Knife fighting was never quite a popular activity in Ireland, at least not at the level it once was in countries such as Spain or Italy. The Irish were known as stick fighters, boxers, stone throwers and even wrestlers, all activities that were quite tolerated by the authorities in 19th century Ireland, even when taken to a deadly extreme, but take out a knife in a stick fight and the judge would not be so lenient. Yet, knives were not at all unknown in fights, especially those of a more serious nature. As this excerpt from Bentley’s Miscellany of October 1841 shows, knives were sometimes used in stick fighting, and quite brutally so.
This excerpt is said to be an interview with an « old school » Irishman who frequented Donnybrook Fair – or as he called it « The Brook ». Notice that the author tried to illustrate the fellow’s accent, hence the particular – and uneven- writing style. The article criticizes Donnybrook quite vehemently, taking the side of the Temperance movement and claiming that the fair is now dead. The interviewee has a much more positive outlook on it… regardless of that particular event!
The night we wint down, there wur two men met in the fair who oughn’t to have come together there by any manes. One ov thim was a shoemaker from the Liberties, Pat Reilly, an’ he had been a cheatin’ an’ playin’ his thricks upon Jim Murphy, an’ he came from Dundrum. Jim thought he’d meet Reilly, an’ he said iv he did, he’d slaughter him, an’ so he did – met him, I mane. Jim had twenty boys at his elbow, an so had Reilly nearly, for the Liberty boys wur always ready for a scrimage at Donnybrook.
Well, in a minute Jim spied out Pat Reilly, an’ he was wid him in a whisper. « Stop, ye ould ugly blackguard! Ye thief of the world! » sis Jim, « I’ve got a reckoning’ wid you, I have » sis he. » An, boys, min let this turn be only wild Reilly an’ me, an’ let none of ye’s interfare, an’ by my mother’s blessin’ I’ll slate him. » The boys stood round ’em an in a moment they wur at it. Jim Murphy was an iligant made boy. Every limb ov him looked as if it had been made for a giant, an his big thick fist grabbed a shillelah that hadn’t been cut for ornament.
Pat Reilly was a dirty little blackguard. While Jim had his Sunday clothes on, though they wur covered by his large frieze coat, which he scorned to take off, out of contimpt of the shoemaker, Pat hadn’t a rag on worth askin’ for. He wore no coat – because he had none, an’ his breeches were untied at the knees, an’ his stocking hanging about his legs. An’ yet, for all that, ye could tell by his knowing face, an’ his malignant eye, that he was more than a match for Jim in cunnin’, though he hadn’t so much « power in his elbow ». But however, at it they went, and everyone thought that Jim would slate the other as he’d promised. « Pon me conscience it would have made a good pictur’. »
They had gotin front of one of the largest shows of the fair, for the light ov the lamps, an’ whin the people of the show saw a faction-fight was going to begin, they stopped their dancin’, an’ the only music ye soon heard was Jim an’ Pat’s shillelahs as they met in the air. Jim poured his blows down so hearty an’ so well, that there was little doubt who would kiss the sod first. But, as Reilly got beaten, so he got more venemous an’ full of revenge, till at last he was like a devil from the infernal place, an’ leppin’ about the ground like a madman. Jim hardly had a scratch upon him, while Reilly’s head was covered with wounds an’ blood, that run down the sides of his face like a fountain; an’ his head all clotted with gore.
At last Jim aimed a blow that he intended should finish his business. He swung his thick shelelah (sic) round his head, and while it was in full swing he brought it down intending it for the forehead of Reilly. But it took him on the ear, an’ it tore it off an clane as iv a winch had done it. Reilly shrieked out with the agony, and he seemed to be faintin’; but in a moment he put his hand in his breast, an’ like a wild hyena he rushed in upon Jim, and clutched him by the head. The villain had armed himself wid his shoemaker’s knife , in case he should be beaten, an’ now he used it. Before Jim could tell what he’d be at, he caught him by the hair wid his right hand, an’ wid his left he made a gash across his windpipe, that almost cut his head off from his body!
After this, I can hardly tell ye what happened, for every boy who had a stick wid him took a part in the fight, Peter Sleevin an’ I tried to get under one of the caravans, but some ruffians that saw us, said we were constables in disguise, an’ in a moment a hundred wild savages were down with us. Peter fought like a gentleman, as he always did; but we wur beaten senseless, an’ the first recollection I had, was findin’ myself on a low bed in one of the public houses ov the town, wid Pether standin’ by me, an’ his head patched all over like an old quilt! As for me, I didn’t know for a day or two, whether I had any head at all, for it was just the size of my body.
It is interesting to note that Reilly was part of the Liberty Boys, an infamous gang in 18th century Dublin. It is then probable that this story took place before the turn of the 19th century, though certain sources mention that the Liberty Boys were in action until Dublin created a police force, which would be in 1836.
In Antrim Bata, a particular attention is always kept on the presence of hidden weapons, and efforts are taken not to get too close in case a knife might be present. The off hand is always kept in front in part to be able to better react to such an attack.