I am regularly asked about an Irish Shillelagh so I feel many would be interested in a little further background to the origins of the word. So, I include here some relative reading.
The word ‘Shillelagh’ has been used and abused a lot over the generations. As a result, it has become a generic term for any kind of one piece walking stick from Ireland – mostly one with a large knob type handle.
In his very informative book, ‘Things Irish’, Anthony Bluett writes that the short, stubby blackthorn cudgel seen in tourist stores as the ‘ancient Irish shillelagh’ has no tradition in Ireland at all.
Instead, those misnamed cudgels were once a very popular weapon in 19th-century London. They were useful to have but not something the Irish would have used at that time, or earlier. Their weapon of choice would have been a cane made from oak, blackthorn, ash or holly.
Shillelaghs were known by many names, including ‘bata’ in Gaelic – which means a fighting stick. The original cane gets its name from the Shillelagh Forest in County Wicklow. The forest was once famous for its massive stands of fine oaks. Sadly, most of them were cut down and exported and used in famous buildings across Europe.
In his book on Irish folklore, Padraic Colum quotes John Banim describing a mansion from his novel ‘The Croppy’. He says “it was solidly wainscoted with Shillelagh oak against which the venomous spider of England durst not affix his web.”
Curiously, it was from the pen of an English writer who, on seeing an oak cane and knowing where it came from, coined the term Shillelagh. Eventually, it became synonymous for any Irish walking stick.
Sometimes, the knob on the end was hollowed out and filled with molten lead. This was known as a ‘loaded stick’. However, in sticks made of blackthorn, the knob was actually the root. Because of this, it would not have been necessary to ‘load’ it as it could pack a significant whack without any ‘loading’!
The bark is left on for added toughness and often a metal ferrule is secured at the end opposite of the knob. To keep the wood from splitting during the drying process, sticks were often buried in a manure pile, or placed in the chimney to season.
Folklorist Padraic Colum says the shillelagh should not be considered a symbol of Ireland but a badge of honour for those who carried it. When they were very young, Irish boys were exposed to the traditions of the ‘bata’, and when they came of age, to carry a stick was viewed as a passage into manhood.
Many young Irishmen practiced with the stick regularly because constant sparring was needed to improve their skills. Young men would have been taught by their fathers. However, the finer points of stickfighting would have been learned from the Maighistir Prionnsa or fencing master.
Russ points out that the use of a ‘walking stick’ as a weapon carried into the twentieth century. Conan-Doyle made his famous character Sherlock Holmes a master of ‘single-stick’ fighting.
The stick (‘bata)was carried by Irishmen just about everywhere they went. But, it was at the fair, wake or pattern (Saint’s feast day), that it was most needed. Various groups or factions were always present at most social gatherings and faction fighting was very common until the famines of the 1840s. Most often the factions were members of certain families or of political groups. Sometimes the fights would consist of hundreds of men – and yes, the womenfolk joined in too. When they didn’t use a ‘bata’, they could make a good account of themselves by wielding a stocking filled with stones!
Some fighters specialized in the use of two sticks. This was called the Troid de Bata or two-stick fight. The stick held in the off hand was used as a shield. After the 1840’s the faction fights became fewer and farther between. The last recorded one was held at a fair in Co. Tipperary in 1887.
Fights with the ‘bata’ were not always of the faction variety. Some were sporting events, while others were provoked just for fun. One tradition at a fair was for a man to drag his coat on the ground behind him and throw down the challenge. “Who’ll tread on the tail of my coat?”, he would call out or to ask a crowd, “Who’ll say black is the white of my eye?” Often these were friendly, if somewhat rough contests.
The ‘bata’ was held somewhat towards the lower middle of the stick and snapped out with the wrist rather than swung like a cudgel. A simple art in terms of technique, it still took years of practice to master. In his 1790 book, ‘Personal Sketches of His Own Times’, Sir John Barrington wrote that the stick fights were exhibitions of skill….”like sword exercises and did not appear savage. Nobody was disfigured thereby, or rendered fit for a doctor. I never saw a bone broken or a dangerous contusion from what was called ‘whacks’ of a shillelagh (which was never too heavy).”
So there you have it – or maybe you don’t. If you have a ‘bata’ or walking stick made of oak, ash, holly or blackthorn, you do indeed have a real shillelagh. As for that souvenir you may have picked up at the airport – the short, stubby cudgel which often sports a green bow and a nifty painted shamrock… sorry, it’s not a shillelagh, it’s a sham!
Take a look at my Blackthorn Shillelaghs … they are the ‘real thing’
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