One thing that strikes me when discussing bataireacht with students, is how much we lack a vocabulary to talk about the stick. Most martial arts will have a typology to discuss the different parts of their weapons, but the shillelagh has none. In this article, I propose a short list of different terms to be used when discussing the Irish stick.
Note that this terminology is not part of the tradition that I learned from Antrim Bata. It is taken from Niall Ó Dónaill’s Irish dictionary Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla published in 1977 which mentions many shillelagh specific terms. It is not meant as an official bataireacht typology, and others might use different terms depending on the region and style, though everyone is welcome to use it.
Murlán: The knob. Interestingly, Ó Dónaill mentions that this word not only designates the knob of a stick, but also the button of a foil (murlán ar phionsa) or the knuckles of the hand (ag imirt murlán). Pronunciation: Murr-lonn – rhymes with English words purr-gone.
Ramhar: This is referred to as the « thick part » (anceann ramhar denbhata). This would be the part of the stick above the grip, which is used mostly to block with. Pronunciation: Row-urr. The first syllable rhymes with English « now » or « cow ».
Dorn: This is the grip, the area which is gripped by the hand to wield the shillelagh. Pronunciation: Just as it would be in English.
Buta: This is the butt, the lower part of the stick used to defend the arm and to strike with. Pronunciation: Butt-ah. The first syllable rhymes with English « butt ». Final vowel is neutral. The « T » is pronounced very sharply.
Barr: The point or ferrule. This is the small point of the stick used to stab and thrust with. Pronunciation: Just like English « bar. »
Thank you to Ben Miller for his help with pronunciation and review.
« The shillelagh was not a mere stick picked up for a few pence, or cut casually out of the common hedge. Like the Arab mare, it grew up to maturity under the fostering care of its owner, and in the hour of conflict it carried him to victory. » William Wright
This is a question I get asked so regularly that I thought the best idea would be to write down an article on what makes a shillelagh a great fighting stick.
I want to say before I begin that these are my opinions as chief instructor in Antrim Bata. They do not necessarily represent what is correct from the standpoint of other styles, so take it for what it is worth.
A word of caution I am going to get flak for what I am going to say, but not every shillelagh is a good fighting stick. For more than a century, the demand for shillelaghs as weapons has been nearly nill. I do not wish to disparage the great work that traditional stick makers do, and on the contrary, I would wish to encourage it, but the last faction fights took place in the late 1800s and shillelagh makers saw much more demand for walking sticks than their deadly ancestors. While the knowledge of making a robust stick is still quite alive, the more subtle art necessary for determining the right balance and built of a fighting stick is, like bataireacht itself, in need of a revival. The problem is that there is no « one size fits all » here. For the fans of Harry Potter among you – or for those who have been forced to watch it – it’s a bit like going into Olivander’s shop, what you are like (in this case mostly physically) will determine what is best for you.
So for this reason, do not expect to just pick a shillelagh off the shelf and expect it to be perfect. If you don’t know what you are looking for, it will most likely feel terrible… and you might not even realize it.
But it’s just a stick!
I can already hear it: « You should be able to use any kind of stick! » « You won’t always have the best stick on hands when you need it! » Sure. But it doesn’t mean you have to spend your life twirling lumps of lumber and being miserable for it. Bataireacht is a complex and refined martial art, and like all of its cousins it necessitates an equally refined weapon.
If you are skilled in bataireacht, you will be able to use your abilities with most sticks that come in your hands. You should train with many different ones, but having one or two great shillelaghs will only make you a better fighter.
Unfortunately, just like the medieval sword, shillelaghs are pictured in popular culture as ridiculously heavy and unwieldy, owing much of their deadliness to their sheer weight. And just like the medieval sword, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
What to avoid I will already tell you what you should absolutely not choose as your first stick (or even as your last stick). The first one is to avoid most sticks that are sold in souvenir shops. They are easy to recognize as most follow the same pattern. They are made of cheap and brittle wood and usually painted black.
