If you have any interest in bataireacht, you must have run into one of these before, I’m talking about the Cold steel and United Cutlery polypropylene shillelaghs. These have been around for so long, that I can’t quite remember a time when they didn’t exist, even more so considering that, teaching bataireacht, I get questions about them more often than is probably safe for my mental health!
I haven’t been hiding my opinions about them. I already pointed out what a good shillelagh ought to be, and why shillelaghs are not oversized walking sticks, but I think I have to really tackle the elephant sized stick in the room…
Before I start, I want to say that I have no ill will towards any of the companies producing these sticks, and that my opinion is based on my knowledge of Antrim Bata, a traditional style of bataireacht, as well as extensive research in the history and practice of this martial art. They may work for other styles, and as I often say I do not intend to speak for them, but this is coming from one of the few styles of Irish stick fighting, which I guess should hold some weight when talking about our weapon of choice. So let’s begin!
I had the chance to handle these two models before in numerous occasions, but never felt the need to buy any, the reasons why will be found below. Nevertheless, I decided to buy an example of each to really be thorough in my evaluation and not rely entirely on memory. Each company produces variations on the theme, with longer and shorter batas, but I decided to talk about the standard ones that are more relevant to us.
Before presenting the stats, I have to say that it was quite difficult to find the exact information online. Some websites hugely misrepresent the weight of these sticks. I guess there might be some variation there, and the models may have changed over time, but you wouldn’t expect that from mass produced plastic sticks. I am also adding an actual blackthorn used for practice as well as what I consider to be an antique fighting shillelagh to really give some contrast.
Throughout the article, I will be using the terminology I came up with to refer to the parts of the bata. Here is a figure to help decipher those terms.
I believe those sticks are indeed incredibly tough, though not indestructible, especially in regards to the fake murlán that often ends up flying away if used for more vigorous training. It’s supposed to be standard in shape, so you do know what you are going to get (though as seen above, that doesn’t quite seem to be the case) and it can be cheaper to buy than a real Irish blackthorn stick, depending on where you live. It will also demand less maintenance than a wooden stick.
The weight can potentially make it a tool to train strength, but as I will discuss later on, this reason alone does not merit the purchase. The point of balance are surprisingly similar on both models, but were much too high above the dorn for me. This might be less of an issue with someone who has longer arms, as the dorn depends on the individual’s forearm length.
Where to begin? Well let’s start with the original plastic shillelagh, the Cold Steel blackthorn. This stick is ridiculously big and heavy. I mean cartoonishly so. Unfortunately, for some reason this became what people expect out of a shillelagh, even though the historical and practical realities of bataireacht show us something completely different.
Why is this a problem? First is the fact that most of it is dead weight. 900 grams may not seem like much if you are used to swords. A medieval arming sword maybe be around 1000 grams, a katana can be around 1200 and a large two handed sword would be around 2000. So what’s the problem?
I’ve said so before, but a club is balanced completely opposite a sword. The latter has most of the weight below the hand, while the other has it towards the top. If that was reversed, the sword would no longer be balanced for cutting and thrusting. The weight of a sword is also highly dependant on the fact that it is made mostly of steel, and what it needs to do and accomplish, which is completely different from a club. A bit like axes, which tend to be lighter than most swords of comparable length. That balance makes these types of forward weighted weapon able to produce more powerful strikes even at a much lower weight.
Clubs are made to fracture bones, and they do so, mostly, with the mass that’s concentrated at the top. If you look at wooden cudgels used in other cultures, such as Zulu knobkerries, or all headed clubs in North America, the weight tends to be fairly similar to shillelaghs, around 300 to 600gr. This is really more than enough to seriously injure or kill someone. Why is that?
Update: I had written an attempt at a scientific explanation, but was told that my explanation was maybe too simple to explain something much more complicated. So rather than attempt something that’s a bit beyond me, and which would make this article way longer than it should be, I will refer to you two studies. The first is on the weight of tennis rackets in relation to the power of their strikes, and the other on baseball bats. Basically, as mass increases, power does, but only to a point. Past this point, it starts to decrease because, to reuse a conclusion from the second article, if you want more head speed and more mass, you have to put more energy into the swing and swing faster. There is simply a point where it’s impossible.
So to come back to our plastic shillelaghs. I took the time to swing both of them at pads and at coconuts; which we use to test the power of our strikes. The result is that I could achieve more power with the real blackthorn stick (the one that I mention in the tables above) than I could with either of the plastic ones. Even though they weight twice or even three times as much! I simply could not get them to move anywhere as fast as the real one, which affected how much kinetic energy I could deliver. We also have to keep in mind that this added exertion meant that not only would I hit with less energy, I would also become tired much more quickly, which is an important factor in any fight. I replicated the same thing using thai pads which we use to practice strikes, and got the same results.
Now, why could I not get the same energy going? Because our style of stick fighting was not developed for the need to use such overweight weapons; and frankly few stick martial arts are! If a 300 or 400 grams stick does the job perfectly well, why would I need to use something that will slow me down and get me tired more quickly? I could swing these sticks to comparable speed if I swung them using our two handed grip, much like how you would swing a baseball bat, but this would deprive me of most of the advantages that come with our standard grip, namely the substantial protection that I get from the buta, the faster strikes I can make, the ability to rapidly switch my distance of engagement, and the ability of using my off hand to grab, strike and defend, which is tremendously useful in a stick fight.
And here lies the main issue:these sticks were never meant to be used for proper bataireacht, as I doubt the creators had seen much of it or consulted with anyone trained in it. Looking at the promotional videos, you see one thing over and over, which is the use of large baseball bat swings. This is how these sticks were designed to be used, and that’s fine, but they are unfortunately useless for anything to do with Antrim Bata. Could someone much stronger than I am swing them at reasonable speed? No doubt. But I think only a small minority of people would truly benefit from using something so heavy, as they would still be able to swing a lighter stick faster and for a longer time.
The diameters of the sticks are also problematic, at least for me, and contribute to the lower performance of both. In Antrim Bata, the fingers are used to help power and direct the strikes, and to do this they need to have some range of motion. If the stick is too large in the hand, that motion becomes increasingly limited and so the power generation, agility and precision of the strikes and parries suffer. Add to this that the grip becomes a lot less secure if you cannot wrap your fingers around it, as you risk being easily disarmed.
