So what exactly is Antrim Bata? If you came by this website, you probably asked yourself this question, so let’s look at the nature of this martial art, the history and what makes it unique.
The history of Antrim Bata
As the name implies, our style of bataireacht was preserved in county Antrim, and carried on to today by the Ramsey family. Unfortunately, not much is known of the history of this style. Like many vernacular martial arts, this one was practiced by people who had little access to writing or printing, in a culture that relied primarily on oral traditions.
We do know it was practiced by John Ramsey, nicknamed « Ticketyboo », who lived in the 19th century and who acquired a fearsome reputation as a faction fighter. The women of the family were also fighters, like Annie Ramsey, who – as documented in court records- sometimes fought besides her husband.
Though some Ramseys in the UK and America are of English origin, the vast majority of Ramseys (sometimes spelled Ramsay) in Ireland have Scottish roots. The Ramseys are a Scottish clan which appeared when Symon de Ramesie, a Norman nobleman, was granted lands in Mithlodian by David of Scotland in 1145. How and when the family came to Ireland is currently unknown, but travels between Scotland and county Antrim were obviously numerous over the centuries.
By the 19th century, the family lived principally in Larne, but also in different parts of the county. They married with the Kennedys and McLoughlins among others, with whom they stayed quite close.
Although some aspects of the style may be unique to the Ramsey family, the style is probably representative of a regional method. It is very close to the technical descriptions we have from sources like Walker (1840), Allanson-Winn (1890) and the San Francisco Call article (1905) and as such is probably a very good representation of what Irish stick was like in the 19th century, if not much earlier, as there are hints that bataireacht may have links with 12th century fighting methods.
The style came into the public eye in the early 2000s, when the internet raised awareness of previously obscure and forgotten martial arts. Among them was Irish stick fighting, or bataireacht. Mr. Ramsey, still residing in county Antrim, had learned bata through his father, grandfather and uncles, came upon some of the online groups which had been created to discuss the art.
In 2005, he met with Scottish martial arts researcher Louie Pastore, and taught him the techniques he had learned. Two years later, Émile Boudreau and myself met with Mr. Ramsey while staying in Cork, who accepted to teach us the style. After the training, we were given permission to teach it, an honour we were not initially seeking, but which we were honoured to receive. We trained together, still under the guidance of our teacher, and in 2009, back to Quebec City, we decided it was time to share it with more people.
Mr. Ramsey has since retired from teaching, and left the style in the hands of those he had personally taught. I have since been the head of what we have come to name Antrim Bata. I am still corresponding with my teacher, which I am lucky to count as a friend.
What makes Antrim Bata unique
Although Antrim Bata was probably quite similar to how bataireacht was practiced in Ireland, the fact that it is one of the only lineage left today makes it quite unique in the martial arts world.
One of the defining features of Antrim bata is of course its weapon, the famous Irish shillelagh; a forward weighted stick that is not unlike a mace, and which tends to be of walking stick length. The peculiar way this stick is gripped is where things get quite different.
In almost all descriptions of bataireacht, one thing comes back over and over again; that the stick is gripped somewhere around the middle or lower third. This is in part to make the weapon well balanced in the hand, but also to protect the head and elbow. This allows the fighter to take guard positions and use striking mechanics that would be too dangerous to use with a more standard bottom grip. The lower part, or buta, actively shields the arm, which means that shorter striking motions can be used without the risk of the elbow becoming an easy target.
It also allows for surprisingly fast changes in reach. One common question about Antrim bata is why we do not grip the stick lower to allow for greater reach. The fact is that we do, but only when the need arises. Antrim bata has a very unique concept called « the hook » where the off hand comes to grip the stick just below the murlan, allowing to swiftly increase the striking range. This is not unlike what you would see in Kalinda or Bois, but the major difference being that the hands are not held on the opposite ends of the stick. This technique would be impossible to do with a bottom grip, or at least would become a lot more predictable, and is one of the most dangerous and effective techniques in the style, as many of our sparring friends can attest.
Gripping the stick near the middle also allows for seamless transitions to infighting range, where a bottom grip would leave few instantaneous options. The buta and the murlan can be used to stab, as well as to strike with in the manner of an elbow strike with no change in grip or hand position. The shorter upper section also allows for a devastating blow in grappling range called « the lark ». In this technique, the stick is raised well above the head, and with a rotation of the wrist the murlan is sent crashing into the opponent’s head or side. The angle of the strike makes it incredibly difficult to block or seize, and would be difficult to pull off with a longer stick.