The Cold Steel Shillelagh and its United Cutlery counterpart are unfortunately close seconds. The companies decided to produce sticks based on cartoonish representations of a shillelagh, and what you get is a weapon that is great if wielded like a baseball bat, but not much else. It is uselessly heavy at 834 grams and quite overbuilt. Good perhaps for conditioning, but you can find much cheaper options to this end. It is unfortunate that the company did not seek the opinion of bataireacht practitioners before producing it, as it could be a reasonable option if correctly redesigned.
Avoid sticks that have too much of a crook in them. A good shillelagh should be straight. Curved sticks will tend to twist upon impact, making them awkward. Avoid also sticks that have been pierced near the top to place a lanyard. These only fragilize the section of the stick that already bears the most stress.
Weight Weight is probably the first thing to look for, especially for a beginner. The motions of bataireact involve a lot of overhead and violent motions that can cause injuries to a body that is not prepared for it (and not just to the one receiving the blows). Starting with too heavy a stick is the best way to end up with a damaged rotator cuff or tendonitis. If you are an able-bodied adult, choose a stick that is around 300 grams and as you progress go for heavier ones.
A stick does not need to be extremely heavy to deal damage. To be effective, an impact must have weight but also speed. If the weight brings the speed of your motion down, the impact will obviously be less.
The important is really how this weight is distributed, and in this regard a shillelagh is really unlike most sticks. In many stick arts, the weapon used is really a straight dowel. When a weapon is shaped that way, the weight is distributed evenly along the whole surface. If I want to make my stick heavy enough to deal enough percussive force I then need to widen or lengthen it. It is quite different for a shillelagh.
The most dangerous part of the shillelagh is its knob, or murlán. This is the part that is used to strike with and one of the reasons why the preferred grip is thumb up as it gives more control on where the point of your weapon goes. The size of the shaft then has little to do with the effective weight other than to balance it.
Think of it as a flail. No one cares if the chain is big enough when considering the power of a flail’s blows. What really matters is the ball. The chain only needs to be solid enough to hold everything together and allow it to move well. Faction fighters understood this idea and drove lead into the murlán when it was too light.
For this reason, the point of balance should be at some distance from your hand. 5 or 6 inches being a good minimum, but too close to the murlán and the stick will become hard to manoeuver.
Ideally, your shillelagh should taper from the top down. The part closest to the murlán, the ramhar, should be the thickest as it will bear the brunt of the torsion when dealing blows and from the impact of parries. From there, it should get slimmer and slimmer to the point. The lower part, or buta, is used mostly to guard the forearm and elbow and to thrust with. On occasion, it can be used to strike, but is used far less for hard parries. You do want the buta to balance the stick like a counterweight to the murlán, but not to the point where your blows become too light or your stick unnecessarily heavy.
The part of the stick where you grip it, the dorn, needs to be small enough to allow your three bottom fingers to touch the palm of your hand. It is often said that the thumb grip is not secure enough as it can be too easily disarmed. I would say that this is true with bigger sticks, and if you should find yourself forced to use one you should absolutely opt for a hammer grip, but on a slimmer stick a thumb grip is perfectly secure, and I would say more so than a hammer grip which doesn’t allow as much control.
Try to measure what the ideal diameter you need based on your hand, and from there find a stick that will suit you.
We get here to the most popular issue (and the highest rate of salacious jokes): how long should the shillelagh be? Traditionally, and this is referenced in many historical accounts, the length in Antrim bata and many other styles was 4 feet long. But if you followed what I wrote earlier, you will notice that the length isn’t quite as important as how the stick is balanced and constructed. You can then use shorter and longer sticks knowing that longer ones will need to be proportionately slimmer in order to stay manoeuvrable. At some point, the stick will need to be so slim as to be too fragile for use or necessitating a different grip altogether. On the opposite end, too short of a stick will make it less protective and lack reach.
A good method to measure the minimum length of a shillelagh, which comes to us through Glen Doyle, is to take the stick with your lead hand making sure that the lower tip (or barr) goes past your elbow by an inch or two. Put your other hand opposite the other, grabbing the stick as well and mirroring the other arm, again make sure that the stick goes past the other elbow by a few inches. You should then have the shortest stick you can use in the traditional manner.
