An Overview of Irish Stick-fighting and Its Musical Legacy.
A shillelagh is a wooden cudgel, and the word is pronounced “shuh-lay-lee.” More specifically, a shillelagh is an Irish style of stout, knobbed stick that can function as a weapon. In this introductory blog post, I define the word shillelagh is three ways. First, I consider how the noun may have come into English. Then, I discuss the ways it is currently used in reference to the practice of Irish stick-fighting as shillelagh martial arts. Finally, I offer some brief preliminary thoughts on the cultural importance of the shillelagh as a symbol, which I listen for through music.
Definition of Shillelagh
The origin or etymology of the English word shillelagh is a bit convoluted. And just to be thorough, alternate spellings of shillelagh in English include: shelaly, shillaley, shillely, shillaly, shilley, shillela, shilala, shillala, shillalah, shilela, shilelah, shilelagh, shillealah, and shilelagh.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records the first use of shillelagh (spelled Shelela) in 1677 as the name of a village and barony in County Wicklow, Ireland, which was known for its oak forests. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the place name comes from the Irish for ‘descendants of Elach’ [Síl nÉladaig or Síol Éalaigh], referring to the sept of an 8th century Irish king in the Province of Leinster. By 1773, Oxford shows that shillelagh was used to refer to a wooden cudgel, seemingly in reference to the famous oaks of the village/barony of Shillelagh.
The English word for an Irish cudgel may also be a corruption of the Gaelic for ‘beam/log/willow with a thong’ [sail éille], which refers to a stout stick equipped with a leather strap that could be secured around the user’s wrist. Or perhaps the etymology is reversed and sail éille is actually an Irish appropriation of the English shillelagh, which was itself an anglicization of the Irish place name? I note that Foras na Gaeilge’s New English-Irish Dictionary lists both sail éille and maide draighin [blackthorn stick] as translations of shillelagh. They don’t give provenance for the former, but at least maide is a more common word for stick (along with bata).
Irish martial arts researcher John Hurley proposes a third interpretation in his book Shillelagh: The Irish Fighting Stick. He speculates that the English word shillelagh may actually come from a shortening of the Irish for ‘thong walking stick’ [bata siúil éille]. While appealing, I await further evidence of this usage before giving it precedence over other etymologies.
Regardless of the word’s origins, shillelagh now refers to the iconic Irish fighting stick. The heyday of cudgel fencing in Ireland was during early the 19th century, when fights between rival factions were a common occurrence and shillelaghs came in various shapes and sizes (see list of examples on John Hurley’s Shillelagh University website). At present, the quintessential shillelagh is a knobbed walking stick of approximately three feet in length and made from the wood of a blackthorn shrub. In Ireland, suitable alternatives include ash, holly, oak, hazel, and hawthorn, based on qualities like their toughness and the availability of relatively straight shanks for stick-making.
Finding a proper shillelagh today is complicated by the tourist industry in Ireland. Shillelaghs used to be seasoned by smearing them with butter and placing them at the hearth or up the chimney, which led to them becoming blackened. Unfortunately, many “shillelaghs” sold to tourists today are merely painted black for the look and are not well-seasoned. Similarly, short clubs with log-like heads are sold as souvenirs, but I have not seen their like in any historical descriptions, paintings, or drawings.
In the images below, you can see the difference between a traditional, knobbed, combat-ready, blackthorn walking stick and a tourist “shillelagh.” I made the blackthorn under the guidance of the Cork branch of the Celtic Stick-makers, whereas the second was given to me as a souvenir by a colleague’s neighbour when she heard that I was interested in shillelaghs. I like both for different reasons, but only the proper blackthorn is really appropriate for Irish stick-fighting as we know it today.
Shillelagh Martial Arts, Then and Now
In Irish, stick-fighting is called bataireacht (link for pronunciation here), and it’s a native form of martial art from Ireland that was until recently on the verge of extinction. I use the term martial art here to mean any system of human combative behaviour, rather than restricting it to the hand combat styles of Asia. My usage draws on discussions in the academic inter-discipline of martial arts studies that are meant to allow broader comparison across cultures.
In 19th-century Ireland, faction fights were often planned months in advance and could involve a great deal of skill. In notable 19th-century Irish author William Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, he describes how stick fencing was a part of many rural boys’ education. The application of these skills came when faction fighters engaged in pitched battles at markets, fairs, patterns, weddings, and funerals. While there were certainly unplanned brawls and unskilled fighters in the faction era, I’m keen to point out that stereotypes about drunk Irishmen randomly beating people with clubs is not entirely accurate. Such stereotypes are also quite derogatory.
Several factors contributed to the decline of Irish stick-fighting in Ireland. Faction fights could range from being a sort of good-natured martial sport to being deadly warfare, but they were always dangerous. The British colonial authorities and Christian religious leaders (Catholic and Protestant alike) were opposed to the violence of faction fighting. After the starvation and mass migration that occurred as a result of the Great Irish Famine (approximately 1845 to 1850), the rural population and way of life was decimated. Finally, the rise of Irish nationalism that eventually led to an independent Republic of Ireland in the 20th century needed factions to stop fighting each other and turn their attention to a united front.
Since the close of the 20th century, there has been a renaissance and re-imagining of faction era stick-fighting skills as a contemporary martial art. In future blog posts, I’ll discuss stylistic developments in this area, but for now I would like to acknowledge the efforts of Glen Doyle in passing on his family’s stick-fighting style and being a leader in the revival. His branch of the Doyle’s came to Canada from Ireland during the faction fighting era. They preserved and polished their skills with the shillelagh in Newfoundland while those practices were gradually abandoned in Ireland. Glen was the first Doyle to teach outside his family, which he began doing at the turn of the 21st century. I’ve had the pleasure of training with Glen, and I can attest to the formidability of his family’s method.
Shillelaghs, Faction Fighting, and Music
What does all this have to do with music? Faction fighting, shillelaghs, blackthorn sticks, etc. feature prominently in the lyrics and titles of a wide range of Irish music: songs, tunes, airs, and ballads, traditional and new, from Ireland and from the diaspora. My Shillelagh Studies project is investigating the significance of this symbolism in order to help revitalize the culture of Irish stick-fighting. In particular, I aim to decolonize negative stereotypes of the shillelagh by helping people to understand the meanings in the music that have atrophied over time.
Below are a few recordings to get things started, but I’ll be digging deeper to uncover older tunes that have fallen out of the repertoire of traditional Irish music. For example, historian Patrick O’Donnell writes in his book Irish Faction Fighters of the Nineteenth Century that, “(up) to the last, each faction party had its party tune” (1975:49). Many of these tunes may have been lost or renamed, but the important connections between music and shillelagh martial arts cannot be ignored.
“It’s the Same Old Shillelagh” composed and recorded by Pat White in 1927:
“The Blackthorn Stick,” a traditional jig played by Shane Farrell on the tenor banjo in 2017:
Another “The Blackthorn Stick,” but this time as a traditional reel, played by a fiddler from County Sligo named Michael Coleman in the early 20th century: