How fencing influenced (or not) Antrim Bata

By Maxime Chouinard

In my last article, I explained how we can find shillelaghs all over history, such as in Medieval Europe, and the few links we can find in Medieval Irish historical sources and what we traditionally teach in Antrim Bata. I also mentioned in passing that I believe that Antrim Bata, and a lot of what we know of bataireacht in general, was also influenced by fencing and martial arts as they were practiced in the late 16th century to the early 18th. This lead to some lively discussion, and so here I am going to develop a little it more about this. I’ll explain briefly why I think certain martial arts tend to look similar, the martial art context in Ireland and neighboring countries in the golden age of bataireacht, and how Antrim Bata compares to these martial arts.

Two arms, two legs… many weapons!

If we look at all the martial arts we can find in a large city today, we get the impression that martial arts in general vary widely. Yet, it wasn’t always quite the case. If you look at the martial arts developed within a certain culture in a certain point in history, they always tend to be very similar. Sure you will see variations, and sometimes unique styles emerge or are preserved within certain sub groups, but overall the principles stay very much similar. People will usually say that we all have two arms and two legs, so there is a limit to the kind of movements humans can do. This is reasonably true with wrestling, but it’s way more complicated when weapons are introduced.

Martial arts don’t tend to sprout from nowhere. They are usually created on the foundations of another art, and they evolve to fit a certain context. In traditional societies, if that context doesn’t change, then the martial arts tend to stay relatively unchanged. We can see this in Japan for example, where martial arts stayed relatively similar for centuries as Japanese feudal society remained isolated from the rest of the world. It is not to say that changes did not occur, new styles emerged, sometimes developing new weapons or training methods. Following generations added or abandoned a few techniques, and changed a few angles. A specialist with a trained eye could recognize when a specific ryu ha or school dates from, but someone looking at it from a larger perspective would probably have a hard time telling any of these schools apart. Yet, the same amateur could probably easily differentiate Olympic fencing from kendo.

In a way, this isn’t very far from how an art historian would examine a painting. Looking at the lines, the colors, the subject; he could probably tell when the artwork was done based on the wealth of knowledge that is available. We can do the same with houses, music, cars or most human creations. We could do the same with martial arts, but we often just lack the knowledge base at the moment to do so.

Of course, martial arts are not quite like paintings. A painter follows fashion trends in order to sell his paintings and make a living, but he also does it because other artists have developed the skills or the tools necessary for his style to exist. Martial arts change for very complex reasons. Practicality, of course, as a martial art who cannot create successful exponents would quickly disappear, but also to fit the weapons, clothing and even the other martial arts it has to face or cohabit with. If a new weapon is introduced and becomes popular, chances are martial arts will have to change to face it. A teacher also tends to structure all of his art around similar principles. It is not extremely productive to teach one system for a certain weapon, and then a completely different one to wield another. Students will learn faster and become better fighters if they can rely on a common base on which to learn their skills. But if that context stays relatively similar, chances are that the martial art will reach a certain point where things don’t change so much. We see this today with MMA for example, which started with many different styles, before a relatively homogenous style of fighting took over the sport.

Sure, someone could come up with a completely different way to fight with a stick for example, but he will have to face several opponents that have reached the apex of their system, and trained and fought with the best. Chances are that new style won’t have a chance to develop itself in that environment, unless major changes happen.

This is why, when we look at the technical sources we have on bataireacht – which are Walker, Allanson-Winn, Footpad and the Cane, Jafsie, Longhurst, AB and RBUB – they tend to be pretty similar: A squared stance, a grip of third with one hand (or in the case of RBUB, with two hands), the use of a throwing mechanic powered by hip rotation, opposition parries and no lunging, among other things. So what’s the context that produced bataireacht?

As I explained in my last article, by the mid 17th century Ireland was already lacking in weapons such as swords and guns. The British overlords had confiscated many weapons, and done so again after the many other rebellions that shook the country. Finally, in the 1690s, the British government enacted the Penal Laws, that served to repress the Catholic population. Among these laws were the ones banning Catholics from carrying weapons, or to join the military. An exception was made for Gaelic aristocrats who could still carry the sword, and soldiers who could go and serve in Continental armies, mostly in Spain and France (more on that later).

What this did, I believe, is it created distinct fighting cultures in Ireland. While Ireland already had a relatively homogenous martial culture up until the 17th century, with bataireacht and broadsword fencing sharing the same masters and the the same principles- probably with regional variations and preferences- the Penal laws created different classes that would either wear the smallsword, the broadsword or the shillelagh. The Gaelic aristocrats embraced the French dueling culture and its smallsword. The Protestant gentry continued to be influenced by the British military fencing culture, which was itself progressively following French theories, while the working class -many of whom hailing from former Kernes or Gallowglasses families forced into farming by British repression, kept practicing the old ways of fighting, more or less isolated from the dominating martial cultures of the region which were the French and British fencing scenes, and which now had little to propose to faction fighters carrying the shillelagh.

One thing that is important to note before we begin. Understand that people in the past did not care as much as we do today about typology, and would have used a variety of words to refer to the same thing. Bataireacht is one of many documented words used to refer to stick fighting in Ireland such as boiscín or ag imirt an mhaidíghe. Bataireacht doesn’t show up in dictionaries until the 20th century, but was popularized by John Hurley. It is understood that the word may have referred to various types of stick fighting, but for the sake of clarity, I am using bataireacht to refer to what I feel is a uniquely Irish style of stick fighting practiced by the working class and used in faction fights. This is to differentiate it from other types of stick fighting that were developed and introduced from abroad in later times, and were not as uniquely Irish. I am not doing this from a nationalist perspective, but I think it is important to separate this distinct tradition from others, just as one would separate, for example, kenjutsu and French sabre fencing, which in the late 19th century were both taught in Japan under the same name. Yet, you would create confusion today if you called Olympic fencing « kenjutsu », and rightly so.

The Wild Geese theory

In his 1975 book, Patrick O’Donnell theorized that bataireacht was developed mostly from the influence of French officers coming to Ireland in order to recruit troops for the French army. This theory was picked up by John Hurley in his 2007 book. The idea is that French recruiters would have spent time with the new soldiers while in Ireland to teach them military drills, which of course included swordsmanship. The Irish recruits would have absorbed these skills, and then brought them back with them when they came back home to use in faction fights.

O’Donnell does not really have any source corroborating this idea, but it makes sense if you take for granted that soldiers were trained back then as they are trained today. Recruits were probably systematically trained in swordsmanship, just like they get trained in shooting today. A drill sergeant would probably stand around, bark commands, while recruits went through cuts and parry drills, right?

That’s not quite how things were in the French army at the time. In fact, in most armies until the 19th century fencing was not something that would be taught in group drills, or even systematically taught to new soldiers. We know from different soldiers memoirs, for example Rossignol or Coignet, in the writings of Durfort on cavalry swordsmanship, or even in theatre plays, that if a soldier wanted to learn fencing, he would have needed to pay a fencing master in his regiment to teach him. The lessons would have been given on a one on one basis.

Soldiers were trained to move with their weapons in various simple positions to be ready to respond quickly to different orders like forming a square or resume marching. The minutiae of using the sword or the pike to attack or parry were not part of this training.

Superiors would have taught the recruits how to march, how to hold and charge a gun and how to shoot, as well as incredibly basic postures with the bayonet. These were immensely more useful to an infantryman than to learn how to use a sword which was increasingly seen as of little consequence to the outcome of a battle. Soldiers used them as walking aids, utensils to grill sausages, and tools to clear out vegetation much more so than actual weapons. To that latter end, dueling seemed to be the main use. France finally phased it out in 1763, and swords only remained with officers, Grenadiers and light infantrymen, and of course with the cavalry (of which the Irish Brigade fielded one single regiment).

Now, it’s quite possible that fencing was so popular with Irish recruits that they did find the means to pay for lessons and that it influenced their own style, after all we do have one French soldier of Irish origin, Daniel O’Sullivan, who wrote a smallsword manual, but there is another problem with this theory: Bataireacht looks nothing like French fencing. The grip itself is completely alien to French fencers, even with sticks. The body position does not respect at all the principle of effacement (holding your body on a straight line, behind your sword) so dear to the French school, and most importantly, it does not use the lunge at all, a concept which has permeated fencing so much by the 18th century that you can barely find a single martial art from that period not using it.

I have said so before, if bataireacht was heavily influenced by French fencing, then we would expect it to look like La Canne, a French martial art designed to use a walking stick as a weapon, and which uses the same principles as French sabre fencing with a few modifications for power and defense. Yet, again, we have no bataireacht source showing us anything remotely close to such a system.