The Cold Steel was the worst offender here, not only because of the diameter but because of the strange elliptic shape of the grip, which forces the fingers open even more. It is, strangely enough, more comfortable to use if the murlán is switched to the side. Imagine using an axe or a hammer with the grip rotated 45 degrees and that’s pretty much what you have here. Was this a mistake during production?
The United Cutlery one is a bit more conservative, but I still think it is too large for most people, at least if my apparently exact average hand size is any good indicator. The UC also has an issue that is not as serious with the CS, which is the fact that the murlán has a fairly sizeable crook to it. The problem with crook shaped sticks is that it demands a near perfect alignement on each strikes. If I hit slightly with the side of the murlán, the crook now acts as a lever and forces the stick sideways, which makes it turn in the hand.
This is even worse with these two sticks, because of the size of the murlán, which makes it a lot easier to catch a target with the side. The size of the striking surface also dissipates the energy, which contributes to diminishing the power that is transferred to the target where a smaller one would focus it. This was especially noticed on the thai pads, where the real blackthorn managed to almost hit the arm through the thick padding. It is then preferable to have a stick that is as straight as possible, and with a round murlán of smaller dimension.
To me the biggest issue here is the material. I understand to some degree how a plastic sword or knife is useful. It’s relatively safer and cheaper than a metal or wooden trainer. But a stick doesn’t have that issue. Sure, an authentic Irish shillelagh can be more expensive than these plastic ones, but as long as you have trees in your region of the world it is fairly easy to find alternatives made in more accessible woods.
One might say: « Yes, but I want an indestructible plastic stick, in case I ever need to use it. » Unless your daily job involves using a stick to defend yourself on a regular basis, a properly made hardwood shillelagh is very unlikely to break on you. And even then, I would think that a wooden stick used regularly would still endure years of hard use (as we can see for ourselves in actual training), and more importantly it would show you when it needs to be replaced by starting to fray, which a plastic stick won’t. The latter will most likely fail without warning.
You might also consider a heavier stick to build strength. While this is a traditional training method in Antrim Bata, I would again ask the question of why choosing an expensive plastic shillelagh when any big piece of wood would do just the same? In Antrim Bata, we would traditionally use table legs for this purpose, because why go to all the trouble of producing a real shillelagh if it’s never going to be hitting another stick?
Next, this is a bit personal, but I find these sticks to be really tacky… They look like cheap Halloween or St-Patrick’s props, and no one seeing them will be fooled in thinking that you are walking around with an actual blackthorn. I think there are far better options around for a nice looking walking stick if you ever feel the need to get one. The material itself adds a layer of « plastic paddyness » that we could really do without. Which brings me to my last point.
The traditional folklore around the woods used for bataireacht, whether you wish to believe in it or not, shows a certain deference to nature. It makes little sense to me, especially knowing what we know about pollution today, to go to all the troubles of acquiring sticks made with fossil fuels, which on top of that will take upwards of 450 years to decompose (and then probably stay around in other forms) once we discard them. While a wooden stick can be safely turned back to nature when it is no longer needed, a plastic one will stand on the growing trash heap that we are leaving for future generations. Let’s keep bataireacht alive for them, not our plastic wastes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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:
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!
There is a great interest in DIY shillelagh making, and lots of people ask questions about the subject in online groups. This is not an article about this subject per se, as I am no stick maker, though I already expressed my opinions as a practitioner of bataireacht and a teacher in this article.
No. Today, I want to talk about a related subject: wood. Specifically, two very similar ones: hawthorn and blackthorn. Not based on their intrinsic physical qualities though, but rather on the folklore and traditions that surround them. Ireland has a very vibrant folklore around wood, and some of them (yes hawthorne, I am looking at you!) are never mentioned as suitable materials for very good (at least if you believe in them) reasons. So let’s take a stroll in the wild and fascinating world of the invisible (cue Lorenna McKennit music)!
No, I am not starting with blackthorn because Hawthorn, May Tree, Whitethorn or Sceah Ghael is probably the wood that is the most curious of them all. On paper, a great wood for a fighting stick: very commonly found (farmers complain that it grows everywhere), very tough (farmers complain that it ruins their tools when cutting it) and overall really close to a blackthorn with its sharp and long thorns (farmer complains about that too… they really complain a lot). It seems like such a good choice for a cudgel people ask about it all the time. What’s not to love? Well, according to the Irish people of old, many things!
Hawthorn is great if you want to: A) be cursed B) anger some fairies C) probably die D) have bad stuff happen to your family E) commit blasphemy F) start a blood feud with someone G) just have weird stuff happen to you H) all of the above
Let’s see why. The May tree, as the name implies, is a symbol of springtime and is associated with magical powers and the little people. Stories abound on the misfortune of those who dared disturb a hawthorn, especially the fabled « lone tree », which is often associated with holy wells and doorways to the otherworld. People getting sick or unlucky after uprooting a tree, or bringing some of it home, or having mischief done to them. The flower is considered especially unlucky, with death resulting from bringing some in a home. It was commonly believed that Christ was crucified on a hawthorn, and that the crown of thorns was also made from that tree. Probably even more interesting to bataireacht, in places such as West Cork it was considered wrong to hit anyone with a stick of hawthorn as there was « temper » in the tree. If a stick was brought into the house, trouble would stay until it was removed.
Yet, the tree also had protective powers. People would plant them around the house to ward off evil witches, and they were also esteemed for influencing fertility. Even in recent times, the hawthorne was treated with particular respect. In 1982, workers at the De Lorean factory in Northern Ireland thought that the problems the company was having was because a lone tree had been felled during construction. The company had another planted with all due ceremony, which solved… well not much. In 1999, a highway in County Clare was diverted to avoid cutting down a sacred hawthorne tree, and you can find many other instances of this.
For all these reasons – and many, many more – hawthorn is never once mentioned as a suitable wood to make shillelaghs. You hear of blackthorn, oak, holly, ash, even crabapple, but hawthorn? Never. It would appear it was a taboo wood, no matter its inherent qualities. Which is too bad, as there are many where I live, but no blackthorns. But better stay on the good side of the little people!
