In his very informative book, ‘Things Irish’, Anthony Bluett writes that according to a leading folklore authority, the short, stubby blackthorn cudgel sold to tourists as the ‘ancient Irish shillelagh’ has no tradition in Ireland at all.
What I have mistakenly called a shillelagh all these years was once a very popular weapon in 19th-century London. Very handy 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.
Known by many names, including ‘bata’ in Gaelic – which means, 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, when you see how few trees remain in Ireland, there’s little comfort in knowing that many famous buildings in Western Europe were built with Irish imported oak.
In his wonderful book on Irish folklore, Padraic Colum quotes John Banim in this description of a mansion from his novel ‘The Croppy’: “solidly wainscoted with Shillelagh oak against which (as is said of the woodwork of Westminster Hall, also reputed Irish) 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 and it would not have been necessary to ‘load’ it because it could pack a significant whack!
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 smeared with butter and placed in the chimney to cure.
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. And, while a young man would have been taught by his father to always hold the ‘bata’ tightly to his chest, so as never to be taken unawares, the finer points of its use 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.)
While the stick was carried by Irishmen just about everywhere they went, 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. They didn’t use a ‘bata’, but 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 factions 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?”, 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 was 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!