Shillelagh: What’s in a name?

By Maxime Chouinard

A subject of debate in the world of bataireacht has long been the appropriate name of the weapons we use. Bata, bata mor, cipín, maide, cleith ailpin; these names should sound familiar to anyone who took an interest in irish stick fighting. But probably the most contentious one has been « shillelagh ». Much ink has been spilled to try and establish the origin of this word which unfortunately seem rather lost to time. After a lot of research on the subject, I decided to write down what I have found. So let’s look at the different theories around the origin of the word and see if they make sense.

The forest of Shillelagh

In the present day, there are two main theories. The first one, probably the most common since the late 18th century, is that the name comes from the barony of Shillelagh in county Wicklow. The story goes that the famous oak forest that lied there produced some of the best fighting sticks, and so the name-by antonomasia or genericization- became associated with the weapon. This may sound strange, but this phenomenon is actually quite common and you probably use it regularly; sometimes even without knowing. For example, The Scots sometimes used the name of the famous smith Andrea Ferara to talk about their broadswords even when they had nothing to do with the man. The name Colichemarde, possibly referring to a member of the Swedish Königsmarck family, came to refer to a specific type of smallsword blade in the 18th century. The name Paddy was for a long time a stereotypical way to refer to any Irishmen at home and abroad. Modern examples include escalator, aspirin, kleenex, xerox or even nintendo, which for a time became synonym with « game console » before the company launched a campaign to preserve it’s integrity. So the phenomenon is well known, and it is not impossible that this was indeed the origin of the word, but the question is: can we reasonably prove it?

That is a little bit more tricky. Mostly because, like so many words relating to weapons and especially when the working class is concerned, and even more so when dealing with Ireland, we do not quite know when the term shillelagh appeared. It seems to show up around the mid 18th century, which coincides with the last days of the shillelagh forest; having been exploited to near oblivion during that century. The name of the barony itself seems to come from  Síol Elaigh, referring to the « descendants of Ealach » who settled the area in the Medieval era. That said, the origin of the region’s name has little to no relevance in this case, as genericization is a process that is not concerned with the original meaning of the word, quite the contrary. So it is a documented explanation with a long history, which sounds reasonable as a theory, but it could also be a long held misunderstanding. So let’s look at competing theories.

Sail éille or thonged cudgel

Another theory is that the word is a corruption of the Irish for sail éille, meaning thonged willow or cudgel. While the theory makes sense, very little supporting evidence was put forward to defend it. It is not impossible that this term came to be deformed, possibly by someone who misheard the name, but the historical evidence is between slim to non existent. This idea is never raised in period documents, and thonged cudgels are not very abundant in historical descriptions either. They show up in a handful of sources, but they are more of an oddity. It also seems rather strange, in my opinion, that such a specific term for an uncommon weapon became so ubiquitous as to be applied to cudgels as a whole. If those two words are indeed the origins of shilellagh, then why do we never see sail by itself? Sail can be used to talk about wooden beams, but its association with cudgels is not that clear; more on that later. Most other combination terms we see, such as cleith ailpin, are also encountered separately and make sense together, but sail never makes an appearance far as I know. Maybe that’s because by the 18th century sail was not really used anymore to refer to a club, and that people forgot that it was a part of the word shillelagh, but then we would still need some sort of proof that the expression once existed and was widespread, but we don’t really have that.

This theory was largely popularized by John Hurley in 2007, namely in his book Shillelagh: the Irish fighting stick. The source given is A Dictionary of Hiberno-English by Terence Patrick Dolan, itself published a year before. Here is the entry on shillelagh from the 2020 edition of this book:

Personally, I would need a bit more meat on this bone to be convinced. Dolan tell us that there seems to be no connection with the forest of Shillelagh, but gives no rationale for his argumentation. He seems to infer that it cannot be the origin of the word because of what shillelagh means. But, as I said before, if this is a case of genericization that argument is moot. This is a bit more developed in the 2005 book Word Routes by Alexander Tulloch. The author picks up the same theory to explain the origin of the word, and gives Patrick Dinneen’s dictionnary as its sole source.

Patrick S. Dinneen was a lexicographer and a leading figure in the Gaelic Revival. He published a few essays and lectures on the subject of the Irish language, as well as two dictionnaries in 1904 and 1927. The 1904 one makes no mention on the term, but it makes a very quick appearance in the 1927 version, and this is what most people seem to refer to when citing this theory.


It is also mentionned under the sail entry, this time a bit more clearly.

Again, same issue as everywhere else, no source. It is possible though that Dinneen elaborated on this theory in lectures or other articles, but I have not found any trace.

This is also repeated just as succinctly by Ó Dónaill in his famous Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla in 1977 as well as de Bhaldraithe in 1959. But once again, no justification is given as these are dictionaries and not academic studies in etymology, and this is an important point that I would like to stress. Dictionaries, especially back in Dineen days, were not cold and objective records. They can give suggestions as to the meaning or the translation of a word, but are not necessarily authoritative sources by themselves as the do not present us with arguments and sources. As Alan Titley remarked in his article Patrick Dinneen: Lexicography and Legacy published in 2014 in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Dineen stamped his own ideas into his dictionaries, and as was the case with many of the people involved in the Gaelic Revival he described things not necessarily as they were but as he believed they once were or at least how they should be.