You can absolutely use shorter sticks. I use a two feet long kipeen fairly often without problems, but you will need to adapt your technique as your elbow and forearm will not be protected.
Most makers today put ferrules on their shillelaghs. Personally, I prefer to use none and I believe this was also the case historically. Nearly no ferrule can withstand the impacts and vibrations of training and fighting, and at some point it will start to rattle and eventually fall or fly away. Save yourself the trouble.
Where to buy and what to ask for
There are many options to buy a shillelagh today. I won’t name anyone in particular as I do not wish to be unfair, but I can still give you some general guidelines.
There are two routes you can go: traditional or modern. We are lucky that there is still an industry of shillelagh making in Ireland and even abroad. As mentioned earlier, a lot of what you will find is geared towards the walking stick crowd, but the fighting stick is getting more and more popular and better understood. Blackthorn is by far the best material you can get, as its solidity to lightness ratio is one of the best on the planet. The drawbacks are the price, as traditional stick demand more time to make, and their limited use for safe sparring.
Modern sticks can be made of many different materials. For now, there is no artificial stick that really fits the bill, but many wooden ones that will. Rattan is also very suitable for training and sparring, keeping in mind all that I just outlined. One good aspect is the fact that a lot of companies making these sticks make them according to a certain standard, so you know exactly what you are going to get. Which is great if that standard happens to fit you!
Whether you go the traditional or modern way, what you want is to get as many specs as possible. Ask what is the total weight, the length, the diameter at the grip, the point of balance and if the stick is made of one solid piece of wood or separate parts. All of this information will help you determine if the stick is right for you, but nothing replaces the actual act of handling it.
1- Start light
2- Tapering is great
3- Learn your ideal dimensions
4- Ask for the specs
When I first saw the Last Jedi, I was surprised to see Luke Skywalker use a distinctly Irish style in his fight against Rey. Not only is the 1/3rd grip there, but the blocks, strikes and even use of the off hand all look incredibly like Bataireacht. Perhaps a nudge to the filming location in Skellig Islands? Unfortunately, my Star Wars fan heart ached that no one asked me to consult… Maybe next time? 😉
And of course, what is Luke carrying around Ahch-To?
Well, what do you know! A shillelagh!
This isn’t the first time that Irish stick was used as an inspiration to a fighting style on screen. The first confirmed instance was in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate by Ubisoft, where one of the protagonists used his cane in a style inspired by bataireacht. Again, the developers missed an opportunity as unbeknown to them I lived in the same city as their production team, and one of my students worked at Ubisoft a few offices away from the developers!
We are pleased to announce that Máistir Maxime Chouinard will be holding a two day seminar in « la ville lumière » on May 5 and 6 at the Club de Bâton Irlandais de Paris. The club is headed by Remy Thobois. This seminar is a first in Europe, and we will cover the basics of Antrim Bata in order to build a solid framework for the art to grow in France. Cost for the seminar is 20 euros only so do not miss your chance!
For more information see the poster below, or contact Remy Thobois at Batonirlandaisparis@gmail.com
Knife fighting was never quite a popular activity in Ireland, at least not at the level it once was in countries such as Spain or Italy. The Irish were known as stick fighters, boxers, stone throwers and even wrestlers, all activities that were quite tolerated by the authorities in 19th century Ireland, even when taken to a deadly extreme but take out a knife in a stick fight and the judge would not be so lenient. Yet, knives were not at all unknown in fights, especially those of a more serious nature. As this excerpt from Bentley’s Miscellany of October 1841 shows, knives were sometimes used in stick fighting, and quite brutally so.
This excerpt is said to be an interview with an « old school » Irishman who frequented Donnybrook Fair – or as he called it « The Brook ». Notice that the author tried to illustrate the fellow’s accent, hence the particular – and uneven- writing style. The article criticizes Donnybrook quite vehemently, taking the side of the Temperance movement and claiming that the fair is now dead. The interviewee has a much more positive outlook on it… regardless of that particular event!