Alright, let’s get to our old friend. Blackthorn, or Draighean, is in many ways the yin to the hawthorn’s yang. In fact, they are often referred to as sisters. While Hawthorn is mostly associated with Spring, fertility and many positive things, blackthorn is associated with war and winter. You would think that this would make it quite a bad wood to carry around, but this is actually the opposite.
Blackthorn was considered as a protection against the fairies as they regarded it very highly. It was said to be protected by the lunantishees or moon fairies who, at the best of time, were no friends to humans and would curse anyone foolish enough to cut down a blackthorn on the 11th of November (the original All Hallow’s Eve) or on the 11th of May (Original May Day). The best time to harvest the tree was during full moon, as the lunantishees would be away during that time. On a good day, the lunantishees would give inspiration to the musician or the poet as well as valour and strength to the warrior.
Cormac’s Glossary notes that the etymology of draighin comes from « the wretched one », and the tree is often associated with witches and mages, using it to fashion powerful magic wands and staves. The tree seems to have been perceived as a female tree, and associated with many mythical figures including queen Maeve, Morrigan; goddess of battle, strife and fertility, reigning over creation and destruction, and Cailleach; the crone of death and winter who would begin winter by striking the ground with her blackthorn staff. No doubt that all of these associations came to play a role in its negative perception in Christian Ireland, and to its status as the prefered material for making shillelaghs.
To conclude, all of this folklore is as good as your belief in it, but it explains the total absence of hawthorn, and the prevalence of blackthorn as fighting sticks. Both trees have great qualities, but only one of them won’t curse you!
If you wish to learn more about the fascinating folklore surrounding Irish trees, I suggest reading Ireland’s Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir.
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.
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 paintings 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. 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 but 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
So obviously this year has been a quiet one for everyone. Our yearly seminar in Paris had to be cancelled as well as the one in Dublin. We did manage to continue practicing though. Maistìr Maxime Chouinard has been holding online classes with instructors every two weeks, and some seminars did happen!
The first one was an online event hosted by Cumann na Gaeltachta which is an organization for the development of Irish language and culture in North America. Maxime was invited to teach for their yearly immersion week, which this year was held online. The response was very positive and we hope that this becomes a long lasting partnership!
Meanwhile, the Old World Faction continued to spread Antrim Bata in Europe with a seminar at Morge’s Castle in Switzerland. This was an opportunity to launch the Swiss Faction with Romain Meister as the captain of this new group. We wish them all the best!
Since the day humans began using tools and fashioning weapons for hunting and self defense, the humble stick has been a basic option for one’s personal protection. Even as weapons technology evolved, the simple stick or staff, of various lengths and weights, remained a reasonable consideration for most, especially those without means to possess and carry the cutting edge weapons technology of the day. This appears to be fairly universal in that virtually every culture at one point of another seems to have had stick or staff fighting arts at one point or another .Often the lowly stick remained a training adjunct to allow novices to safely train through drills, principles and motions without using more expensive and often more dangerous bladed weapons. In Ireland, the use of various sticks and staffs reached a high level of development by the 1800’s.
The Irishmen were well known for these skills which served them well both in personal self defense and in skirmishes between opposing groups of stick fighters, referred to as “Factions”. Foreign observers often reported on the high degree of Irish faction fighters’ stick handling skills as well as the brutality of the faction fights. These fights could occur anywhere, but often erupted at fairs which seemed to serve as convenient venues for combat between rival groups and families. While it may be a good thing that the days of Faction fighting have passed into history, it is unfortunate that, along with those days, most of the methods and styles of stick handling and fighting have disappeared as well. Fortunately, a very small number of family-based stick fighting methods have been preserved to one degree or another and are being preserved by enthusiastic practitioners.
Antrim Bataireacht is one of the few surviving styles of Bataireacht or Irish Stick Fighting, which has a specific curriculum, rather than being a small collection of stick handling tricks and techniques. The primary weapon is the stick, referred to as the Bata or, by some, the Shillelagh. The fighting stick of Antrim Bataireacht, is traditionally 4 foot in length and may be of varied woods, with blackthorn, oak, ash and hazel appearing to be historically preferred. In modern times, a stick of 3 feet length has come into favor as that approximates the average length of most standard canes and walking sticks in common use today. Antrim Bataireact is, as one might surmise, a blunt impact weapon method. The focus is the use of the weapon as such, making use of the blunt knob or end of the bata, the mid shaft and, the narrower end that may or may not be tipped with a ferrule. Evasive footwork, some grappling, bare knuckle boxing and even conservative kicking skills are used to support the weapon and afford other options during the chaos of combat. It does need to be emphasized that the art always regards the weapon as a stick and never as a means to develop edged weapon skills. Various aspects of the training methodology will definitely develop attributes that would be helpful with the use of other weaponry, but the fact that this weapon relies on blunt trauma is not forgotten.
In considering Antrim Bataireact as an option for modern self defense, several points should be considered:
-The use of any weapon in combat can be considered “use of a deadly force” and, while not as dangerous as a firearm or as fear inspiring as a knife, the use of the bata without appropriate cause can have significant legal and social implications depending on one’s location and culture.
-Bataireacht evolved in an age when firearms were nonexistent to and reached its apex in an age when firearms were still rare and often unreliable. Attributes developed could potentially afford some potentially useful skills and options when accosted by a criminal with a firearm under special circumstances. However, as an art, it does not pretend to be a method capable of countering a well- trained handler of firearms who is mindful and has conditions in his or her favor.
-The skills of Antrim Bataireacht might best exist as one aspect of a person’s complete spectrum of self defense that follows a logical use of force continuum and includes skills with weaponry. While Antrim Bataireacht is an excellent skill set for defense of one’s person, it does not preclude one from developing empty hand combat skills or skill in use of firearms, blades and other defensive tools. This method, as fine as it is, does not claim to answer all situations in all circumstances. There is no requirement for the Antrim Bataireacht practitioner to eschew the carry of the firearm or other weapons.
