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Passing on the torch

It has recently come to my attention that some people started to promote their own classes and workshops on Irish stick fighting after taking a few classes with an instructor, in person or by distance, or even by watching a few videos. The result is invariably technically poor, but as our art is not well disseminated and understood many people cannot see the difference. The persons teaching this way are missing the point of what we are trying to achieve and what traditional bataireacht truly represents.

This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it exclusive to bataireacht, but this is something to which I thought I should speak. What I am writing here is unlikely to make those people change their minds about what they are doing, and if so I wish to thank you in advance, but it will at least explain why the process of passing on this intangible cultural heritage is just as important as the art itself.

The notion of intangible cultural heritage might be new to you, and I think it is important to present it before going further into this discussion.  Intangible cultural heritage refers to « the practices, representations, expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills (including instruments, objects, artifacts, cultural spaces), that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. » ( LOMITKO (1 October 2005). « Definition of Intangible Heritage »)

To survive, a cultural heritage needs to be passed on through human vessels. When it ceases to be transmitted,  it simply ceases to be. In that regard, it is not only a collection of movement or techniques, but the whole art and what goes around it, including the way it is passed on, is equally important and sets it apart from mere reconstructions and recordings. Equally important is the notion that an intangible cultural heritage is not an open source to be pillaged. It is the property of the knowledge bearers and they are free to share or restrict the knowledge that they hold.

Antrim Bata is in the same situation. For quite a long time, it was preserved through the Ramsey family and was not communicated outside of it. It was only recently opened to the world by my máistir who, in turn, gave me permission to teach. Continuing this tradition, we are very selective on who is given the right to teach what they know. This helps to safeguard the quality of instruction, the authenticity of our style, and its representation to the outside world. If this does not interest you, there are a few historical documents showing techniques here and there. A reconstruction approach is quite interesting in its own right, but it is not what we are doing here.

To steal this knowledge is not only disrespectful to past máistirs and their culture but shows blatant ignorance of the values they transmitted to us. The term « cultural appropriation » gets waved around excessively these days, but I would say that in this context it is quite fitting. Some people will feel frustrated at this idea, feeling that all knowledge should be freely accessible and that no one can rightfully own it. My response would be, again, that they are missing the point and should probably find another hobby.

Now, of course, that does not mean that you cannot take what you learned and apply it elsewhere. If you are not interested in teaching Antrim Bata but appreciate the techniques, do include them in your own style, but give credit to where they come from and do not call what you do Antrim Bata or traditional Irish stick fighting. This cross pollination is, in my humble opinion, not only quite acceptable, but positive.

Nor are we asking people to teach Antrim Bata and nothing else. Many of our instructors teach a variety of different martial arts (myself included), and sometimes combine their skills when sparring. There is nothing wrong there as long as our art is correctly being passed on.

I hope that this small text helped to make my point clear. When you start to learn Antrim Bata, you are not only paying for lessons or for the right to memorize techniques that you can rebrand at will. You are welcomed into a living tradition that belongs to those who are willing to teach you. Until you are deemed capable of passing on the torch you are a guest and are expected to respect the rules of the group that is housing you and taking the time to show you the way.


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