« Shillelagh will never miss fire! » – an Irish stick fight by W. S. Trench

By Maxime Chouinard

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.

To read the complete story, follow this link to the Evening Hours. 

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 ».

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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.

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« Men stick fighting outside a tavern » This sketch from Charles MacKenzie in 1805 possibly shows a class of bataireacht. Source: National Library if Ireland

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.

Trench
This image was included as part of the story, and probably represents the Gaffer telling MacEgan to shorten his grip. Engravings published in serials such as these are often the least reliable elements as it is unlikely that authors had much control over them.

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.

Passing on the torch

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.

 

Seminar in Missouri

Maxime Chouinard will be coming back to teach in Troy, Missouri, this December to one of the oldest groups currently practicing Antrim Bata. Do not miss this opportunity to learn the art in the US. If you are interested in opening up a study group, this is a perfect venue to discuss it.

See more information here

New classes in Ottawa – Canada

Regular classes will be starting tomorrow in Ottawa, Canada, under Máistir Maxime Chouinard. Classes will be held every Wednesdays, from 6 to 7:30PM, with plans to set up more classes in the near future.

Here is a video that was taken of an open workshop given at the Warriors of the Light Warrior Academy where the classes will be held.

Upcoming seminars!

Two very interesting seminars will be taking place in France this year.

The first one is at the HEMAC Dijon from May 2nd to May 6th (more details to come). This event is the largest workshop centered event focused on Historical European Martial Arts. It takes place every year bringing participants from all over the planet. Máistir Maxime Chouinard will be teaching an introductory workshop there. The workshop will  be given in English.

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Following this one, we will be once again attending the yearly Paris seminar on May 11th and 12th. This seminar will be open to all levels, with a portion reserved for advanced levels and instructors. Thank you to Bâton Irlandais Paris for hosting Maxime Chouinard once more. More details to come as well!

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Shillelagh anatomy

A short guide by Max Chouinard

One thing that strikes me when discussing bataireacht with students, is how much we lack a vocabulary to talk about the stick. Most martial arts will have a typology to discuss the different parts of their weapons, but the shillelagh has none. In this article, I propose a short list of different terms to be used when discussing the Irish stick.

Note that this terminology is not part of the tradition that I learned from Antrim Bata. It is taken from Niall Ó Dónaill’s Irish dictionary Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla published in 1977 which mentions many shillelagh specific terms. It is not meant as an official bataireacht typology, and others might use different terms depending on the region and style, though everyone is welcome to use it.

Murlán: The knob. Interestingly, Ó Dónaill mentions that this word not only designates the knob of a stick, but also the button of a foil (murlán ar phionsa) or the knuckles of the hand (ag imirt murlán). Pronunciation: Murr-lonn  – rhymes with English words purr-gone.

Ramhar: This is referred to as the « thick part » (an ceann ramhar den bhata). This would be the part of the stick above the grip, which is used mostly to block with.  Pronunciation: Row-urr. The first syllable rhymes with English « now » or « cow ».

Dorn: This is the grip, the area which is gripped by the hand to wield the shillelagh. Pronunciation: Just as it would be in English.

Buta: This is the butt, the lower part of the stick used to defend the arm and to strike with. Pronunciation: Butt-ah. The first syllable rhymes with English « butt ». Final vowel is neutral. The « T » is pronounced very sharply.

Barr: The point or ferrule. This is the small point of the stick used to stab and thrust with. Pronunciation: Just like English « bar. »

Typology

Thank you to Ben Miller for his help with pronunciation and review.

How to choose the perfect shillelagh

« The shillelagh was not a mere stick picked up for a few pence, or cut casually out of the common hedge. Like the Arab mare, it grew up to maturity under the fostering care of its owner, and in the hour of conflict it carried him to victory. » William Wright

This is a question I get asked so regularly that I thought the best idea would be to write down an article on what makes a shillelagh a great fighting stick.

I want to say before I begin that these are my opinions as chief instructor in Antrim Bata. They do not necessarily represent what is correct from the standpoint of other styles, so take it for what it is worth.