With the above considerations in mind, Antrim Bataireacht and the Bata have some elements that commend them well as a part of one’s overall defensive skills. First, especially in this day and age, the Bata carried as the walking stick or cane is not often regarded as much more than an ambulatory aid. As long as one does not carry the stick in a manner that appears threatening or combative it may be overlooked by most citizens in one’s proximity. So, one may carry a weapon at ready, in the hand, without worry of inspiring suspicion and agitation amongst others. If questioned about one’s possession of a cane or walking stick it can always be explained away as being used to assist walking due to a lower extremity infirmity or as a tool for discouraging dogs or snakes while out on one’s walks. Practically speaking, a stick of such length often does come in handy for very utilitarian reasons and one may well find possession of a stick often comes in handy for reasons far more common that self defense.
In some cases, potential aggressors may be observant and regard the bata/cane as a credible threat and move on to easier targets. So, the carrying of the stick may in some ways afford a degree of deterrence. However, some may look at the stick as a potential flag signaling vulnerability. In such cases, they may approach with over confidence and inadequate regard for one’s ability which could prove to one’s tactical advantage. As always, the mindful self defense expert has to consider such possibilities. The Bata is a blunt impact weapon and, as such, often does not arouse visions of bloodletting, dismemberment and wounding associated with edged weapons and firearms. This can make it an acceptable option for self defense for someone who would never consider the carry of knives and firearms. For that person, a bata in hand can foster confidence that he or she has a method of personal defense readily in hand should a potential threat is become evident.
For many there is either a psychological or a moral “line in the sand” that will not allow them to choose defensive options that would likely result in evisceration, blood loss and the traumatic “opening” of another’s body. To be sure, the blunt impact weapon is capable of maiming or killing , but one adverse to such things can rationalize that through effective footwork and targeting, they may well diminish and dissuade an attacker without deliberately attempting to permanently injure or even kill their attacker. With the carrying of the bata in hand, one may have an immediate option to deal with a threat while gaining time ,distance and position to bring other options , including the firearm, to bear if necessary.
However, the immediate use of the combative cane or bata might well circumvent the need to move to other options. As always, the prudent self defense practitioner needs to be alert, mindful, situationally aware and observant of his or her environment and circumstance to maximize the effectiveness of the bata. If this mindset of preparedness is not fostered, a situation might arise resulting in the bata being just as useless as the handgun still in its holster during an attack. The challenge to the individual is to develop the mindset and carry of the bata couched in a sense of preparedness along with moral restraint and social sensibility rather than paranoia, aggressiveness and ego. That way, the weapon can be carried and at the ready without threating those one find’s oneself near or engaged with in the community.
There can be some minor considerations with carrying the bata as a routine self defense option. For some ,there is a difficulty in getting used to the constant carry of the stick as it does tie up one hand and can complicate some tasks if one does not devise a method of holding or carrying the stick while using one’s hands for varied mundane tasks. One also has to get past the notion that some will regard anyone carrying a cane as somewhat debilitated or “gimpy”. I expect for “some of us” that are getting older, it can be a bit annoying in one’s mind to know that the cane may make some younger folks regard you as old and infirm. While it may mean your social camouflage is very effective, I’ve had a student that was not keen on that reality and had to put that bit of his ego in check. The final difficulty is that in order for one to ‘fly under the radar’ and remain unnoticed while carrying the bata, the carry of that weapon must be innocuous, nonthreatening and by all means non-martial.
The Basic Ready Stance: This may be with a true or false lead. The bata is held raised in the “High Outside Guard”, which finds the hand positioned approximately 1/3 of the way up the bata, allowing the lower potion to shield the forearm and elbow from attack. The free hand and forearm are held across the body protecting vital areas such as the solar plexus while ready to be used to ward off blow, strike or seize if necessary. This position, combined with footwork, allows for good mobility and excellent use of the reach of the bata. This position is a very strong position for dueling and faction fighting.
The “Hooves of the Horse” position. This one refers to the appearance of some of the movements from this position that resemble the hooves of a horse raising up and smashing down. This position is often used for self defense and when one’s range is collapsed to very close quarters. It allows for use of the mid shaft as well as ends of the bata. The weapon can be used in deflections, uppercuts, pins, violent shoving, downward smashing blows, thrusts with the ends as well as tight slashing attacks as if using ones elbows.
The Two Handed Position. This resembles one holding a sword with two hands. This position allows for use of the bata for powerful thrusts and swinging attacks, creating distance and work against multiple attackers. It also allows for the effective use of longer and heavier bata.
Basic footwork is introduced next. Footwork tends to be simple but effective with an emphasis of moving in and out of range and stepping to positions that take advantage of openings in the opponent’s guard. Typical of all work with weaponry , it is emphasized that one needs to avoid being stationary and should, instead, be able to move quickly to avoid an opponent’s blows as well as to optimize ones position during counter attacks.
Next, striking and deflections are introduced. Strikes are executed with a snapping motion that makes use of the pendulum- like effect created by the root knob at the end of the bata. The strikes shoot out and then quickly return back ready to strike again. The basic angles follow vertical as well as oblique and horizontal lines both on the inside and outside lines of the opponent’s guards along with the linear thrust. The corresponding defenses are quickly taught as well. These are drilled in various combinations and sequences to develop reflexes and appropriate mechanics. This initially gives the impression that the Antrim method is a long range fighting system. While this method capitalizes on mobility and the delivery of multiple blows from a distance, it also is well equipped for close quarters work when the range between two opponents collapses. Initial drills tend to be somewhat symmetrical in that both participants are armed with similar weapons, giving neither an advantage over the other. This forces the student to develop effective footwork, reflexes, tactics and other attributes before moving on to materials where the student faces asymmetrical weapon situations or multiple opponents.
As the primary weapon in Antrim Bataireacht is the Bata, the student is quickly introduced to the concept of defending the stick. It is understood that if possible an opponent may attempt to seize one’s stick and quickly snatch it away, either to remove the weapon as a threat or to turn it against its owner. The student is introduced to drills involving developing reflexive response to the attempted grab as well as the use of footwork, striking and manipulations that counter the seizure of one’s stick. The emphasis generally is to get the stick free and get it into action delivering traumatic blows to the opponent rather than attempting to lock, grapple and submit with the bata.
