By Maxime Chouinard
Here is a subject I have been wanting to tackle for a while. The main reason being that I get a few people discovering bataireacht and being surprised at the weight of the shillelaghs we use. A lot of people come to us expecting that we will be using large and heavy clubs. This is the image that has been presented of a shillelagh in popular culture, and surely that’s what a bata fundamentally is? Right?
So let’s talk about it then, how heavy does a shillelagh really need to be?
(Again, what I am going to say applies only to Antrim Bata, other styles may have their own rationales)
As I teach a traditional style, I always like to look back into history to see what people thought was a great fighting stick. Let’s check with Allanson-Winn, who wrote a little bit about bataireacht in his book Broadsword and Singlestick:
The weight of the stick is an important matter to consider. Some blackthorns are so enormously heavy that it is next to impossible to do any quick effective work with them, and one is reminded, on seeing a man “over sticked,”—if I may be allowed such an expression—of Lord Dundreary’s riddle,[Pg 108] “Why does a dog wag his tail? Because the dog is stronger than the tail,” or of David in Saul’s armour. Some time ago it was rather the fashion for very young men to affect gigantic walking-sticks—possibly with the view of intimidating would-be plunderers and robbers, and investing themselves generally with a magic sort of noli me tangere air.
Without wishing to detract from the undoubted merits, in certain special cases, of these very big sticks, I am bound to say that, only being useful to a limited extent, they should not be encouraged. Let the stick you habitually carry be one well within your compass. If it comes up to guard readily and without any apparent effort or straining of your wrist, and if you find you can make all the broadsword cuts, grasping it as shown in Fig. 14, without the least spraining your thumb, then you may be pretty sure that you are not “over-sticked,” and that your cuts and thrusts will be smart to an extent not to be acquired if you carried a stick ever so little too heavy for you.
Winn takes the time to say that we should be able to grab the stick with the thumb up in the same manner as shown in fig 14:
The author of the Footpad and the cane does not really describe the size of the shillelagh, but actually shows it in photographs.
Same thing in Percy Longhurst’s Jiu Jitsu and Other Methods of Self Defense
Or if we go back further in time,in 1840, to Donald Walker’s Defensive exercises:
Now, we can say that this is all fine and well for these hoity toity gentlemen, but what about the real manly men Irishmen, fighting in fearful factions fights? Well, it so happens we have a few photographs and reliable depictions of a few of them:
It’s very much possible that, in the Medieval era, Irishmen used bigger clubs like those we see for example in the treatise of Paulus Hector Mair. But these were used in a context where one could possibly meet up with a foe wearing steel armor, which was not that common in Ireland though. By the 18th century, breastplates and helms were relegated to the attics of old tower houses and there was then no impetus to carry big clubs like these when much smaller ones could do the job just as well.
Then… we get to this…
Ah… Hollywood… But where exactly did we get the idea that a shilellagh should look like this? A part of that answer goes back to British colonial caricatures. Stick fighting was a very peculiar Irish activity in British eyes, and so became quite a stereotype. If you wanted to show an Irishman without necessarily having to explain it, well you would usually have him carry a shillelagh. I was surprised to find though that even in caricatures it is not easy to find examples of really big clubs. That seems to become a thing in the 20th century, and particularly in American postcards, as even British cartoonists seemed to know better.
The stereotype of the herculean shillelagh then comes back even more so with novelty pieces, often times given as trophies or gifts to visiting celebrities and adorned with a shamrock or two… or ten…
Compare these to this shillelagh, sold recently at auction, and said to have been used at the Fair Day Massacre in Ballinhassig in 1845. It measures 3feet five inches long. There are no weight given, but I doubt it is more than 300gr.
Alright, now that we have established the history of the shillelagh itself, how about some explaining. As I said in a previous article, a shillelagh (at least as used in Antrim bata) does not need to really be heavier than 300 to 400 gr at most. This seems to really surprise a lot of people.
Take into account that all of these objects weight around or even less than 400gr. Yet, getting hit with any of them would ruin your day, some more than others.
The 400 gr escrima stick (which is fairly heavy for an escrima stick) is 100gr heavier than the hammer. Yet, getting hit with the latter could easily kill someone while it would necessitate a lot more effort to do that with the former. The difference lies not in their weight so much as how that weight is distributed. The same applies for a shillelagh. While the straight stick has its weight evenly distributed, the shillelagh concentrates it at the very point of impact which considerably augments the force that is being transferred to the target.
So while the shillelagh is considerably lighter than, let’s say, a broadsword, it can hit with more authority because where a broadsword has a guard and needs to be able to keep a light point in order to thrust with agility a shillelagh needs none of that. This also means that it has to keep the weight down, because while a 1kg broadsword can be well balanced with the weight close to the hand, a 1kg shillelagh with the weight at the top would be completely unwieldy.
You can see here what the effect of a blow with such a stick can be on an unprotected head. The technique used here is similar to what we in Antrim Bata would call a lark. It’s a very powerful strike that is very hard to parry.
The other issue that is often raised is that of solidity. People seem to consider that a 400 gr shilelagh would not endure full contact fighting. Let’s compare it again with other sticks. As I explained in a previous article, you should be able to grip the shilellagh with most of your fingers touching your palm, otherwise you create an opening for a disarm. Most people will then go for sticks ranging between 7/8 of an inch to a full inch in diameter, sometimes a bit more. This is the same size used by many different stick arts from escrima to bojutsu with little concern about durability. Add to this the fact that a shillelagh is most often made of blackthorn, a wood of incredible solidity, and you have a perfectly good weapon that will endure many years of practice.
Could it break? Yes. Every weapon has its breaking point and every single one will meet it in time. One would hope that this situation would not happen in the heat of a life or death struggle, but here is the thing. If I am scared of my stick breaking and I decide to go with the thickest one I can lift, then will I be able to even defend myself with it? If the stick is so heavy that I cannot swing it fast enough to strike powerfully or to defend myself in time, or if I become dead tired after a few minutes of fighting, then what have I really gained?
Leave the heavy stick for strength and endurance training, but keep lighter sticks for drills and sparring. A heavy stick is a good tool to prepare your muscles and tendons for the effort of training, but used too much it can lead to debilitating injury such as rotator cuff impingement, tendonitis or bursitis. What good is it to learn a martial art if you are in too much of a bad shape to use it? Train smart!
So in conclusion, shillelaghs were fine and agile weapons like you would find in most other stick fighting arts and capable of dealing deadly blows. In some ways, it suffers from the same preconceived notions as the medieval sword which was long considered a heavy crowbar before HEMA people blew this idea out of the water. Let’s do the same and move the cartoonish club to the dustbin of history.
UPDATE: To help make my point clearer, I have added here a few cudgel type sticks I own, most of them antiques, some of them are shillelaghs, others not. Let’s see how much they weight.
From left to right:
1- Antique cudgel. I am not sure what this one is made of, possibly some type of rosewood. It might have a loaded head. 50cm, 247gr
2- An antique life preserver. This is essentially an iron bar covered with leather rings, used by all sort of people for protection or not so noble ends in the late 1800s up to the mid 1900s. 56cm, 283gr
4- A Rumbu. This is a type of fighting stick used in Eastern Africa. Used for throwing as well as actual stick fighting. 66cm, 233gr
5- An antique shillelagh. This one is really interesting. It’s made of blackthorn and the murlàn is decorated with a skull on one size and what I could best describe as a « meat tenderizer’ on the other. I believe it was meant as a fighting stick and has an impressive forward balance due to the massive murlàn. 90cm, 271gr
6- This is a blackthorn shillelagh I have used for many years for drills as well as test breaking. 92cm, 346gr