This traditionalist approach to « correct » certain cultural productions that were seen as « corrupted » by the lower classes or some outside influence was very common at the time, and participated in many changes to traditional activities seen as « impure ». The Gaelic Revival and its proponents, as valuable and important to Irish culture as their contribution was, did much to change certain aspects of the Irish language and reform it. Historical sources always have to be examined to try and take into account the motivations of the author and how they influenced his work. I think in this case, there might have been an attempt to bring back certain words to a « purer » Irish origin, often with heavy handed arguments and circular reasoning, all to avoid having to admit to a less noble origin for a word, and maybe in that case Dinneen tried a bit too hard to find a Gaelic origin to shillelagh where there was none, asking himself what combination of Irish words could explain shillelagh instead of considering the historical records; which gives us an explanation that is not really any less Irish, but not quite as complex or forced.

A point would like to make again here, is that Dinneen is the first one to translate sail as cudgel, and only in his 1927 edition, as the 1904 does not make that link. Nowhere else, in any of the previous dictionnaries have I seen the word translated as such, and again, it is never encountered in any source discussing Irish fighting sticks, unlike all the other versions I have cited in the introduction. This, to me, is the most curious point about Dinneen’s entry.

The theory was apparently not unanimously accepted among academics. For example, in The Gaelic Language in English Plays, published in Transactions of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (1950), pp.29-35., J.O. Bartley dismisses Dinneen’s explanation when he cites the earliest appearance of the word in John Sheridan’s Brave Irishman (more on this one further on). Bartley seems to considers that the word comes from the forest and not from a corruption of an Irish expression. As with all our other authors, Bartley gives no rationale for his preference, so we can only consider it as an opinion.

The first mentions

If we go back even further to the first few Irish dictionaries, such as Lhuyd, O’Begly or O’Brien; all published in the early, mid and late 18th century respectively, we find no mention of the word shillelagh. It could be that the term was not yet widespread enough, or that it was considered to be too vernacular to include in a « proper » dictionary. Indeed, the word does make an appearance in Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue published in 1785. This was one of the first efforts to collect slang words from all corners of society. It gives us the following definition of shillaley:

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The earliest use of the word I have been able to find so far comes in the 1741 (or maybe 1737 according to Bartley) comedy play Brave Irishman by the Irish actor and educator Thomas Sheridan. The comedy tells of the misadventures of an Irish soldier in London. The first mention is made by the character of Sconce, who remarks how the Irish carry with them oaken cudgels that they call their « Shillela ». Later on, the Irish captain enters a duel with a Frenchman and tells Sconce « Here, take Shillela » as he unsheathes his sword which he calls « Andreferara » and hands over his cudgel to Sconce.

So we have one example here of an Irishman- imaginary of course but written by a tangible Irishman nonetheless- using the name Shillela to refer to his cudgel in the same manner as Andreferara is used to describe his sword. We here have a textbook example of a genericization, and these two words used together in a similar way are very telling. Highland warriors did not refer to their broadswords as Andreaferara, or Ferrara because it was a corruption of an obscure Scottish Gaelic word. They used it because quality blades were often inscribed with the name of Andrea Ferara, and so the sword took on the name of a popular maker or brand, just like we would do today with other everyday items. In this instance, it is not a stretch to believe that shilellagh entered the vocabulary in the same way, simply because good cudgels, or even just good reputable wood, was being produced in Shillelagh.

The Shililah Corps

Another, much more unusual explanation, comes to us from Charles Vallencey a British military surveyor sent to to Ireland and who became, in his time, a prolific antiquarian of Irish history. In his 1786 Collectanea de rebus hibernicis, he pretends that the word came from a group of Irish warriors called Shililah who apparently used fire hardened spears, and that it was now used by peasants to refer to the fire hardened sticks they carry around to defend themselves with. The idea of fire hardening shillelaghs comes back fairly often in period literature, but Vallencey gives no source for his theory, and I haven’t found any other mentions of the Shillala warriors other than other people citing Vallencey. We do know that some of the sources and objects he worked on have since disappeared, but his work has also been vehemently criticized for its lack or rigor and crude deductions.

Such a genericization is again not uncommon. Certain Venetian swords were called Schiavonas allegedly because of their association with the Schiavonis, or Slavic mercenaries. Regardless, this is probably the least credible theory in my eye as it presents no reliable supportive material, even more so when considering the credibility of the author. It is also a theory that quickly fell into complete obscurity.

The last word

So what is the most credible one then? Well, barring any authoritative source from the period, I think that while both the forest and thonged cudgel theories are credible, the forest one at least has the advantage of having ample period mentions, and not being immensely seperated in time from its creation to its use, as the Shillelagh forest was still being exploited when the expression first came up. The thonged cudgel one has no period mentions, uses terms that on their own are not documented, seems to point to an ancient and mysterious origin, and strangely refers to a type of cudgel that is not that well documented either. Using Occam’s razor, the forest theory has the least issues, while the thonged cudgel one presents many unanswered questions and does a lot of acrobatics to try and make its point; and so I would then favour the former more traditional explanation.

Thank you for making it to the end of this article. Hopefully, the points I am bringing make sense to you. This is my opinion based on the sources I have consulted, but if you happen to find anything else that would bring more light to the origin of this word, feel free to let me know!

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