Getting medieval: Just how old is bataireacht?

By Maxime Chouinard

When we think of medieval weapons, chances are a shillelagh is not what comes up first in our mind. Probably swords, axes and maces, carried by some knight encased in shiny armor, or some viking on a pillaging raid. Yet, shillelaghs – or their medieval equivalents- would have been a fairly common sight in most of Europe, and sometimes even on the battlefield.

Today we associate the shillelagh of course with Ireland and mostly with the 19th century, but as I often say, the shillelagh as a knob stick or cudgel is not really exclusive to Ireland. You can find it represented in almost every European country from Antiquity to the 18th century, and can be found in archeological sites as far as the Neanderthal era. Even today, you can find it still in use in many African martial arts. But, by the 19th century, Ireland was one of the rare places in Europe still using it. It was so anchored already in the public imagination that Victorian writers would even describe the African knobkerrie as a shillelagh.

So what I want to do today, is illustrate a little bit how common the shillelagh is in the Medieval world (and the Renaissance because why not), and how we can even find some similarities with Antrim Bata.

So let’s start by going really far back. I mention this every time I talk about bataireacht, but the concept of a cudgel is so old that it is almost impossible to say when it started to be used, even in Ireland. Sticks virtually identical to a shillelagh have been found in archeological sites going as far back as the Neanderthals.

Going forward into the timeline, we also find cudgels used in Antiquity.

Now, far from me to try and link Antrim Bata or bataireacht to some mythical prehistoric or antique origin. This is a very old and effective weapon, and as we can still observe in te few martial arts that still use it today, it can be used in a wide variety of ways. We just lack too much information about their use in those time periods to really draw any credible links, and it would be extremely far fetched to think that Antrim Bata is some sort of unbroken martial art tradition from the dawn of humanity or even the days of the Roman Empire.

In the Medieval and Renaissance eras, things start to get interesting as we have a real avalanche of cudgels represented in art, thanks to the habit of illustrators to include more mundane aspects in their artwork. We now see cudgels sometimes carried by commoners:

Sometimes by soldiers:

Sometimes in mythical or religious representations. Chiefs among them are Hercules, Cain, Orion and the various « wild men »:

We also see them in duels, most interestingly in a few fencing treatises.

It seems like their use was enough of a concern to also show up in some medical treatises, including the famous « wound men »:

There are a few instance where the cudgels were held in a familiar fashion to what is done in Antrim Bata, near the middle or third, and sometimes even with the thumb up. Again, I would not venture to say that this represents a link with what we do today, or what was done in Ireland in the 19th century, but it is interesting that this idea still made sense to people several centuries removed from us.

One very interesting representation comes form the tomb of James Schortals and Katherine Whyte in St Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny. The tomb dates from 1509, and includes a few representations of saints on it’s sides, including one of James the Less. The saints are mostly depicted with the instruments of their martyrdom, and James is often portrayed with a club, a carpenter’s square and sometimes even a carpenter saw. The clubs vary immensely, and it is very interesting here that the artist chose to portray it as a shillelagh, and even have James hold it by the middle, where it could have been held simply by the end. Coincidence or connection? Hard to say. But it does indicate that the weapon was known in this form in Ireland already by the early 16th century.

« Great clubs of thorn with bands of iron » are mentioned as weapons in the Irish saga of the Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel. The tale is part of the Ulster Cycle, said to describe events that took place sometime around the 1st century AD. The earliest version we have is from Lebor na hUidre, or Book of the Dun Cow, compiled by various scribes around the 12th century. The translation that most people use when citing this book is the one linked above, made in 1910 using eight different versions of the texts. It’s very difficult to use the Irish Sagas as historical sources, as they were compiled much later than the events they describe, include many fantastical details and can differ from one writer to the next. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see that that clubs made of thornwood were considered weapons that the ancient Irish carried by Medieval Irish storytellers.

On a technical level, it is possible to draw similarities between Medieval martial arts and Antrim Bata. Here is a fun little comparaison, using Hero Forge figures, made by JuneBug Minis from the I.33. treatises wards, and some Antrim Bata engaging guards.

Now all we need is a faction fight miniature game

Beyond the guards themselves, it is interesting to see the similitudes in posture as well. with the hips held back, and the back heel raised.

Now, I would warn people about trying to make too many links which can be more easily explained by coincidence, general anatomy and weapon properties. That said, I still believe that Antrim Bata, and most bataireacht sources, do show certain pre 17th century influences in the concept that are used, namely in the footwork (such as the virtual absence of lunging) and certain engaging guards, while adopting possibly more modern concepts in their striking and parrying mechanics.

Then you probably wonder: why aren’t you just looking at Irish fencing treatises or descriptions of techniques? Well, this is very simple to answer, as there are no treatises published in Ireland before the 18th century, and we have very little to look at in terms of period descriptions. Seriously, everything could fit in only a few pages! One of the most detailed- and « detailed » is a very generous word- description was penned by Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, in 1187 in his Topographia Hibernica. Gerald travelled twice in Ireland, not long after the end of the Anglo-Norman conquest of the country, and visited family members who were involved in the war. To say he did not hold the Irish in high regard after reading his text is no exaggeration, but he does seem to have witnessed certain fights, or at least heard of them in enough details.

He tells us how the Irish carried axes to act as walking sticks, a habit they took from Norwegians and Ostmen; or the Norse-Gaels, who would later form a large part of the first Gallowglasses. Here is what he tells us about their way of using it:

They strike with the axe with one hand and not both, with the thumb outstretched above the hand guiding the blow, from which neither a helmeted head struck directly on the crest, or the rest of the iron mail-clad body, protect from harming.