In Irish Stick Fighting, a primary goal of the various styles was to deliver an incapacitating blow to the head. This could result in simply stunning the opponent or rendering him unconscious, but it could also fracture the skull and create deadly intracranial bleeding. So, the use of the bata in Antrim Bataireacht has very lethal capability. However, the student is taught the appropriate targeting of various points of anatomy that respond in a desirable manner to blunt force trauma. While strikes and thrusts to many areas of the cranium, face and neck can have serious consequences, the Antrim Bataireacht practitioner may choose to target other less dangerous areas that are still quite effective at disabling or dissuading an attacker. He or she may choose to target boney prominences of the body such as fingers, wrists, knee caps, elbows, shins and the clavicles or may apply thrusts to softer targets like the solar plexus, abdomen and groin. The student learns to use footwork and the varied positions to stay out of the reach of an opponent’s weapons be they knives, hands, other stick or polearms while delivering blows to various targets. The practitioner can use these developed skills to either move in to incapacitate an attacker or to create a condition where he or she can escape or, for that matter, the attacker can choose to break off the attack.
Antrim Bataireacht is an excellent choice for one to develop self defense skills. The Bata is a reliable weapon that offers a reasonable response to many unsolicited attacks. It is also fairly cost effective and offers a weapon in hand that one may carry about the community without inspiring anxiety and agitation. The training method is straightforward and easily learned while offering exciting opportunities for development as one works toward “mastery” of the art. The student may achieve effective use of the art for self defense in a relatively short period of time.
About The Author: K.R. “Doc” Dority DO leads an Irish Stick Fighting group in Dallas- Ft.Worth, Texas, USA focused on Antrim Bataireacht. He continues his training under Maxime Chouinard and Danny Hoskins, both of whom he has been training under for several years. He is a practicing physician and a former member of USAF Special Operations. He has trained in Combat Science, Martial Arts and Combative Sports since 1974 , instructs in four forms of Silat/Pencak Silat and holds teaching credentials in a number of other martial arts.
William Steuart Trench is a familiar – and often infamous – name for those who study 19th century Irish history, and more precisely the period following the Great Famine. Born in 1808 in Ballybritas, Trench went on to study and become a land agent. Members of this profession were in good part responsible for enforcing the policies which, among many other things, inflamed the social fabric of Ireland after the misery of an Gorta Mór. Trench was no stranger to this, and though he managed some positive things in his career, his practice drew the ire of many ribbonmen who tried to assassinate him on multiple occasions.
Regardless of Trench’s track record, the man is most famous for his writings on the Irish working class. In this article, I will examine a scene from one of his later stories, « The killin of Timmy O’Brien » which was the fifth story in his uncompleted series « Sketches of life and character in Ireland ». This was published in « Evening Hours Volume II », in 1872, the year Trench passed away.
As with any such story, one must keep a very critical eye as it is never made clear where the author’s creative license begins or ends, or even if the story ever took place at all. We must also keep in mind the viewpoint and intention of Trench in writing such a story, as well as the time that separates this possible memory from the actual writing. That said, it is entirely possible to compare the elements of this tale to what we know of bataireacht in order to judge its value as a source on the practice of this martial art. I have highlighted the elements I found most interesting and will talk about them below.
But he was scarcely outside when a shrill whistle was heard, so loud, long, and piercing, that in a moment the shouts of laughter were hushed, and a dead silence ensued. In less than half a minute, and before the guests could recover their surprise at the strange piercing whistle which, “wild as the screams of the curlew”, rang through the hall, the festive scene of revelry and rout was changed to one of violence and blood. MacEgan, followed by four stalwart young men, all of them with formidable shillelaghs in their grasp, sprang into the room. For a moment he stood still, looking rapidly round him amongst the guests, when his eye suddenly lighting upon the bridegroom, three strides brought them face to face, and immediately within reach of each other.
But the bridegroom was not wholly unprepared. He had risen from his seat as soon as MacEgan entered, and drawing a pistol from his pocket, which he held lowered in his hand; the two young men stood still for a moment glaring at each other.
“Will ye give her up?” shouted MacEgan, in a voice of thunder.
“Never! replied Murphy. “Never: to the likes of you!”
“Then take that!” cried MacEgan; and suddenly raising his knotted stick, he aimed a desperate blow at his rival’s head.
But Murphy was not taken unawares. Though unarmed with a like weapon, he knew how to handle his shillelagh quite as well as MacEgan; and raising his left arm in a slanting position he parried the blow, so that it came down harmless on his shoulder.
“Stand back!” cried Murphy, whose temper was now roused, and who was by no means deficient in pluck; “Stand back, MacEgan; if you advance another inch, or again raise your stick, you are a dead man!” And so saying he cocked and raised the pistol to level with MacEgan’s breast.
“We will see that!” replied MacEgan between his teeth; and again grasping his stick, and whirling it round for another onslaught, Murphy suddenly brought the pistol to a level with MacEgan’s head, and pulled the trigger! A sharp snap was the result. The pistol had missed fire! MacEgan’s eye glistened with triumph; and whirling his shillelagh round his head once more, with a sound like the flight of a bird in the air, he brought it down with such force right over the bridegroom’s forehead as to break through all his defences, and Murphy in a moment lay bleeding an prostrate upon the floor.
“Hah! Shillelagh will never miss fire!” cried MacEgan.
The astonished guests were so taken by surprise, that they stood staring at the combatants in mut wonder at the scene which had so unexpectedly come before them. The priest was first to speak.
“MacEgan,” he said, “ye shall answer this before God and man. Seize him boys; why don’t ye! Down with him, arrest him, – take him in any way ye can! Dead or alive, let him never leave the room that way.” Andadvancing upon MacEgan with the thronged whip in his hand, he called on the guests to help him. A wild tumult now arose; the young men leaped across the tables to arrest and seize MacEgan, while the women shrieked, and clapping thir hand, shouted, “Murder! Murder! Robbers!”
MacEgan never moved: he stood perfectly still, glaring on the thickening crowd, and waiting, shillelagh in hand, for the first men to approach or touch him. All hesitated; when his voie was heard clear and form amidst the tumult.
