A Co. Westmeath man is teaching free martial arts classes to people who are unemployed at his New Jersey academy.

Patrick Cunningham, who hails from Coole, Co. Westmeath, told the Irish Voice on Monday he is doing his bit to help those who are out of a job feel better about themselves, all for free.

Cunningham, 45, who has been living in the U.S. since 1984, said he recalls only too well what it was like for him in 1992 when work dried up.

“I had my own furniture business and things were very slow,” said Cunningham. “I remember only going into the office in Brooklyn to check my messages on my answering machine. And I remember clearly how it felt not having anything purposeful to do during the day.”

After hearing that a colleague across the water in Manhattan was giving free martial arts classes to the unemployed, Cunningham decided it was a “great way to give back to the community.”

He also advertised his own free classes, every Tuesday and Thursday from 11.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. in his martial arts academy in Bayonne, New Jersey.

Cunningham, who has four boys with his Co. Donegal-born wife Alice, started learning martial arts in Ireland, but it wasn’t until he arrived in the U.S. in 1984 that he pursued his interest further. After a few weeks of going from work to the bar and back to work, Cunningham had a chat with himself.

“I said to myself I could have done this in Ireland, and I thought, What was the one thing I really wanted to do? It was karate,” said Cunningham, who then found a martial arts school in Queens, and his calling.

Cunningham, who moved his family back to Dublin in 1992 for three years but couldn’t settle, was graduating with belt after belt until finally he was high enough up the martial arts ladder that he began teaching for his own Tae Kwon Do teacher, Master Raimondi. Six years ago he stated up his own academy.

As soon as word got out on the street that free martial arts classes were up for grabs, people signed up. Both men and women, beginners and advanced, came to his Bayonne academy during the allotted time so learn – and some to brush up – various forms of martial arts.

“If you have nothing to do you can start to feel very disoriented after a while,” explains Cunningham.

“If people work out it gives them a purpose. It gets them out of the house and helps them feel that things are not as bad as they are, and of course get in shape.”

While several of people are availing of Cunningham’s no-charge classes, he said he was surprised that his business is busier than ever.

“We have about 170 students in total which is great as the economy is so bad, but thankfully we haven’t lost any business so it’s all good,” said Cunningham.

A month’s membership, depending on the package, is anywhere from $85 to $120 a month. Although Cunningham teaches mostly Tae Kwon Do to his students, he also specializes in Jeet Kune Do (JKD), a combat system and philosophy developed by Bruce Lee in 1967.

Taking his profession very serious, Cunningham met with Lee’s wife and daughter on this system, and he will attend the Bruce Lee seminar that will take place in New Jersey this October. 

Although Cunningham trains individuals and organizations, including the Jersey City and Bayonne police departments, he said the best part of the job for him is seeing the progress children make in Tae Kwon Do.

Cunningham recalls one particular child. “About three years ago a young kid came in to me here who was about to be thrown out of elementary school. His father had walked out on him and said he never wanted to see him again. He had a lot of anger and aggression built up,” he said.

“This particular kid would always start a fight the minute he was on the mat, but just last week he got a school report card and his got first honor roll. Now that makes me proud,” said Cunningham.

“We do anti-bully programs in the schools with the kids as well as child safety programs in conjunction with amber alerts,” he explains.

Cunningham’s free classes for the unemployed start with a half hour fitness program, and then the basic Tae Kwon Do moves are taught.

For those who are jobless and interested in attending one of Cunningham’s free classes you can catch him Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:30 a.m. at 434 Broadway in Bayonne, New Jersey. Call 201-339-4448 for more information.