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.
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.
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!