“Carry her off, two of ye! Let two more clear the course, and spare no man who lays a hand on either ye or her. Away with her I tell ye! I can fight my own battle myself.”
In a moment the bride was lifted in the arms of two able young men, who had entered the room along with him, whilst the two others, making vigorous use of their blackthorns, struck right and left at all who impeded their course; and before the people outside coul in the least comprehend the transactions which had so rapidly passed within the hall, the bride was seated on a pillion behind one of her rescuers, whilst the other sprang upon a horse ready prepared beside her, and away they galloped before the crowd who had collected could in the least comprehend what it as all about!
“They’ll’s have fleet steeds that follow, quoth young Lockinvar.”
But MacEgan was now hard pressed inside the banqueting hall. The Murphys and their friends and faction soon rcovered from their surprise, and though none dare approach MacEgan within the stroke of his shillelagh, yet they seized knives and forks, and hurled them, with bottles and tumblers, at his head. MacEgan received many severe cuts and blows, but he still kept his enemies at bay, so that none dare lay a hand on him, and wheeling, with the dexterity of a hawk upon the wind, and striking down now one and now another of his opponents, as they came within reach of his formidable weapon, he kept retreating all the time towards the door. Just as he came close to it, it was pushed violently open,and Jim the Gaffer, at the head of a dozen able stickmen, bounded into the room.
The guests stood aghast before this wild and sudden reinforcement.
“Who dar’ lay a hand on the MacEgan?” exclaimed the Gaffer, in a voice of thunder, as he stood glaring on the startled guests. “Who dar’ lay a hand on him, I say? Let him come forward now, and we’ll see if he’ll e’en stretch it out again!”
Having cast a look of contemptuous defiance upon the startled crowd of the Murphys, he retreated with his folowers to the door, having hurried MacEgan into their centre, well knowing that his friend would need his help still more outside. He was not there a moment too soon. The outside followers of the Murphys were by no means a contemptible faction and the bridegroom’s younger brother, a fine spirited young man, suspecting that mischief was in the wind, though he was hardly prepared for it breaking out so suddenly, had now collected his people together, and when MacEgan appeared outside, bleeding from the cuts of the missiles, and panting with his exertions in keeping so many enemies at bay, he was at once set upon by the Murphys’ faction, and though surrounded by the few followers who had accompanied the Gaffer into the dining hall, he was sore beset with the vigorous assault made upon him. But the Gaffer again came forward, and whirling his shillelagh till it whistled over his head, “Whoop! he cried; “MacEgan aboo! To the rescue!” and striking right and left, he soon cleared a space for himself and followers around MacEgan, and the two factions, now tolerably equally matched, as many of the O’Connors had joined the Gaffer, stood sticks in hand, opposite to each other, ready to fight to the death.
There was a momentary pause; when young Murphy, the bridegroom’s brother, was observed pressing through the crowd into the open space between the contending parties.
“MacEgan,” he said, “ye are a villain, and a coward! Ye struck down my brother when he was unarmed, and he lies still senseless in his blood. Come out and fight me now, if ye are a man. Ye have your weapon, and so have I. Come on, I say, and fight me now, if ye dar’.”
The Gaffer then beckoned to the gossoon, who still kept his eyes fixed upon his leader. “Away with you, like the wind,” he whispered, “and get out MacEgan’s horse, and have him saddled and bridled outside the orchard wall. If MacEgan kills him, as he surely will, it will take all we can do to get Machome and alive. Away with you now, don’t lose a minnit, for its not long before MacEgan will have him down; and mind you have Mr. O’Connor’s own mare beside him.”
The boy cast a longing look toward the combatants as if he were sorely disappointed at not seeing the fight; but he did not hesitate, and away he went to prepare the horse for MacEgan’s flght, if he should come off victorious.
Meanwhile the two combatant striped to their work. Both of them were able powerfulf young men; but MacEgan appeared to have the advantage in size. Each threw aside his coat and his waistcoat, tied a handkerchief round his waist, loosened his shirt collar at the neck, and advanced towards is opponent with the caution and guardedness of an experienced swordsman who knew that he was about to engage with a foeman worthy of his steel.
It was evident to the numerous and experienced stick-men around, who now looked upon this duel with the most intense interest and excitement, that though MacEgan was the stronger man, Murphy was the most accomplished fencer; and in the feints, parrys, and strokes, which took place, so dextrous and rapid were his hits, that he more than once drew blood from the head of his antagonist. The clatter and rattle made by those two single-stick-men was marvellous; and no one who was not an actual spectator of the scene could have believed, judging from the noise alone, that only two men were engaged in the combat. MacEgan at length, stung by the pain of the wounds he had received, and still more by the cheers and taunts of Murphy’s backers, who claimed the credit of first drawing blood, and finding all his efforts fruitless to break down his opponent’s guard, lowered his weapon and stood still for a moment to regain his breath and take better measure than he had yet time to do of his antagonist’s strength, as well as wonderful skill in the handling of his shillelagh: his example was instantly followed by young Murphy, and the two young men stood opposite to each other, both of them with their sticks lowered, both of them panting and almost quite out of breath, but both of them as determined as ever to continue their desperate conflict.
“Ye are a good stick-man,” said McEgan at last, half-laughing, and half-grinning, through his teeth, as the blood trickled down his face. “ I honour ye for it; but faix I thought I’d have ye down before now.”
“I have met my match an way this time,” replied young Murphy, smiling good humouredly, as he wiped the sweat off his brow with his shirt sleeve.
“Where did ye larn it?” said MacEgan, “ I did not think there was such a man between Shannon and the ‘Devil’s-bit.’”
“Troth then ye’ll hardly believe me when I tell ye that what little I know I learned in London,” returned Murphy, “ there’s a chap there would poke your eye out with his stick in one minute, and put it in again with the self-same stick in the next, so that ye would hardly feel it, or know it was out at all!”
Whilst this strange colloquy was going on the two combatants had partially regained their breath. But just as they were about to raise their sticks to begin the fight once more, a shout was heard from a distant voice behind the immediate crowd of spectators.