When a fighter, or bataire, finds themselves surrounded, another grip comes up: the long grip. Here, the stick is gripped by the bottom with two hands, and the stick is rotated around the body to create an dangerous zone for any opponent wanting to come near. The goal here is not necessarily to fight everyone, but rather to gain time and space to escape back to safety.
Antrim bata also includes punches and kicks. The punches are backhand or palm strikes, while the kicks are reminiscent of savate’s low kicks, as the sole of the shoe is used as a weapon, and the shins, knees and groin become the main targets.
Finally, Antrim bata also includes stick grappling techniques as well as disarms. The techniques offer an effective complement to Irish Collar and Elbow wrestling, by mostly targeting the legs of the opponent, while the disarms seek to capitalize on an opponent who would use his stick somewhat like a sword, seizing it to either disarm or deal terrible larks on the careless opponent.
Is Antrim bata a form of walking stick self defense?
This is also a question that comes back a lot about our style, and the answer is both yes and no. Antrim bata’s weapon is, in its shape and appearance, a walking stick. As such, the techniques we use can easily be applied to a cane. That said, it is not a form of walking stick self defense in the sense that it was not designed and developed for people who need a stick as a mobility aid, and we prefer to be honest about this fact. Bataireacht was mainly used by young people in their prime, who had little need for a walking stick other than as a weapon. It is also not necessarily designed to be used with something like a crooked cane, though the principles can always be transferred to different weapons and sticks.
That is not to say that it cannot be adapted as such, and we welcome students of all ages and can adapt teaching to fit most people’s capabilities.
What Antrim Bata strives for
Beyond its history and techniques, Antrim bata also looks towards the future. Our goal is to preserve and share the techniques that were handed down to us in the best and most relevant way possible. We are always aiming to perfect the methods we use to transmit our skill and knowledge, while staying true to our techniques. We believe in testing out those techniques through pressure and sparring, always pushing us to move forward and better ourselves. We believe Antrim Bata has much to teach in our current world, and is worth passing on.
If this short presentation gave you the desire to start discovering our art, you can find a listing of all the current instructors and schools on this page. Some groups even offer distance learning. So, what are you waiting for?
For a little while now, I have slowly been building a map of all the documented Irish faction fights in Ireland and abroad and I thought I would share the preliminary results. I am only including fights were sticks were used, or at least were very likely to be present, as well as documented. For that reason, you will see that I include the source in each mention.
It is still very early to be making many observations from that exercise, but a few things come up. Firstly, the often cited story of the last faction fight happening in 1887 in Cappawhite is clearly disproven. Many faction fights are reported after that date, even going into the 20th century. You can even find many articles in that list naively pretending to report on the last occurrence of a faction fight, even well into the 1830s.
There is definitely a concentration of faction fights around Tipperary and Limerick in the 19th century, which is a fairly well known fact. For the 18th century, it becomes a bit more laborious to find sources, namely because the term « faction fight » was not yet a popular one, and also because such events were so common all across Europe that they were probably considered too trivial to report on. For the later era, it becomes slightly difficult as the term « riot » starts to be used more and more, making it more difficult to know exactly what is being described, especially outside of Ireland where the practice was not necessarily as « standardized », so to speak.
There are still hundreds, if not thousands of events to be added to this list. If you find any worthy of mention, please let me know and if you can send me the source of the mention and if it fits I will make sure to include it and credit you as well.
By Maxime Chouinard – chief instructor for Antrim Bata
The idea for the present article came up following a couple of recent discussions and comments on Antrim Bata, as well as general observations I have made during the years. The more I have delved in the study of weapon martial arts, meaning those that involve weapons which significantly increase the reach of a combattant, the more I realized that there exists a disconnect in circles where the subject was inexistant or mostly adjacent to an empty hand art. I believe that the problem stems mainly from some fundamental differences in the strategies of armed vs unarmed fighting, and the assumption that what is true in one of those things will necessarily apply to the other. So I decided to write this article here to explain what those differences are, and how one should look at weapon martial arts when coming from an unarmed context.