A word of caution
I am going to get flak for what I am going to say, but not every shillelagh is a good fighting stick. For more than a century, the demand for shillelaghs as weapons has been nearly nill. I do not wish to disparage the great work that traditional stick makers do, and on the contrary, I would wish to encourage it, but the last faction fights took place in the late 1800s and shillelagh makers saw much more demand for walking sticks than their deadly ancestors. While the knowledge of making a robust stick is still quite alive,  the more subtle art necessary for determining the right balance and built of a fighting stick is, like bataireacht itself, in need of a revival. The problem is that there is no « one size fits all » here. For the fans of Harry Potter among you – or for those who have been forced to watch it – it’s a bit like going into Olivander’s shop, what you are like (in this case mostly physically) will determine what is best for you.

So for this reason, do not expect to just pick a shillelagh off the shelf and expect it to be perfect. If you don’t know what you are looking for, it will most likely feel terrible… and you might not even realize it.

But it’s just a stick!
I can already hear it: « You should be able to use any kind of stick! » « You won’t always have the best stick on hands when you need it! » Sure. But it doesn’t mean you have to spend your life twirling lumps of lumber and being miserable for it. Bataireacht is a complex and refined martial art, and like all of its cousins it necessitates an equally refined weapon.

A good shillelagh should be just as refined a weapon as a good sword

If you are skilled in bataireacht, you will be able to use your abilities with most sticks that come in your hands. You should train with many different ones, but having one or two great shillelaghs will only make you a better fighter.

Unfortunately, just like the medieval sword, shillelaghs are pictured in popular culture as ridiculously heavy and unwieldy, owing much of their deadliness to their sheer weight. And just like the medieval sword, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

What to avoid
I will already tell you what you should absolutely not choose as your first stick (or even as your last stick). The first one is to avoid most sticks that are sold in souvenir shops. They are easy to recognize as most follow the same pattern. They are made of cheap and brittle wood and usually painted black.

What not to buy for me for Christmas

The Cold Steel Shillelagh and its United Cutlery counterpart are unfortunately close seconds. The companies decided to produce sticks based on cartoonish representations of a shillelagh, and what you get is a weapon that is great if wielded like a baseball bat, but not much else. It is uselessly heavy at 834 grams and quite overbuilt. Good perhaps for conditioning, but you can find much cheaper options to this end. It is unfortunate that the company did not seek the opinion of bataireacht practitioners before producing it, as it could be a reasonable option if correctly redesigned.

Avoid sticks that have too much of a crook in them. A good shillelagh should be straight. Curved sticks will tend to twist upon impact, making them awkward. Avoid also sticks that have been pierced near the top to place a lanyard. These only fragilize the section of the stick that already bears the most stress.

Weight
Weight is probably the first thing to look for, especially for a beginner. The motions of bataireact involve a lot of overhead and violent motions that can cause injuries to a body that is not prepared for it (and not just to the one receiving the blows). Starting with too heavy a stick is the best way to end up with a damaged rotator cuff or tendonitis. If you are an able-bodied adult, choose a stick that is around 300 grams and as you progress go for heavier ones.

A stick does not need to be extremely heavy to deal damage. To be effective, an impact must have weight but also speed. If the weight brings the speed of your motion down, the impact will obviously be less.

What do you mean « compensating »?

The important is really how this weight is distributed, and in this regard a shillelagh is really unlike most sticks. In many stick arts, the weapon used is really a straight dowel. When a weapon is shaped that way, the weight is distributed evenly along the whole surface. If I want to make my stick heavy enough to deal enough percussive force I then need to widen or lengthen it. It is quite different for a shillelagh.

The most dangerous part of the shillelagh is its knob, or murlán. This is the part that is used to strike with and one of the reasons why the preferred grip is thumb up as it gives more control on where the point of your weapon goes. The size of the shaft then has little to do with the effective weight other than to balance it.

Think of it as a flail. No one cares if the chain is big enough when considering the power of a flail’s blows. What really matters is the ball. The chain only needs to be solid enough to hold everything together and allow it to move well. Faction fighters understood this idea and drove lead into the murlán when it was too light.

You think you scare me with that puny chain?

For this reason, the point of balance should be at some distance from your hand. 5 or 6 inches being a good minimum, but too close to the murlán and the stick will become hard to manoeuver.