The la canne system of Joseph Charlemont. This demonstration is essentially identical to systems practiced in France in the early 19th century, and possibly earlier, with the main difference being that Charlemont used larger movements to arm his strikes behind his back.

Sabre fencing as practiced in France around 1880, but almost identical to sabre as it was practiced since the mid 18th century. You can easily see the similitudes with la canne. One of the main difference is how cuts are essentially powered from the wrist, while La Canne uses full arm motions and larger parries.

The British connection

Do we see an influence from British and Scottish fencing? I would say probably, but mostly with earlier sources such as Silver, or Page. Later ones are progressively closer to the contemporary French school. The few British broadsword authors that talk to us about bataireacht, like MacGregor, Walker or Allanson-Winn, seem to consider that the practice shares some commonalities, but they are pretty clear that it is also a very different animal. Walker calls bataireacht « unscientific », probably because it does not follow the principles of fencing which were seen as the product of rational thinking at the time. Bataireacht would have been seen as something quite medieval and unrefined. Allanson Winn, while he thinks that many Irish stick fighters could equal or defeat the best fencers, still seems to consider sabre fencing the best of the two for its use of the lunge and the point.

Here we can compare two similar angles of attack, one with a sabre or broadsword, the other with a shillelagh. Both illustrate how different each methods can be. On a superficial level, they can look fairly similar. Both use one handed weapons, both keep their off hand behind their backs, and they also seem to use similar angles of attacks and parries.

But once we start to look beyond the surface level, we find a large number of differences. Yes the parries and attacks have somewhat similar angles, but these have been in use since the Renaissance, if not before. The most obvious differences is probably the use of the buta, or the lower third of the shillelagh, a component that is completely absent in a sabre or broadsword, yet is used to parry and even attack in bataireacht. The body is held very squarely in bataireacht compared to sabre fencing, and the feet are held on two lines, the back foot angled forward and not sideways. The hips are held back, instead of keeping the back perfectly straight, and the weight is held forward and not on the back foot. The lunge is also completely absent, where 99% of martial arts based around fencing in the 18th and 19th centuries used lunges. Instead, the footwork in bataireacht is closer to what was usually done in the 16th century, with both feet always moving instead of keeping the back foot anchored on the same spot.

The same two actions in Antrim Bata. The result may look superficially similar, but the footwork and posture are completely different from 19th century sabre fencing. Parries are done with beats, and all movements are powered by a large forward rotation of the whole body. The buta, or lower end of the sitck, also serves to guard, a concept that is obviously impossible to apply with a sword.

Finally, the hand behind the back is interesting, though it appears rarely in bataireacht sources. The most well known is Walker above, but we also see it in one sketch of what appears to be a training session of bataireacht. Was this done for practice, for friendly bouts or was it a regional habit? Regardless, it is not mentioned anywhere else, and that arm is the aspect that varies the most from source to source: on the chest, on the stick, next to the face or hanging down. What I find even more telling here is that even Walker is not following British fencing customs in this regard. Or is he?



Indeed, British and Scottish broadsword had varied ways of holding the left hand, but Angelo was the first one to fix it on the hip. This became the only position encountered until Tuhoy in 1857, who is the first one to introduce the hand behind the back in British military fencing. This might seem like an insignificant detail, but even Walker himself imitates Angelo in his chapter on the broadsword in all regards including this one. Why would Walker suggest two completely different methods if both were the same?

Where to put the off hand is probably the one thing that varies the most in bataireacht engaging guards. Left to right: Rince an Bhata Uisce Beatha, Antrim Bata, Jafsie, Allanson Winn.

Compare them to common Scottish, British, French and Italian engaging guards from the mid 18th to the late 19th century.

Did Irish stick fighters learn from British swordsmen? Possibly. We are told by William Carleton that travelling dancing masters « in the days of our fathers » taught not only dancing but also fencing and bataireacht. What this fencing looked like, and when this happened, is not that clear. We also have an oral recollection of a master Séamus Ó Síoda teaching « the seven guards » in 1816 to people attending his bataireacht school in the parish of Glin. Some took this to mean that he taught Angelo’s system, which does teach seven cutting angles. The problem here is that it actually has eight guards, out of which 4 are engaging guards and 6 are parries.