Power and safety
Let’s first talk about something that may seem quite obvious to most, but judging by past discussion might not really be all that clear, even to people who are quite familiar with combat. A while ago, I noticed someone had posted a negative comment under one of our videos. I wouldn’t necessarily waste much time on those usually, except this one made a curious assumption.
The comment was directed at our criticism of needlessly heavy sticks for practice, but also sought to ridicule our use of protective masks. To put some context, we wear fencing masks (HEMA types) when sparring or when drilling with contact. For someone who has fought in boxing or MMA matches, the idea of getting hit on the head – at least by someone of relatively similar weight – may not be that frightening. A good blow could of course knock out someone, but most fighters can endure many hits to the head before being taken out of a fight. Deaths or even broken bones in such encounters are fairly rare. This is completely different with a solid melee weapon.
The consequences of getting hit on the head, even once, with a shillelagh may have grave consequences. Such a forward weighted weapon is a powerful force multiplier, and can, with surprising ease, fracture the cranium and even more easily the bones of the face. Let alone damage eyes and teeth, which could be irremediably lost even from an accidental hit. This is why we wear such masks, even with lighter training sticks, and other pieces of equipment like padded gloves, knees and elbow protectors. Because all of these targets can also easily be broken or put out of service with a powerful enough blow.
We also sometimes receive comments about the level of force shown in our sparring videos while training. While we do full contact stick fights, we also spend a lot of time slow sparring. This point is not necessarily that different from how many top fighters train in unarmed martial arts, where full force sparring is a relatively rare occurrence. First, because it lessens the chances of injury. A friend of mine who recently passed away had done judo his entire life, and trained with me for a while in BJJ. He took this up, as he said to me, because his years of judo had destroyed his legs, to the point where he could not go around without canes or with a wheelchair. Ground wrestling became one of his only options. If your aim is self defense, then a type of training making you unable to defend yourself should be a major concern and cause for reevaluating your training.
Secondly, doing slower sparring can actually teach you a lot, as you can get the chance to actually examine the strategies you or your partner use. It is also great for building confidence and avoid creating traumatic experiences for students that may very well make them overly defensive fighters.
Yet, it seems to me like people expect weapon sparring to always be more extreme. This may be due to the protective equipment being worn, which may give outsiders an impression that we can then easily go full force in sparring. That equipment is not there to increase the level of power we can throw at each other, but rather to protect from weapons that are themselves force multipliers. In short, we don’t wear protective gear so we can hit each other harder, we wear it because we already do!
we don’t wear protective gear so we can hit each other harder, we wear it because we already do!
Time and distance
This brings me to my second point: distance. When seeing us spar, people often comment on how we tend to keep a certain distance from our opponent instead of coming up close. This may appear strange to someone coming from an unarmed background, especially in our post UFC world, where grappling has taken such an important stage. I usually answer that we do have quite a few techniques for dealing with an opponent at a grappling range (almost half of our technical curriculum deals with close range), but the fact that we do not always go there is due to two main problems in attempting to close in with weapons, and the many advantages in attempting to work at a longer measure. One is reaction time, and the other is the lethality of certain weapons.
To better understand it, let’s look at some concepts of distance and time. We borrow some of George Silver expressions here when dealing with distance: time of the hand, time of the body and time of the foot. For Silver, those « times » are what we could call ‘measures », or « ranges », since he was working from an idea that time was determined by the distance an object had to move to. In modern physics, this is of course quite incorrect, but in our fighting context this is actually still very relevant!
Time of the hand (TOTH) is the fastest distance to fight from. It is the distance where all you need to do to hit your opponent is to extend your hand. No need to step or move anything else beyond your arm. Why is it the fastest? Because the hand is not only quicker than the rest of the body, it is also often quicker than the brain can react.
Time of the body (TOTB) comes next. This is a distance where I need to move not only my hand but also my upper body in order to reach my opponent. The distance to cover is not only greater this time, but also the parts of the body I need to move are slower, at least for most humans! The hand may still move fast, but it can’t arrive until my body has finished moving.
Time of the foot (TOTF) is the last, and also the slowest of the three. Here, I need to move the hand, the body and the foot (though the body may sometimes simply follow the foot, depending on the technique). Moving all this mass takes time, and also means that I am starting at a longer distance to begin with.
