For many their local judo club is a place to make friends, learn and train. In Portaferry, a small town in Northern Ireland, the Portaferry School of Judo is proving to be more than that, it is providing a valuable service to its local community and possibly the whole of Northern Ireland.

We spoke to Head Coach Peggy Magee about her judo journey and how she is making a difference in her community.

‘When I was just a teenager a man called Eric Gwynne opened a judo club in my home town of Portaferry, which I jumped at the chance to join. I trained mostly with men and everyone in the club pushed me to be the best I could be. The training certainly paid off when it came to competing and grading.’

‘I won Irish open and closed, Northern Irish open and closed and even finished 3rd in the British, which gained me selection to represent British Judo in Holland. I just loved the experiences. Dermot (Derm) Heslop was Northern Ireland Judo Federation (NIJF) National Development Officer at the time, he looked after all us Northern Irish children and even helped drive me to training at different clubs. I was unable to go for my driving licence as I was diagnosed with epilepsy when I was 16 so I relied upon the generosity of others to get me to and from training and competitions. In 1994 I won bronze at the Commonwealth held in Malta and had amassed all my points for my black belt. However later that year my club closed and Derm left the NIJF and moved to work with the BJA. So, I had no local club, nor did I have access to other clubs as I live in a very rural area.’

‘The decision to leave judo was not mine, but one that I had no control over.’

‘23 years later, in 2017, I left my job to work part time and I was trying to find something for my 5-year-old son to do. He has ASD (autism spectrum disorder) so can be challenging. I was surprised that there was no judo club at all in the whole of the borough in which I live. The nearest one was nearly and hours’ drive away.’

‘I then contacted Derm and Mark Montgomery (Simply Judo) and said that I was thinking of opening a club in Portaferry and wanted their views on it. Both were, and still are, very supportive of everything I do. Without their help I doubt there would be a club. I flew over to York to do my level 1 coaching and Mark let me practice in his club.’

‘Once I had my licence I started the processes of getting the club set up. Mark came to the local primary schools and we started teaching at after school clubs for 6 weeks prior to the opening of the club to get the kids engaged. When the club opened I have had completely full classes. I also went back to competing and fought in the European Masters and just lost by time for the bronze medal. But next time!’

‘Portaferry School of Judo opened its doors for the first time in January 2018. There was a lot of buzz on social media with the parent’s commenting on how the classes have helped their children and how much fun they were having. This then resulted in the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) contacting me in April ‘18 and asked if they could have a meeting as they wanted to see if we could work together.’

‘Portaferry is very much a rural area with small villages surrounding it. The crime rate for anti-social behaviour, assault and drugs is on the increase, along with a rise in young teen suicides.’ 

‘I met with the PSNI on the 3rd May and we discussed the issues and where we could try and prevent kids from going down the wrong path. If we can get the children into sport and show them a better way BEFORE they get involved in any wrong choices. Then in the long term this will hopefully have a positive impact upon the crime rates and make Portaferry and the surrounding areas a safer place for all. This is when the ‘RED BELT CHALLENGE’ was developed. The PSNI successfully applied for funding and steps where then put into place for the Red Belt Challenge to start on the 11th January 2019.’

‘The Red Belt Challenge is a 6-week FREE judo programme, where the kids get a free judo suit, free club t-shirt, a free year’s license to train (the licenses are funded by the Irish Judo Association), and an option to join Portaferry School of Judo. This initiative is fully funded by the PCSP (Policing and Community Safety Partnerships). The project was aimed at children aged 5 upwards who are subjected to bullying, are being bullied or are isolated or had other issues that would make them vulnerable to go down the wrong path. Prevention is better than cure.’

‘All we asked in return was a commitment to attend the full 6 weeks, to listen to the coach, and at the end they would receive their Red Belt. During their 6 weeks they were taught elements of the Judo Moral Code: Respect, Honesty, Integrity and Friendship. All the kids were made to feel that they mattered, that they are worth something, and that on a Friday evening they had a judo family where everybody supported each other. There were 20 children who registered with the programme.’

‘The result of this was that 70% of the children that received their red belt continued with judo. It was only when some of the children joined the club that I learned that three of them had issues in the family home where the social workers were involved. Without going into detail these kids have had it tough and the social workers had tried everything to help them. They have seen such a difference in them during the short time they have been studying judo that the South Eastern Health and Social Care trust is now paying for their monthly training fees and Portaferry School of Judo is now registered with them as a business supplier.’

‘This was a big success, and something I am particularly proud of.’

‘Now building on this success I was contacted by an Enforcement Officer from the Ards and North Down Borough Council, who in speaking with the PSNI about the project wanted to run something similar for the 11 to 17-year-old age group. Those that have already been subjected to bad choices. We had worked on the prevention, now it was time to work on the cure. Because some of these kids had already been subjected to bad choices, the project needed to be longer. These kids now will get 20 weeks of free judo along with free suit, free club t-shirt and a free year’s license. We believe mental health to be extremely important, so there will are workshops planned to take place after the judo session to target areas such as well-being. We are just providing these kids with the tools that they need to make a positive change in their lives. They need the support to make these changes and my aim is to give them everything they need, and an option to join the club after the 20-week project ends. This project is supported by the Ards and North Down Borough Council, PSNI, PCSP and the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust. If this project is a success, they plan to roll it out across the whole of Northern Ireland. The project is set to start on the 26th July 2019.’

‘After this 20-week program I will be running another 6-week program with the PSNI.’

‘Portaferry School of Judo’s aim is:

  • Red Belt Challenge
  • 6 week – prevention program for ages 5 upwards (completed)
  • 20 week – cure program for ages 11 to 17 (starts 26th July)
  • 6 week – prevention program for ages 5 upwards (preparing program for early 2020)
  • 20 week – cure program for age 11 to 17’

‘These sessions are held on a Friday evening, keeping kids off the streets and getting them into sport. I have also been contacted to see if I could run programs in other areas, which once I have the equipment I will be able to offer.’

‘My club has had a young level 5 judoka who fought in this year’s British School Adaptive and won bronze. The club also has a number of VI judoka and kids who have autism.’

‘My aim is to try and make the club welcoming to everyone.’