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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 » (anceann ramhar denbhata). 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. »
Thank you to Ben Miller for his help with pronunciation and review.
« 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Try to measure what the ideal diameter you need based on your hand, and from there find a stick that will suit you.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
1- Start light
2- Tapering is great
3- Learn your ideal dimensions
4- Ask for the specs
When I first saw the Last Jedi, I was surprised to see Luke Skywalker use a distinctly Irish style in his fight against Rey. Not only is the 1/3rd grip there, but the blocks, strikes and even use of the off hand all look incredibly like Bataireacht. Perhaps a nudge to the filming location in Skellig Islands? Unfortunately, my Star Wars fan heart ached that no one asked me to consult… Maybe next time? 😉
And of course, what is Luke carrying around Ahch-To?
Well, what do you know! A shillelagh!
This isn’t the first time that Irish stick was used as an inspiration to a fighting style on screen. The first confirmed instance was in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate by Ubisoft, where one of the protagonists used his cane in a style inspired by bataireacht. Again, the developers missed an opportunity as unbeknown to them I lived in the same city as their production team, and one of my students worked at Ubisoft a few offices away from the developers!