Now, you may say: « If TOTH is the quickest, then I’ll always fight from there! That’s a no brainer! » That may very well be true if your opponent has a much shorter reach than you have, but if you think about it; sure you can hit your opponent so quickly he may not have time to defend, but that is only good if your opponent never returns the favor! Your opponent can also attack you just as easily, and both of you may decide to do it at the same time, not realizing quickly enough that an attack is being launched. For that reason, most weapon arts will tend to stay longer in TOTF, and only move closer when one is very confident in their strategy or has no other choice.
If this is not enough to convince you, or you would rather watch someone getting slapped in the face than read my diatribe (said like that, that does sound more fun), then watch this explanation by Roland Warzecha.
Fighting in time of the hand or the body in empty hand striking arts is not quite as detrimental for one major reason: physical endurance. A boxer can more easily fight in such a distance because he has fewer targets to worry about. He will not get thrown to the ground, since grappling has been banned from boxing for the last 130 years, he will not get kicked below the belt, as this was banned 400 years ago at least, and more importantly he will not get stabbed with a knife or hit with a club!
Indeed, the boxer needs to worry first and foremost about their head- though really only certain areas of it- and to a certain degree their torso. Trained boxers can very safely get hit in many parts of their anatomy during a match, and by covering their head well they can stay in time of the hand without risking too much. They are more or less armored up, and this protection allows them to move closer.
This is also somewhat true in kickboxing, where the fighters will tend to fight at a distance where they can kick without having to take much of a step. In MMA, the distance of engagement is usually longer, in big part because the fighter now has to care about things like double leg takedowns. He cannot keep his guard as high in order to counter those attempts, and so he needs to set a bit more distance in order to have the opportunity to respond to attacks that may come at many different targets.
This is not to say that everyone fights like Mike Tyson. There are several successful out-fighters like Mohammed Ali, or Floyd Mayweather who will spend more time in TOTF, but all of them also spend considerable amount of time trading blows in TOTH. Because all of these fighters can usually afford to get hit or grappled, often multiple times. It is quite rare that a fight will end on the first punch or kick landed, or even the first takedown. The stakes are much higher when a dangerous weapon is introduced.
With a stick like a shillelagh my head is of course still a prime target, but there are now many more parts of my body that I need to seriously worry about. A strike to my kneecap may force me to the ground, a strike to my hand may disarm me, a broken ribcage may have serious consequences, and a single blow to the head may often be all it takes to knock me out or worse. Not only that, but my opponent (or opponents) may decide to bring me to the ground. I cannot afford to absorb hits, and I must then be very cautious. This is why time of the foot is the most common fighting distance, because it gives me time to defend against a large variety of attacks that may all be equally threatening.
Now that we’ve explored distance, let’s talk about a very closely related subject (pun intended), the notion of tempo. Here, a tempo designates a complete action. Swinging my stick to attack takes a tempo to complete. If my opponent is roughly as fast and skilled as I am, they can then raise their stick to block the attack. They used that space of time it took for me to attack in order to make their parry. Now, this is where it gets interesting.
In order to do something else, either of us will need to take another tempo. I could stay there and throw another attack, but I have two issues. First, I will need to move my stick around to attack again, or move closer in order to grapple, disarm or punch. All of these actions will take a full tempo to happen. Meanwhile, my opponent also gets to act in this tempo. If I am lucky, they will stay there and do nothing, and this may happen with neophytes who are quite shy or inattentive, but a good fighter, or even an agressive beginner, will take that opportunity to do something since they are in a better position to strike quickly than I am.
This isn’t my only problem, because while I attack I cannot defend myself at the same time; unless I have a shield or some other parrying weapon. This is made even worse by the fact that I am now in TOTH, where my opponent can attack extremely quickly, possibly more so than I can even defend as my stick cannot possibly cover every openings.
I could try to close in, but unless my opponent is backed up to a wall they can also very easily take a step back or to the side, bringing me back to their TOTH as they hit me mercilessly. As a result, the usual safe reaction will be – after a parried attack- to move back to the time of the foot and defend.