The shaft
Ideally, your shillelagh should taper from the top down. The part closest to the murlán, the ramhar, should be the thickest as it will bear the brunt of the torsion when dealing blows and from the impact of parries. From there, it should get slimmer and slimmer to the point. The lower part, or buta, is used mostly to guard the forearm and elbow and to thrust with. On occasion, it can be used to strike, but is used far less for hard parries. You do want the buta to balance the stick like a counterweight to the murlán, but not to the point where your blows become too light or your stick unnecessarily heavy.

Think of the buta like the pommel of a sword. Remove it, and the handling changes dramatically.

The grip
The part of the stick where you grip it, the dorn, needs to be small enough to allow your three bottom fingers to touch the palm of your hand. It is often said that the thumb grip is not secure enough as it can be too easily disarmed. I would say that this is true with bigger sticks, and if you should find yourself forced to use one you should absolutely opt for a hammer grip, but on a slimmer stick a thumb grip is perfectly secure, and I would say more so than a hammer grip which doesn’t allow as much control.

grip
Thumb vs. hammer grip

Try to measure what the ideal diameter you need based on your hand, and from there find a stick that will suit you.

The length
We get here to the most popular issue (and the highest rate of salacious jokes): how long should the shillelagh be? Traditionally, and this is referenced in many historical accounts, the length in Antrim bata and many other styles was 4 feet long. But if you followed what I wrote earlier, you will notice that the length isn’t quite as important as how the stick is balanced and constructed. You can then use shorter and longer sticks knowing that longer ones will need to be proportionately slimmer in order to stay manoeuvrable. At some point, the stick will need to be so slim as to be too fragile for use or necessitating a different grip altogether. On the opposite end, too short of a stick will make it less protective and lack reach.

A good method to measure the minimum length of a shillelagh, which comes to us through Glen Doyle, is to take the stick with your lead hand making sure that the lower tip (or barr) goes past your elbow by an inch or two. Put your other hand opposite the other, grabbing the stick as well and mirroring the other arm, again make sure that the stick goes past the other elbow by a few inches. You should then have the shortest stick you can use in the traditional manner.

You can absolutely use shorter sticks. I use a two feet long kipeen fairly often without problems, but you will need to adapt your technique as your elbow and forearm will not be protected.

The ferrule
Most makers today put ferrules on their shillelaghs. Personally, I prefer to use none and I believe this was also the case historically. Nearly no ferrule can withstand the impacts and vibrations of training and fighting, and at some point it will start to rattle and eventually fall or fly away. Save yourself the trouble.

The ancient art of ferule throwing is still alive and well

Where to buy and what to ask for
There are many options to buy a shillelagh today. I won’t name anyone in particular as I do not wish to be unfair, but I can still give you some general guidelines.

There are two routes you can go: traditional or modern. We are lucky that there is still an industry of shillelagh making in Ireland and even abroad. As mentioned earlier, a lot of what you will find is geared towards the walking stick crowd, but the fighting stick is getting more and more popular and better understood. Blackthorn is by far the best material you can get, as its solidity to lightness ratio is one of the best on the planet. The drawbacks are the price, as traditional stick demand more time to make, and their limited use for safe sparring.

171000-year-old-fire-forged
Shillelaghs and prehistoric clubs are often portrayed in the same manner, yet here is an actual prehistoric club

 

Modern sticks can be made of many different materials. For now, there is no artificial stick that really fits the bill, but many wooden ones that will. Rattan is also very suitable for training and sparring, keeping in mind all that I just outlined. One good aspect is the fact that a lot of companies making these sticks make them according to a certain standard, so you know exactly what you are going to get. Which is great if that standard happens to fit you!

One thing to remember when dealing with different materials is what your training partner uses. Always try to match the material to what is being used in your group. If you buy a lignum vitae stick and end up destroying everyone else’s training tools because they are made of ash, don’t expect to become the most popular kid in your class. Certain hardwoods are also unsuitable for martial arts practice. The list prepared by sensei Ellis Amdur, although aimed at Japanese martial arts, is one of the best references on the subject.

Whether you go the traditional or modern way, what you want is to get as many specs as possible. Ask what is the total weight, the length, the diameter at the grip, the point of balance and if the stick is made of one solid piece of wood or separate parts. All of this information will help you determine if the stick is right for you, but nothing replaces the actual act of handling it.

To recapitulate:

1- Start light
2- Tapering is great
3- Learn your ideal dimensions
4- Ask for the specs

I hope this was helpful!

Maxime Chouinard