“Hah! MacEgan’s bet, I say: he was the first to lower the stik, and cry mercy, and now he’s beggin’ his life. Down with him, I say, and all his bloody brood: let not one of them leave the ground alive! How dar’ he come here to put a stop to a peaceful weddin’!”
“Ye are a liar!” shouted the gaffer at the top of his voice: “the MacEgan never yet cried mercy to livin’ man. Come round here yourself, if ye are not satisfied with what fightin’ is goin’ on already, and I’ll warrant I’ll give ye enough to do.”
So saying, the cunning Gaffer, under pretence of seeking for a distant adversary, passed across the combatants, close beside MacEgan, and whispered as he went by, “ Shorten your stick, and close on him: he can’t stand that. I know his fence of old.”
The hint thus rapidly given was not lost upon MacEgan; and the lookers on being evidently impatient for more fighting, and the young men themselves nothing loth, both raised their sticks and entered again upon the struggle.
After a few scientific feints and parries matters again seemed to become serious. Once more blood was drawn by Murphy, and the knuckles of MacEgan’s hand suffered severely. In a moment MacEgan was seen to run down his right hand to the centre of his shillelagh, and grasping it firmly in the middle, he rushed in upon Murphy. He received a severe blow on the head as he did so; but having got inside his guard, he struck rapidly with both ends, – now one and now the other, so as completely to upset and break down all attempts at ordinary scientific fencing. Murphy saw his danger, and being young and active, made several attempts to escape by springing backwards; but in doing so he came against the crowd outside the ring, and his powers of defence were thus completely checked. MacEgan perceived his advantage, and leaping like a tiger upon him, he seized his adversary’s now almost useless weapon, and wrenching it violently out of his grasp, he flung it over his shoulder into the midst of his followers behind him; then springing back a step he once more resumed the full swing of his weapon, and struck his astonished adversary such a blow on the side of his head as sent him reeling on the ground amongst his followers, bleeding profusely at nose, mouth and ears.
A shout now arose from both the contending parties, such as one hears only in Ireland: a wild, half-frantic shout, – a strange mixture or combination between a British cheer and a savage yell. I have heard it very often, but never out of Ireland; and I never herd it yet but what it foretold dangerous mischief from an angry people. No one who heard that shout could tell whether it was one of triumph or of vengeance; but all could tell that it was the forerunner of wild work.
The Gaffer knew this as well or better than any one “Whoop! Hurrah! MacEgan aboo!” he shouted, leaping wildly in the air, wheeling his shillelagh, and making his voice be heard above the din. “ If it’s for fighting it out ye are among ourselves, now that young Murphy is down, we are not the men to baulk ye’er fancy. Draw off your people there, and let us meet man to man on each side; and if we don’t lay ever mother’s son of ye as low as ever macEgan laid young Murphy to-day, ye may say my name is not the Gaffer.
He had scarcely uttered this high-sounding challenge, when he sprang to MacEgan’s side, who stood alone, still panting with his recent exertions, and apparently scarcely conscious that he was the victor in the duel.
1- « raising his left arm in a slanting position he parried the blow, so that it came down harmless on his shoulder. »
This is a rather simple maneuver, but part of Antrim Bata. If you are surprised or caught unarmed, you can use your arm to parry a blow. The key is knowing how to do it, as you cannot quite parry a stick like you would a punch without getting injured.
2- « though none dare approach MacEgan within the stroke of his shillelagh, yet they seized knives and forks, and hurled them, with bottles and tumblers, at his head. MacEgan received many severe cuts and blows, »
Believe it or not, throwing anything you have on hand at your opponent is a part of Antrim Bata, and a very important part of faction fighting in Ireland. During the famous faction fight of Ballyveigh Strand in 1834, witnesses reported how the battlefield appeared as if covered by a dark cloud from all the rocks being thrown.
3- « wheeling, with the dexterity of a hawk upon the wind, and striking down now one and now another of his opponents, as they came within reach of his formidable weapon, »
It is interesting how the description of « wheeling » changes from author to author, and it is important to note that like many facets of bataireacht (and Irish vocabulary as a whole) an action could be described very differently by different people, and regions could have their own take on a common word. This is why I do not ascribe to rigid typologies. In many descriptions of faction fights, wheeling is taken as the whole preparatory actions before the fight; throwing insults, stomping or dancing and flourishing the stick. In this case, it seems to be mostly referring to the latter. What the Gaffer is doing here, seems to be a tactic that we use in Antrim Bata to defend against multiple opponents, that is to use wide circular motions (in our case two-handed) to create a defensive space. This is, of course, one interpretation, the excerpt is not precise enough to really make a fair judgment.
4- « Whoop! he cried; “MacEgan aboo! To the rescue! »
« A shout now arose from both the contending parties, such as one hears only in Ireland: a wild, half-frantic shout, – a strange mixture or combination between a British cheer and a savage yell. I have heard it very often, but never out of Ireland; and I never herd it yet but what it foretold dangerous mischief from an angry people. No one who heard that shout could tell whether it was one of triumph or of vengeance; but all could tell that it was the forerunner of wild work. »
« Whoop! Hurrah! MacEgan aboo!” he shouted, leaping wildly in the air, wheeling his shillelagh, and making his voice be heard above the din. »
This is a very fun and unique part of Irish stick fighting among the martial arts of Europe. While most European fighters preferred to keep fairly silent, the Irish had a propensity for shouting during fights. What our protagonist is shouting here is very classic. « Whoop » or « Whiroo » are very well documented in faction fights, as is the battle cry of « abú » meaning « for ever », or « to victory ». In Antrim Bata, shouts are used a bit like a kiai in kendo. As a way to surprise an opponent and give intent to a strike, but also as a way to disturb an opponent during a fight which we call « bluffing ».
5- « Each threw aside his coat and his waistcoat, tied a handkerchief round his waist, loosened his shirt collar at the neck, and advanced towards his opponent with the caution and guardedness of an experienced swordsman who knew that he was about to engage with a foeman worthy of his steel. »
This part is most interesting as it is often portrayed in illustrations but rarely described. This is an action that is common in weapon duels around Europe, quite possibly to assure the opponent and the onlookers that none of the duelists are wearing any sort of protection or hidden weapons. Which, if you remember one of my previous entries to this blog, could happen and with deadly consequences.