This is one option though, and I could also attempt to do a counterattack, or a single tempo action. That is, attempt to both defend and attack at the same time. I could parry the strike with the buta, and by extending my arm simultaneously, strike my opponent in the head. I could also choose to crash in by blocking the strike while launching myself in a strong leap forward in the hope of breaking the distance and allowing myself to enter into infighting. This is the solution of choice in most weapon arts, since the opponent will hopefully be busy attacking and moving closer to me as I move towards them.
The problem with either of those strategies is that they demand a very high degree of commitment. If I block and strike, I still need to spend a whole tempo doing so. If I misjudged the attack, I may very well get hit in the process. The same with the crashing in. If I block in the wrong place, or move too early, I will simply present a perfect target for my opponent’s stick as I am plunging headlong into it. I have to be able to predict perfectly where and when the strike will come, and this is immensely difficult to pull off against skilled opponents, and may only really be possible against neophytes.
There is another context which is not often trained in unarmed martial arts, and even in most armed ones, which is the presence of multiple opponents. This is especially relevant in the historical context of bataireacht, when faction fights were especially popular. You could very well get to fight in group against another, but also become outnumbered or encircled, a scenario that is still reasonably likely today. In this situation, all the points we talked about become vitally important to consider.
When I am fighting a single unarmed opponent, and that I am confident enough in my grappling skills, it is not a great issue to enter into grappling range as I only need to focus my energy and capacities against one person. This is not the case the moment that another opponent enters the fight, and even more so with a weapon.
When you grab someone, they also grab you. What is meant here is that if I grab an opponent my movements are now severely limited, as I am now tied to where this opponent goes. Not only that, but the arms I am using to grapple can now only be used to fight this person. Unless I somehow manage to free one arm – while keeping my first opponent in check – I cannot effectively attack or defend against anyone else. Unless I have the advantage of numbers on my side this is effectively the best of time for an opponent to begin striking me. Remember that a single strike may be all they need if they are armed. My only hope here is that I can very quickly disable my grappling opponent, which, if you know anything about grappling, is quite unlikely with a skilled adversary.
Staying outside of that distance has an advantage in the way that I now have a chance to move away from an attack, position myself somewhere safer, and/or defend or attack different opponents.
Fighting multiple unarmed opponents is already a superhuman feat, but if they are armed then every single hit has the potential to effectively put me out of combat. This is why distance is my greatest ally in such a situation.
To conclude, melee weapons like shillelaghs are great force multipliers, making almost impossible the idea of taking multiple blows to vital areas. In that context, I must make sure that I control distance carefully, by being aware of my own reach and that of my opponent. The closer we get, the less time I will have to react to attacks, and the more chances I have of making costly mistakes. So while fighting back and forth at a relatively long distance may see strange for people coming from unarmed martial arts, it is almost universally the strategy of choice in weapon based martial arts for the reasons I just outlined.
I hope this article helped to demystify the way we practice Antrim Bata. If you are interested in learning more, please do follow this blog, check our channel on Youtube, and I hope to see you in class!
A few months ago, I published an article to try and examine what could be the origin of the word « shillelagh », which is the subject of many different theories. I wanted to expand a little bit more on this subject by examining the other words that are commonly, or at least historically, associated with the Irish stick. I will talk here about cipín, bata, cleith ailpin, wattle and a few others. Thank you once again to Dónall Ṡeáin Ó Duḃġaıl for the help in translating.
Shillelagh (follow up from the last article)
Before going into the rest of the vocabulary used for our sticks, I want to add another interesting tidbit to my previous article. Let’s look at another source, this one from well known Irish author William Carleton, in his book « Tales of Ireland », published in 1834. This excerpt comes from the story « Lachlin Murray and the blessed candle », where the titular character picks a stick fight with… well… none other than St. Patrick himself!
It’s interesting here that Lachlin’s stick is made of hazel, while he says that St. Patrick’s crosier is not a shillelagh, but is made of shillelagh (i.e. oak).This is an interesting use of the word that seems to largely agree with the idea that the expression « shillelagh » comes from the name of the forest. There have been theories brought forward, to explain why Carleton used this word, on how this was an attempt by the author to modify his language to fit English ideas, but I can’t see anything that would support that in his writings. Which brings me to my next point.
