was the name of an oak - forest in County Wicklow, hence a
club made from an Oak was often called a 'Shillelagh'. These
clubs served the purpose of walking sticks and were also used
for sport or even as weapons for fighting. Today little children
carry plastic Shillelaghs on this occasion.
An Overview version 2.0
It has been said "A man without a blackthorn stick is
a man without an expedient."
cudgel/cane which is known by many names, the most popular
used by Anglo writers being Shillelagh, has come to symbolize
Irish culture almost as much as the Shamrock. Often seen nowadays
as a tourist favorite at airport giftshops. A quaint little
twisted knobby stick complete with a green bow and a nifty
painted shamrock can be found anywhere there may be a tourist
looking for an Irish souvenier. This handy little item has
very little to do with the oaken or blackthorn cudgel of the
early 19th century and earlier.
shillelagh gets it name from it's point of origin, the Shillelagh
forest near Arklow in county Wicklow. The Shillelagh forest
was widely known throughout the British Isles as being one
of the finest areas that oak could be obtained from. Unforntunately
most of the Irish oak was exported to England for use in the
manufacture of pipe stems a little comfort can be found in
the knowledge that many of the most famous buildings of western
europe were built with imported oak from Ireland, including
Westminster Hall in England and the Stadthouse in Holland.
When an English writer saw a cudgel made of oak the name Shillelagh
first came to mind.
woods were used in the construction of the fighting stick
or bata in Gaeilge. Oak and Blackthorn were the two most popular
species as well as Ash and Holly. Sometimes the business end
was hollowed out and filled with molten lead....this is known
as a loaded stick. Blackthorn is a very strong and easy to
find wood. The knob on the end of a blackthorn stick is the
rootknob and packs one helluva whallop. 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 the Irishman would often bury the
cudgel in a dung heap or smear with butter then place in the
chimney to cure.
Padraic Colum says the oaken cudgel should not be considered
a symbol of Ireland but a badge of honor for those who carried
it. From a young age Irish boys were exposed to the traditions
of the bata, when they came of age to carry a stick it was
as if the journey into manhood had taken place. A young man
was taught by his father to hold the bata tightly so as not
to be taken unaware at the fair. Many young Irishmen practiced
with the stick regularly. Constant sparring was needed so
as not to lose face at the fair or Pattern. Each faction had
a trainer which they called the Maighistir Prionnsa or fencing
master who taught the use of the bata.
While the stick was carried by the Irishman most everywhere
he went, it was at the fair, wake or pattern that most of
the fights broke out. To quote an Irishman at the funeral
of his father in northern Leinster "Tis a sad day, when
my father is put into the clay, and not even one blow struck
at his funeral." This quote helps show the Irish view
towards rowdyness at funerals and wakes in the early 1800's.
The Factions were sure to be present at both wakes and fairs
often roughing up a person who had refused to join them but
more often fighting members of other factions over some insult
real or imaginary or even just for the love of fighting.
about the Faction fights: Faction fighting was prevelent from
the seventeenth cetcury up until the famine of the 1840's.
Most often the factions were members of certain families or
of political groups.
of the more infamous factions were named Shanvest, Caravats,
The Three year Olds, The four Year Olds, Coffeys, Reaskawallaghs,
Cooleens, Black Mulvihills, Bogboys, Tobbers. Sometimes the
fights would consist of hundreds or even thousands of men
and women. The weapon of choice was the Bata. Although other
weapons were brought to the fights guns were rarely used (at
least by the faction fighters...the police trying to control
the riots are a different story all together) Women used rocks,
often wrapped up in a sock at their weapon, leaving the stick
play to the men. Even though the women were free to hurl stones
at the men and to wallop them with their loaded socks it was
considered a fould oplay to hit a woman with a stick. A large
staff called a wattle was sometimes seen during the factionfights
as well as the odd sword that had perhaps been in the family
for years. 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. THere are
reports of people using a rocks in their offhand to bludgeon
their opponents when they got inside and there is even mention
of bayonets being used in the offhand. After the 1840's the
Factions fights became fewer and farther between. The last
recorded Faction Fight was at a fair in Co Tipperary in 1887.
Fights with the bata were not always of the faction variety,
some were sport while others were conflicts of a more personal
nature. One tradtion at fair was for a man to drag his coat
on the ground behind him and exclaim"Who'll tread on
the tail of my coat?" or to ask a crowd "Who'll
say black is the white of my eye?" These combats were
not always a deady duel, often they 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 tradional cudgel. it was a simple art in
terms of numbers of techniques. yest it took years of practice
just as any other weapon to achieve mastery of. Sir john Barrington
a member of Irish Parliament wrote in his 1790 book titled
"Personal Sketches of His Own Times" wrote that
the stickfights 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 dngerous contusion from what was called 'whacks'
of a shillelagh (which was never too heavy)."
"Oh! an Irishman's heart is as stout as shillelagh,
It beats with delight to chase sorrow and woe;
When the piper plays up, then it dances gaily,
And thumps with a whack to leather a foe.
Prepared by Ken Pfrenger
A Dictionary of Irish History since 1800
by D J Hickey and J E Doherty Gill and MacMillan Ltd 15/17
Eden Quay Dublin 1980
A Treasury of Irish Folklore by Padraic Colum
Crown Publishers, Inc New York.
Of Irish Ways by Mary Murray Delaney 1973
Dillen Press Inc
Irish Wake Amusements by Sea/n O/ Su/illeabha/in
1967 Mecier Press Cork ISBN 1 85635 173 4
Defensive Exercises, 1840, by Donald Walker
The Irish Faction Fighters of the 19th Century
by Patrick O'Donnell 1975 Anvil Books Dublin
Things Irish by Anthony Bluett 1994 Mercier
Press Cork ISBN 1 85635 079 7
Ireland: Its Scenery, Character and History Vol.1 1911 by
Mr. & Mrs. S.C. Hall