This is something which was also described to me by my máistir. People stuffed their hats and the sleeves of their shirts with cotton, which I believe was also possibly done as a way to train, and sowed implements like fish hooks and blades in their clothes to deter people from grabbing them.
The handkerchief around the waist was probably there mostly to help keep the pants and shirts in place, but it is illustrated in a few paintings and engravings, namely this beautiful piece by Daniel MacDonald from 1844 named « The Fighter ».
Next is the coming on guard, and from there we start to see the profound admiration that Trench seems to give to bataireacht, comparing it to expert fencing. An apt observation from a man who was apparently on the receiving end of a shillelagh more than once in his career.
6- « though MacEgan was the stronger man, Murphy was the most accomplished fencer; and in the feints, parrys, and strokes, which took place, so dextrous and rapid were his hits, that he more than once drew blood from the head of his antagonist. »
It surprises many people, but bataireacht is very often described as « fencing » or « boiscin ». Fencing today is exclusively associated with sword fighting, but the expression at the time covered a wide range of melee fighting from boxing to quarterstaff. The practice of bataireacht and broadsword fencing share many similarities and were probably at some point in time taught conjointly, but they also exhibit fundamental differences. I will develop more on this in a future article.
7- « who claimed the credit of first drawing blood »
This is something I must say I never encountered before, but it is not entirely surprising to see it here as fighting to the first blood was a very widely recognized form of dueling in Europe, though here it is not considered the end goal, but rather more of an honorific achievement. I would like to see it mentioned somewhere else though before considering it an Irish thing.
8- “Ye are a good stick-man,”
According to Niall Ó Dónaill’s dictionary, we could translate this as baitín or bataire.
9- “Where did ye larn it?” said MacEgan, “ I did not think there was such a man between Shannon and the ‘Devil’s-bit.’”
“Troth then ye’ll hardly believe me when I tell ye that what little I know I learned in London,” returned Murphy, “ there’s a chap there would poke your eye out with his stick in one minute, and put it in again with the self-same stick in the next, so that ye would hardly feel it, or know it was out at all!”
This is a very interesting part of this story. It is a documented fact that schools of bataireacht existed across Ireland, and that individuals taught these skills to one another, but it is the first time I see the mention of a fighter saying that he learned his art in another country… and in England of all places! I am sure this will be a contentious claim, and one which could very well be ascribed to the author’s imagination, but it is interesting to examine it.
Did Murphy meet an Irish expatriate in London? Or perhaps did he learn some sort of fencing with a cudgel or with the sword and applied it to his handling of the shillelagh? Based on his description, it could even have been a lesson of foil, as few stick styles that we know of included thrusts.
10- “Hah! MacEgan’s bet, I say: he was the first to lower the stik, and cry mercy, and now he’s beggin’ his life. »
Another interesting tidbit here, as lowering the stick is seen as surrendering. Again, I have not seen this elsewhere and would like to see another mention.
11- « Shorten your stick, and close on him: he can’t stand that. I know his fence of old.”
Now, we get to the most interesting part of the text. It is unfortunately not very well described, and we can only try and interpret it from what we know of bataireacht.
12- « MacEgan was seen to run down his right hand to the centre of his shillelagh, and grasping it firmly in the middle, he rushed in upon Murphy. He received a severe blow on the head as he did so; but having got inside his guard, he struck rapidly with both ends, – now one and now the other, so as completely to upset and break down all attempts at ordinary scientific fencing. Murphy saw his danger, and being young and active, made several attempts to escape by springing backwards; but in doing so he came against the crowd outside the ring, and his powers of defence were thus completely checked. MacEgan perceived his advantage, and leaping like a tiger upon him, he seized his adversary’s now almost useless weapon, and wrenching it violently out of his grasp, he flung it over his shoulder into the midst of his followers behind him; then springing back a step he once more resumed the full swing of his weapon, and struck his astonished adversary such a blow on the side of his head as sent him reeling on the ground amongst his followers, bleeding profusely at nose, mouth and ears. »
There is a lot to unpack here. Now let’s address the short grip first. Most who are familiar with bataireacht will know that one defining aspect of the practice is the grip at the lower third, held this way as to act as a guard for the arm and the head. My first thought that the Gaffer was suggesting to go for a two-handed grip, such as we would do when closing in Antrim Bata or in Rince an Bhata Uisce Bhata, but it really seems that MacEgan only slightly shortens his grip. Like this, he can effectively fight from a closer distance than Murphy. If he manages to break the distance- which he does while receiving a severe blow that luckily for him does not end the fight- and keep Murphy close he can then negate a lot of his opponent’s strikes.
Now, this works because Murphy seems to be specialized at fighting from a distance, which is fine as long as you can maintain it. The size of the fighting area does not allow Murphy to regain control of the distance and so he is overwhelmed. This illustrates the importance of having a well-rounded set of techniques that will allow you to fight in different situations and in different ranges. This is what Antrim Bata teaches. While we try to use our weapon’s reach to its full potential, we also have quite an array of mid and close-range techniques allowing us to adapt our style to the situation at hand.
Next comes the disarm, also an integral part of Antrim Bata and a reason why we keep the stick high and out of reach as much as possible.
Gruesome fact: bleeding from the nose, ears and mouth all at the same time is a sign of a severely fractured skull. The chances of young Murphy’s survival are slim, even more so considering the surgical options of the time.
13- « still panting with his recent exertions, and apparently scarcely conscious that he was the victor in the duel. »
This is a fairly realistic rendition of the end of a fight, especially such a violent and long one which is no doubt taxing.
To conclude, I would say that the description of this fight fits quite well with what we know of bataireacht and the culture around it. The tactics and particularities of the style seem to match what we know, and even go a bit further than what is usually written about them. Whether this whole event sprang from the author’s imagination or was duly recorded is impossible to say, but the depiction of the fight itself is quite realistic and I would dare to say that the author knew what he was talking about for the most part.
If you would like to learn to learn the martial art behind this story, be sure to check the rest of our website to see where you can learn Antrim Bata.
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.