think creates better fencers?
I feel very strongly there are two things that don’t get enough attention in HEMA. Wrestling and working a bind. Wrestling (Not just leaning a few throws or one flashy armlock but actual full contact wrestling) because it teaches you all the fundaments of the physics behind all martial arts and how to use your body and break down someone else’s structure (with or without a weapon). So many people in HEMA don’t realise that one throw does not mean wrestling, just like one sword strike does not mean fencing. People say they don’t like wrestling because they can’t get a throw to work against a resisting opponent. They will try it once in freeplay, it’ll fail and they’ll automatically disregard it and just give up. Whereas if they try a sword technique and it doesn’t work the first time they’ll be happy to try it again and be aware that it’ll likely get countered so they’ll have a second or third technique to follow this up with. Wrestling is like fencing, you have to have a plan, expect the first move to be countered, be prepared to defend against the counter then have more techniques you can progress if your partner isn’t a total pushover.
Working a bind because being able to feel what your opponent is doing and being able to control their blade (or body) as much as possible is so vitally important. Knowing how to work a bind gives you so much understanding for how things move and by being able to feel it you get a deeper understanding of how you can use it in future. Watching two fencers with full control of the bind is also one of the most beautiful things to watch.