Still, you can easily teach most bataireacht systems using a seven guard drill. I do the same in my classes with an exercise called « up and down » which teaches the seven basic strikes and parries any beginner should know, as they cover every attacking angle possible. Yet, I am not teaching Angelo’s manual, and our system has more than just seven parries and strikes. One manual that has seven guards or « wards » is the I.33, a German sword and buckler manual published in the 1320s, but we can’t reasonably pretend this is what is reported here. It is just too difficult to draw categoric conclusions from such limited evidence alone.

Some will raise the point that boiscìn is Irish for « fencing », but what is important to note here is that the term fencing was not used in the same way as today. Fencing used to refer not only to the sword, but to all weapons used for de »fence« , even to boxing, and so in later descriptions you see bataireacht called « stick fencing ». We also have some commenters, like Kirby, talking of a match between naval cutlass fencing and bataireacht and saying: « This convinced him that cudgel fighting and fencing derived from the same art ». Now, the author is not telling us that bataireacht derived from sabre fencing, or that it was the same. He is telling us that they possibly both derived from another art, which is something I believe is probably right; as I will explain very soon.

Strikes in Antrim Bata
Strikes in British Broadsword, courtesy of Jay Maas

What about Irishmen serving in the military, as it became more common during the Napoleonic era. Here, we do know that some of them did learn, and went on to teach, broadsword fencing from their experience in the military. The question is though: did this have any influence on bataireacht and faction fighting? Based on the evidence we have, I would say this would have been very minimal. In his memoirs, Benjamin Randell Harris tells us how he had to lead a group of Irish who were enlisted in the British army during the Napoleonic Wars. Harris does not have a favorable opinion of his experience, but he tells us how his Irish recruits kept their shillelaghs at all time and continuously fought with them, even before receiving any sort of military training. It appears that Irish recruits already had quite an extensive background in stick fighting before joining the army. We also have no indication that these veterans taught these drills to faction fighters.

The opportunities to learn fencing in the British military at the time were even less than in the French army, as few regiments had fencing masters in their ranks, and outside of the cavalry no regulation was in place to teach swordsmanship until much later in the war. This is attested by Charles James in his military dictionnary in 1802. If an Irish recruit did end up being shown how to use a sword, he would have probably found it quite limited compared to his previous experience with stick fighting. Bataireacht was immensely popular at the time in Ireland, and many fighters would have started their learning when they were only children, either learning from their family, a school, or through imitation. In that regard, they would have likely had considerably more martial experience than most regimental fencing masters they would meet, and any skills they would have learned would have probably not been very impressive for their friends back home. Where they might have been inspired is in how the system was taught through different drills, as such systems of standardized instruction, based on Prussian and Austrian theory, were then quite new.

Children fighting with shillelaghs, from William Carleton’s Tales Of Ireland, 1837

So in my opinion, Antrim Bata, and most styles of bataireacht, have more in common with, say, 16th century Bolognese sidesword than they have with British, French or Scottish broadsword of the 18th and 19th century. One interesting similitude though is how strikes tend to be powered by a throwing motion more than a slashing one, which is something that becomes really popular by the turn of the 17th century. This allows the fencer to keep the guard of his sword up to avoid uncovering himself too much during a cut.

Antrim Bata also teaches how to face an opponent fighting in an outside or inside guard, so it would seem like at least people in county Antrim were encountering such opponents from time to time, but these methods are visibly designed to exploit the faults of an opponent more familiar with a sword than a stick, so it seems again that this was not considered to be the style of an experienced Irish Bataire and not something deserving much attention.

Were these similitudes present in bataireacht before the 17th century, due perhaps to the nature of the weapon? This is really hard to say with any certainty. This might have been a development of the 17th century, when bataireacht and other forms of fencing were still probably practiced together, but it’s also possible that it was there earlier. We know that Irish warriors were very fond of throwing weapons such as javelins, knives and rocks, so it’s not impossible either that they decided to use this same dynamic to power their strikes. To make an analogy in regards to common mechanics, I think it is also useful to note that Zulu fighters use a fairly similar mechanic, both for their cudgel or their axes which ties in nicely with my previous article. Powering strikes with a cudgel or an axe have different prerogatives than with a sword as Burton Richardson explains here.