The night we wint down, there wur two men met in the fair who oughn’t to have come together there by any manes. One ov thim was a shoemaker from the Liberties, Pat Reilly, an’ he had been a cheatin’ an’ playin’ his thricks upon Jim Murphy, an’ he came from Dundrum. Jim thought he’d meet Reilly, an’ he said iv he did, he’d slaughter him, an’ so he did – met him, I mane. Jim had twenty boys at his elbow, an so had Reilly nearly, for the Liberty boys wur always ready for a scrimage at Donnybrook.
Well, in a minute Jim spied out Pat Reilly, an’ he was wid him in a whisper. « Stop, ye ould ugly blackguard! Ye thief of the world! » sis Jim, « I’ve got a reckoning’ wid you, I have » sis he. » An, boys, min let this turn be only wild Reilly an’ me, an’ let none of ye’s interfare, an’ by my mother’s blessin’ I’ll slate him. » The boys stood round ’em an in a moment they wur at it. Jim Murphy was an iligant made boy. Every limb ov him looked as if it had been made for a giant, an his big thick fist grabbed a shillelah that hadn’t been cut for ornament.
Pat Reilly was a dirty little blackguard. While Jim had his Sunday clothes on, though they wur covered by his large frieze coat, which he scorned to take off, out of contimpt of the shoemaker, Pat hadn’t a rag on worth askin’ for. He wore no coat – because he had none, an’ his breeches were untied at the knees, an’ his stocking hanging about his legs. An’ yet, for all that, ye could tell by his knowing face, an’ his malignant eye, that he was more than a match for Jim in cunnin’, though he hadn’t so much « power in his elbow ». But however, at it they went, and everyone thought that Jim would slate the other as he’d promised. « Pon me conscience it would have made a good pictur’. »
They had gotin front of one of the largest shows of the fair, for the light ov the lamps, an’ whin the people of the show saw a faction-fight was going to begin, they stopped their dancin’, an’ the only music ye soon heard was Jim an’ Pat’s shillelahs as they met in the air. Jim poured his blows down so hearty an’ so well, that there was little doubt who would kiss the sod first. But, as Reilly got beaten, so he got more venemous an’ full of revenge, till at last he was like a devil from the infernal place, an’ leppin’ about the ground like a madman. Jim hardly had a scratch upon him, while Reilly’s head was covered with wounds an’ blood, that run down the sides of his face like a fountain; an’ his head all clotted with gore.
At last Jim aimed a blow that he intended should finish his business. He swung his thick shelelah (sic) round his head, and while it was in full swing he brought it down intending it for the forehead of Reilly. But it took him on the ear, an’ it tore it off an clane as iv a winch had done it. Reilly shrieked out with the agony, and he seemed to be faintin’; but in a moment he put his hand in his breast, an’ like a wild hyena he rushed in upon Jim, and clutched him by the head. The villain had armed himself wid his shoemaker’s knife , in case he should be beaten, an’ now he used it. Before Jim could tell what he’d be at, he caught him by the hair wid his right hand, an’ wid his left he made a gash across his windpipe, that almost cut his head off from his body!
After this, I can hardly tell ye what happened, for every boy who had a stick wid him took a part in the fight, Peter Sleevin an’ I tried to get under one of the caravans, but some ruffians that saw us, said we were constables in disguise, an’ in a moment a hundred wild savages were down with us. Peter fought like a gentleman, as he always did; but we wur beaten senseless, an’ the first recollection I had, was findin’ myself on a low bed in one of the public houses ov the town, wid Pether standin’ by me, an’ his head patched all over like an old quilt! As for me, I didn’t know for a day or two, whether I had any head at all, for it was just the size of my body.
It is interesting to note that Reilly was part of the Liberty Boys, an infamous gang in 18th century Dublin. It is then probable that this story took place before the turn of the 19th century, though certain sources mention that the Liberty Boys were in action until Dublin created a police force, which would be in 1836.
In Antrim Bata, particular attention is always kept on the presence of hidden weapons, and efforts are taken not to get too close in case a knife might be present. The off hand is always kept in front in part to be able to better react to such an attack.