Breaking down barriers and building up belts in Ashbourne

Breaking down barriers and building up belts in Ashbourne

A RATOATH mother whose autistic son who takes part in a Karate programme for young people with special needs says that being involved in the martial art class has given him the confidence to believe he can succeed in life. Sandra McCann’s son Dara (8) attends I-Karate classes for children with physical, intellectual and complex needs.

50 Irish athletes including 34 from Dara’s club, Karate Ash - a facility in Ashbourne that runs inclusive Karate classes are preparing to take part in the I-Karate World Cup in Dublin this weekend, a competition that celebrates diversity in the world of martial arts.   

A student of the autistic unit Kilbride NS, Dara was diagnosed with autism at two years old and was non-verbal until he was four. Mum Sandra describes how far Dara has come since he began the sport, 

“Dara is like a different child since starting Karate. He’s happier and more confident in himself, he has a greater ability to follow instruction, to listen and be aware of his surroundings and how to behave appropriately. He’s absolutely thriving and recently got an orange and white belt. It has been amazing for his self-esteem. The children learn to socialise, share and take turns without even realising.


Brian Carroll, Dara McCann and students from Karate Ash

 “He has two older siblings, Rory (12) and Conor (10) who have always been involved with local sports clubs and he would have seen the boys participating in sport from a very young age. It gives him the confidence to know that he can participate in something like his brothers participate in other sports.

“Dara’s coach Brian builds an immediate rapport with children, he exudes empathy, understanding and patience and children pick up on that. The way he speaks to them and instructs them is very calm and consistent.”

Karate is for everybody especially for people with special needs or disability, that's according to Brian Carroll,  who runs Karate Ash along with his partner Julie Gallagher and is busy preparing his students for the I-Karate World Cup. 

“At the moment we teach Karate to Students with Aspergers, ADHD, Dyspraxia, Autism, Cerebral Palsy and similar diagnosed conditions, as well as our mainstream students. These students have gone from strength to strength grading through the belts and some have represented Ireland at international competitions. Our Karate Ash Athletes Inclusive have been in training all year for this competition since we returned from the I-Karate World Cup in Budapest last year. 


Fighting spirit

“We went to the World Cup in Belgium in 2016 with five competitors, we went to the European cup a year later with 27 and for last year’s world cup in Budapest we had 30 athletes. This year for the World Cup in Dublin we have 50, it’s getting stronger every year. The families raise all the money needed for competitions by themselves, we don’t get any funding, without the parents and the community we would be lost.”

Brian is also the National Officer for Inclusion and Disability for Karate Ireland and is passionate about encouraging children of all abilities to reach their full potential as he explains,  

“The advantages of taking part in Karate for a young person and their family is immeasurable. The most important aspect of I-Karate is inclusion. Children with complex needs can feel isolated because not all clubs have an inclusive coach so they can’t cater to their needs. I-Karate gives them the confidence to believe that they can accomplish something.

“Some of the parents have seen other siblings excel in GAA or football or travel to a different country to compete now all of a sudden their child is part of a structure and part of a team and they can do the same. Some parents might have a child with Autism and are pulling their hair out trying to find suitable activities for them and the next thing they are going to Budapest to represent their country, it’s amazing."


Students from Karate Ash are preparing for I-Karate World Cup

The passionate coach says the Karate is often a by-product of all of the other benefits that come from being part of a team,

“Parents come to me and say that they never thought their child would be part of a club or wearing a karate suit like their siblings. Social inclusion is probably the most important aspect of I-Karate. The kids socialise together, have days out, go bowling and have their own group.

 “My niece Isabella has Autism and turned 18 recently. I have been going to her birthday parties for years and there might be two or three kids there and the rest have been adults. On her recent birthday, you couldn’t get through the door with all of her friends made through Karate. It was very emotional because the house was full of young people her age who all wanted to be there.

“We have inclusive sections in our competition and some of the children are grading up to black belt now. The great thing is that we all go to get our belts together. I remember five years ago we arrived with the athletes, some of whom were in wheelchairs and you could hear a pin drop because people had never seen this before and were wondering how it was going to work. There is a fear factor around people with special needs. But now it’s just the norm, they come in and get into their white Karate suits, high five their teammates and get on with it like everyone else. We are breaking down barriers.”

Brian and his team use the same structure as mainstream classes but adapt to each child’s needs but works to each child’s abilities.

 “Everyone needs to exercise. We use the tool of Karate to give the individual the fundamentals of movement and encourage people to achieve to the best of their abilities. They come to class and put on their karate suit and are part of a team and they have an incentive and a goal,” says the Ashbourne based coach, adding, 

“We brought one of our students that has limited movement to Belgium as a pre-warm-up for the world cup and he said that it was the best day of his life. He never thought that he would get to that level or be accepted as part of a team.

“You see these young people achieve so much, regardless if they win a medal or enter a competition. I see people’s lives change and turn around. They have a new found confidence and pride in what they are doing. It’s wonderful to see them blossom and it’s a privilege to get to be a part of that.” 

For further info go to 

More from this Topic