Going back further

Now if we go back in time, I think we can find more ressemblances with fencing, particularly in Scotland, but also in other parts of the world. Scottish and English broadsword fencing took a certain while to adopt the lunge, and relied rather on short shuffling steps and larger passing steps, not unlike Antrim Bata. The stance was also a bit squarer, and the body often rotated during a strike in what some people call « equilibrio », based on Thomas Page’s manual on the broadsword. By the mid 18th century, the lunge is well established in British broadsword, but we still see squared stances and large body rotations happening. This mostly stops with Angelo in 1798.

We also see something else in earlier representations of Scottish fencing: Antrim Bata’s High Outside guard, one of our favorite engaging guards. The sword is kept high and close to the body, the edge outside and the sword covering the high outside line as well as the top of the head This is a very good stance for someone who is mostly looking to defend against and deliver powerful cuts or blows, in fact it is also very popular in North and South Africa and the Middle East, and is documented as the « Turkish », « African » or « Saracen » guard since at least the 16th century. It is also a very good guard for someone using a shield as you can cover the openings created by the high outside guard. You can see here different variations on this guard across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.



This is not to say that no one in Ireland ever used their shillelagh in the manner of Angelo or Valville, but I would say that they were a minority, and that most of them were probably not involved in faction fighting. As I mentioned earlier, bataireacht was, in my opinion, a martial art of the working class. Of all the people who wrote about it, we can only identify one who actually practiced it, being William Carleton, who was the son of a farmer. All the others are issued from the aristocracy like Allanson-Winn, Walker, or Barrington, or the middle class like Trench who only describe it from a distance. We also have the author of the Footpad and the cane of course, who most probably practiced it, but we have no idea who he was unfortunately. We also have the video recording of John Francis Condon teaching what we believe is bataireacht in 1928. It is believed that Jafsie probably learned this from his father who emigrated to America in 1848, and worked as a stone cutter. Irish society used to be much more separated than it is today, and classes could be completely disconnected from one another by rigid structures if not literal walls.

The anonymous Irish traveller has a very interesting description of a clash of martial culture in his first encounter with bataireacht when encountering a group of highwaymen. The man was allegedly born into a fairly wealthy Cork family, and had studied in a military academy in Berlin where he was taught swordsmanship. He did carry a cudgel with him, and did use it, but as we learn from this excerpt, it was probably based on the Prussian method as he appears to have never seen bataireacht before and appears quite surprised by what he sees.

Here’s a great visual representation of that dichotomy between the lower and upper classes in terms of stick fighting, from the self-defense manual of the Baron De Berenger, published in London in 1835. De Berenger is suggesting to use a walking stick as you would a sword, and rely on your fencing lessons. Here, he shows how to parry the blow coming from a ruffian armed with a cudgel, and using it in Berenger’s idea of bataireacht or some related form of cudgel fighting.

This idea of a form of stick fighting based on swordsmanship is reprised by many other authors throughout the 19th century. But there is one bataireacht author that makes the distinction between irish stick and contemporary fencing quite clear:

From time to time articles have been written about the proper use of the walking stick in self-defense. In practically every case the pupil has been told to wield his cane as he would a sword. But once let his opponent, by this method, get a hand on the stick he will have an enormous leverage by which to disarm its wielder. It is, however, to the Emerald Isle that one must look to get instructions on the ways in which, the cane can be most successfully brought into use as a weapon of self-defense.

The footpad and the cane, San Francisco Call, Aug. 20, 1905

So, fencing or not?

I started writing this article with a strong belief that Antrim Bata was based in part on 18th century broadsword fencing. I must say that during the writing, I came to change some of my ideas around this. There are definitive similarities, and I think a few techniques are nearly the same as some demonstrated in early broadsword manuals, for example « the whirl », but I increasingly think that bataireacht represents an older style of fighting than what we can find in 18th and 19th century manuals, a style that is applicable to the sword, but probably is a more direct descendant from the axe. If I tried to apply Antrim Bata to a sword, I would need to modify a few things in order to fence safely and effectively, but a light one handed axe would need very little modification, if any. I am not the first one to suggest this possibility, but I think we now have enough knowledge about the practice and the weapons to experiment how Antrim Bata can translate to an Irish Medieval axe.

I want to make it clear once more: I am not arguing that bataireacht is completely alien to sabre or broadsword fencing, it would make no sense if they didn’t share many similar concepts; and they do. What I believe, is that all the technical sources we have show a style that kept more aspects of pre 18th century fencing than it borrowed from more recent styles.

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