I have read authors referring to shillelagh as being a purely Anglo- or at least foreign- invention, and a term that was not really used by the Irish majority, or at least by faction fighters. It’s an interesting theory, and one which is difficult to verify as actual faction fighters left very few written testimonies. It makes no doubt that the term shillelagh could have been used differently in various places, but I have yet to see any source that would confirm the Anglo expression theory, and quite a few that seem to actually indicate that shillelagh was a well established name for cudgels in Ireland. Among them, two stand out.
The first, we already talked about, is Carleton. Carleton lived during the height of faction fights, and claimed to have been instructed in bataireacht himself. In his writings, he uses the name shillelagh quite profusely, and though he shows no timidity in complaining about early tourist versions of the weapon, he never dismisses the word as improper or foreign.
The second is Patrick Weston Joyce, or P.W. Joyce, a well known Irish historian and etymologist. In 1910, around the end of his life, Joyce published English as We Speak it in Ireland which contains many expressions I will explore in this article. Joyce grew up in the 19th century, and describes how he witnessed many faction fights when he grew up around Cork. More to the point, here is what he wrote about the word shillelagh.
So it does seem that the word was sometimes associated to oak cudgels specifically, but looking elsewhere we see that the term also became a general one for fighting sticks. Now, it seems fairly clear that the word does not stem from an older Irish word or combination of them, but similarly it is not quite an English word either, apart from the way Shillelagh gets spelled out most of the time. Síol Éalaigh is a name as Gaelic as can be, with an origin that is still murky – at least as far as the cudgel is concerned-but one which seems solidly supported by historical sources.
Now, that we went completely around the word shillelagh, let’s continue, as promised, with the other Irish expressions used to talk about the weapon. A particularly useful source for this article were court records, often published in newspapers of the time. The great thing with these is that they are usually verbatims, while many other sources get passed through the filter of the author. We can then see the words used by working class Irish people to describe things as they were recorded. On the other hand, these sources are only as good as the ability of the transcriber to understand the words, and some may be misunderstood or may not turn up in a search. Still, quite a few examples came out of this research.
Another word that we see used today is bata, which stands quite simply for « stick ». Interestingly, I have yet to see this word mentionned on it’s own to talk about a shillelagh. It is used in bataireacht, bata fear (stick man) or bataire (stick fighter), bata mór or mórbhata (a great stick, as in Hercules’ stick) but I would guess that bata itself is probably too general a word. Just like stick is in English, bata could refer to just any kind of stick, and not necessarily a weapon. So while it is quite correct to use it today, it does not seem like it was a popular name for a fighting club in the past.
This is another word that turns up rarely in mentions of shillelaghs, probably for the same reasons as bata. It is another fairly generic term for a stick, and will also usually turn up accompanied by another word. For example, Maide láimhe mór for a staff (literally, big hand stick; more on that later), maide fada ceathrú for a long quarter staff, maide cam for a crooked stick or Buaille maide for a striking stick. It also shows up in another word for bataireacht which is nó ag imirt ar mhaidí (stickplay).
All of these examples I have found mostly in dictionaries, as it turned out in almost no court records or stories. This might be due to the pronunciation of the word, which is quite different from how one would pronounce it in English, but if it was I saw no trace of it so far.
This one is not well known today, but was quite popular in the 19th century, judging by the number of times it is mentioned in court records by bataires. It might have risen in popularity following a court case in 1842, where John Foster was acting as judge. One of the defender explained that he used a cleith ailpín on his alleged victim’s head. The judge went on to say that he had heard enough, and that the man was a true gentleman as he wiped the victim’s head with a « clean napkin ». Hilarity ensued, and it was quickly explained to the judge that the defender was actually talking about a club.
Cleith here stands for « pole » and ailpín usually means « knob ». Cleith is used sometimes by itself, but more commonly along with ailpín.
Save for the obvious presence of a knob for cleith ailpín, there is no indication that the expression was reserved for any particular type of stick.
Often anglicized as kippeen, this term seems to have a bit more specificity behind it. It is usually understood today to designate a short stick, and this is not incorrect, but historically, while the word had a « small » connotation to it, was not necessarily referring to length. In fact, the word can still be used today to talk about small pieces of wood used to start a fire, and is quite close in that way to the word « kindling ». Cipín is used to talk about short, thin or light sticks. So both a very thin, or very short sticks could be considered cipíns in their own rights. The term comes around quite a few time in court records when trying to describe if the stick used was large and fearsome, or small and discreet. It seems to always have be used on its own.
