Antrim Bata, history, Non classé

What is Antrim Bata?

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.

The crest of Clan Ramsey

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.

My teacher in 2007

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.

One of the high guards of Antrim Bata. The grip allows this very agressive stance, while also protecting the arm and head, and offering many ways to quickly and efficiently change range

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.

A murlàn elbow. As the name implies, this strike is given quite similarly to an elbow strike, but using the stick to strike with

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.

The long grip, used mostly to deal with outnumbered situations

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.

The elder Catherine Kennedy (born McLoughlin), at 78 years old in 1928, shillelagh in hand

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?

Faction fights, history

Mapping the history of faction fights

By Maxime Chouinard

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.

To access the map, simply click here

Non classé

Shillelagh: What’s in a name?

By Maxime Chouinard

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:

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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!