Kindly translated by Dr. Ken Mondschein

Gerald also tells us that the axe is never sheathed like a sword, and never unstrung like a bow, and that they only need a moment to come to guard and bring it down on their opponent. So we have an axe that is probably the length of a walking stick, being held with one hand, so probably around the middle to balance such a forward weighted weapon, with the thumb extended along the handle. Replace the word « axe » by « shillelagh » and the description fits almost perfectly with bataireacht. Add to this how he mentions that the Irish fight with little armor and use primarily darts, a way of fighting that was still common four centuries later, and that they were experts at rock throwing, a skill that is still noted in the 19th century and a weapon of choice in faction fights, and we get the sense that many fighting practices endured for quite a long time on the Island.

Three axes from the turn of the 12th century found in a boat in Lough Corrib, Connaught. The most complete shaft is 80cm long, and a bit less than 2.5cm in diameter. All are apparently made of cherry (prunus) and are quite light. The whole dimensions are fairly in line with a reasonably stout shillelagh. Darts were also found in the ship.

It would be too simple to say, based on this description, that bataireacht may be a descendant of the Irish axe, replaced by the more conspicuous lead loaded shillelagh. This is certainly a possibility, and one that I have been looking to explore further. I would not say that the two practices were essentially the same, as nearly a millennia of preservation sounds rather hard to believe, but the comparaison with the grip seems almost too evident to reject entirely. I am not the first one to make that link. In this anonymous newspaper article published in the London Telegraph in 1900, the author already remarked that the description made by Gerald had similitudes to how Irish people used their shillelaghs.

republished in Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 18, 1900

So did the Irish just replace their axes by shillelaghs at some point in time? Possibly, though when and why is unknown. The axe is not really something that is talked about by foreign observers in the 16th century, apparently becoming the purview of the gallowglass warriors, but it is shown in the hands of quite a few warriors in the illustrations of John Derricke’s famous book of illustrations The Image of Irelande, with a Discoverie of Woodkarne published in 1581.

By the time of the Williamite War, all mentions of axes have disappeared, but we have a few writings by the Marquis de Louvois, Louis XIV’s minister of War, complaining in dispatches to D’Avaux about the fact that the Irish recruits of James II lacked proper weapons -swords and guns being extremely scarce – to face the Prince of Orange’s forces, having only « sticks and scythes ». Those sticks are described as sometimes being equipped with a ferule on one end. In one dispatch he tells us that the Irish soldiers, as resolute as they are, won’t be able to face their enemies using only « three feet long sticks ».

Now Louvois probably never set foot in Ireland at that time, but was working from reliable information from his officers and envoys such as D’Avaux who followed James II in his campaigns in Ireland and was in command of the French expeditionary forces. It’s hard to say for sure what these « sticks » were, but the fact that he specifically describes them as walking stick length rules out any sort of quarterstaff of half pike. It also casts some doubts about the theory that shillelaghs became popular weapons after the Penal laws, since apparently swords and other weapons were already quite rare among the overall population. That situation was probably more an effect of earlier weapon bans and confiscations following the Nine Years’ War in 1603 in an effort to subjuguate kernes and gallowglasses whose sole role had been that of fighting, and turn them towards farming. This was more or less effective as kernes continued to be an issue until the mid 17th century, but various reports seem to indicate that weapons had indeed became fairly scarce in Ireland.

Such sticks are also alluded to in a story reported by Sir Jonah Barrington in his memoirs published in 1830. The event reported apparently took place in 1690, and it’s unlikely that Barrington – born in 1756- heard the story from any first hand source, but the clubs described seem to fit Louvois’ description. Were they shillelaghs or something more akin to a goedendag? Hard to say.

Every man took his long skeen in his belt—had a thick club, with a strong spike at the end of it, slung with a stout leather thong to his wrist; and under his coat, a sharp broad hatchet with a black blade and a crooked handle. 

 Barrington. Personal Sketches of His Own Times, Vol. I.

This kern from Sir Neill O’Neill’s 1680 portrait is wearing an axe on his belt in the style of a boarding or pioneer’s axe. This is perhaps the style of hatchet that Barrington alluded to.

What is sure is that by the very early 18th century, shillelaghs are mentioned aplenty in various sources, while other weapons become exclusive to the military and gentry. Was it an effect of the weapon laws, or was the shillelagh always around but simply never quite documented?

Saying that there is an unbroken link between two traditions separated in time by centuries is an incredible claim, and incredible claims require incredible evidence. The evidence I have presented here is really intriguing, but not what I would call incredible. There are of course many ways to explain those similarities, and a general ressemblance between two weapons and ways to hold it are not enough to draw conclusions on the system as a whole. Personally, I do believe that what we see in Antrim Bata and in the mainstream bataireacht methods of the 19th century probably became what they are around the late 17th to early 18th centuries, while maintaining older elements, but I will write more about this in a future article.

That said, I do think that the link here is too interesting to simply dismiss, and that would deserve more investigation and research. On that note, I will leave you on a quote which, in hindsight, is pretty ironic, again from our friend Gerald.

It would be good that an order was enacted (as it is in Sicilia) that none of them should carry any weapon at all; no, not so much as a staff in their hands to walk by, for even with that weapon, though it be but slender, they will (if they can) take advantage, and vent off their malice…

Expugnatio Hibernica, 1189

Well, you weren’t entirely wrong on this one Gerald! In reading this I could not help but be reminded of another infamous character…

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