Herald and Mayo and Sligo Advertiser – Thursday 04 February 1926 and Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal – Saturday 02 July 1898
This word is a bit of an enigma. While the Irish used plenty of English terms to talk about their sticks (cudgels, clubs, etc) this popular term seems English at first sight, but held a slightly different meaning than in England. Wattle is somewhat the opposite of cipín, though not always. It seems to refer to a « big stick », and much like cipín, this can mean many things to different people. Some witnesses used it to describe a stick big enough to be a dangerous weapon (Northern Whig, 7th Aug 1883) , others a stick big enough to necessitate two hands to wield (Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier, 16th Aug 1825). Some use it to describe a stick with a knob (London Evening Standard, 7th Sep 1846). Others talk about « small wattles », or one handed wattles (Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier, 8th Aug 1840) so using word to simply mean « stick », but those are rare occurrences. Overall, it wouldn’t be incorrect to use it to talk about a long- or at least imposing- stick.
In English sources, the term is usually reserved for long pieces of wood used to make fences or other crafts, specific types of trees (like the Australian wattle) and rarely if ever is it used to talk about fighting sticks. Is it a case of the Irish adopting an English term and using it in their own way, or is it faulty transcription of some other Irish word? Hard to say at this point as I couldn’t find any equivalent word in Irish.
This is another curious entry, and one I only found in a few dictionaries. The strangest thing is that this word is used to refer as well to a partridge bird, the modern patraisc. I could not find out why these two words came to be associated in this way, although a clue may lie in this article from the Belfast Telegraph, 18th November 1876, where a shillelagh maker from county Antrim named Johnny Shannon calls the thorns of a blackthorn « feathers ». Possibly as a metaphor as how a bird get’s plucked when prepared as a meal, since those thorns were removed when making a shillelagh? It could also very well be some rare regional expression, or a mistake by O’Reilly, as it shows nowhere else but in his dictionary.
This expression stands simply for « club » and gets used in an alternative name for bataireacht, caoirleacth (fighting with sticks) and shows up in Lhuyd’s dictionary. In 1701, Lhuyd considered the expression to have mostly disappeared, though O’reilly apparently found it suspect, and shared his skepticism with Lhuyd. Whatever the source of the expression, it is safe to say that it was not in use by the 18th century.
I hope this little article was of interest, and cleared up some notions about the other names that can be used to designate the Irish stick. Let me know if you ever heard of any other one!
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 have any primary source corroborating this idea, citing instead another author from the 1950s who shared the same opinion, 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, but 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 bring his stick behind his back before striking.
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, seemed to consider that the practice shares some commonalities, but they are pretty clear that it is also a very different animal. Walker called bataireacht « unscientific », probably because it did not follow the principles of fencing which were seen as the product of rational enlightened thought. Bataireacht would have been seen as something quite medieval and unrefined in comparaison. Not because it was inherently inferior, but because it did not fit conventional wisdom. As for Allanson Winn, while he did thought that many Irish stick fighters could equal or defeat the best fencers, still seemed 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 (a peculiarity of Walker), 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. See how Allanson Winn has his fencer keep his back shoulder turned away. The feet are also held on two lines for Walker, 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 centered or slightly forward and not on the back foot. The lunge is also completely absent, where 99% of martial arts based around swordplay 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 was not following British fencing customs in this regard. Or was 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? We know next to nothing about Walker, and how he came upon bataireacht is a complete mystery, but in reading his work it seems like this was something rather curious and alien to him.
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 Angelo 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 somewhat valid; as I will explain very soon.
Now, 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 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 of 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 mass standardized instruction – based on Prussian and Austrian theory – were then quite novel.
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 more 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. The notable difference being that these systems of swordplay relied on a very protective guard acting as a sort of buckler, allowing very short and linear cutting motions. The shillelagh cannot do this without endangering the hand considerably, and needs to move it along larger arcs of motion. It does use the buta in a relatively similar way though, allowing the elbow to become more stationary.
Antrim Bata also teaches how to face an opponent fighting in an outside or inside guard, so it would seem like people in county Antrim at least 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 one, 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 time 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 we know 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 actually 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 later 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 depictions 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 though. 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, as 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