Research Update: Fieldwork Visit Report

Archives, Libraries, and Networking to Find the Music and Culture of Irish Stick-fighting.

From mid-October to the end of November 2018, I was hosted by the Department of Music at University College Cork (UCC) during fieldwork in Éire for a James M. Flaherty Research Scholarship from the Ireland Canada University Foundation (ICUF). The primary objective of the visit was to gather archival materials on the music and culture of 19th-century faction fighting in Ireland, as well as trace its musical and martial legacy. Overall, the trip was extremely successful; I found plenty of content for interpretation and analysis. Moreover, I developed and enhanced productive relationships with other scholars, stick-fighting practitioners, and stick-makers in Ireland. In this visit report, I’ll summarize the research project, describe the fieldwork I did, discuss the material I found, and suggest future directions for outputs.

Briefly, Shillelagh Studies is a research project for listening to the musical aspects of Irish stick-fighting [bataireacht] in order to hear its heroic ethos. In particular, I’m interested in music associated with and/or used in faction fighting during the 1800s. I contend that the written record of British colonialist history marginalizes Ireland’s martial arts heritage, and oral musical culture provides an antidote. Faction fights were organized battles between rival groups of men in Ireland that occurred at fairs, markets, races, weddings, funerals, and festivals throughout the 19th century, especially before the Great Hunger [An Gorta Mór]. The weapon of choice was a knobbed wooden walking stick known in English as a shillelagh. Faction fighting declined after the Great Hunger, but stick-fighting methods were preserved by a dwindling number of Irish families at home and abroad. Efforts are underway in Ireland and the diaspora to revive and promote stick-fighting as a modern martial art for fitness, self-defence, and cultural heritage. Shillelagh Studies contributes to such efforts by providing cultural context through music, offering a decolonizing narrative to counter the racist historical record.

Entrance to the Irish Traditional Music Archive.
Entrance to the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

The sites I visited include: UCC’s Boole Library, Special Collections, and Traditional Music Archive; the Cork County and City Archives, as well as the Cork County Library; and, in Dublin, the National Library of Ireland and the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA). I consulted both instrumental dance tunes and sung airs collected during the 19th and early-20th centuries, finding many pieces of music with titles and/or lyrics (in both Irish and English) related to factions, fairs, and sticks. Some of this music came from the faction era, while later pieces echoed, memorialized, or satirized shillelagh culture—sometimes all at once. I also found poetry praising sticks, as well as folklore about woods, holy wells, and ritualized violence.

Colin McGuire at the Cork City and County Archives in Blackpool.
Colin McGuire at the Cork City and County Archives in Blackpool.

Several of the items that I found are of rare value, and I will provide a key example. I listened to many archival recordings from the 1950s and 60s featuring an older generation of musicians whose parents and/or grandparents had been alive to see faction fights. The crowning gem was a short song recorded from noted sean nós singer and uilleann piper Séamus Ennis by the RTÉ in the 1960s. Sung in Irish, the air is called “Is Buachaill o Chluain Meala Me” [I’m a Boy from Clonmel], and it was reputedly used to start battles between the two largest factions in Munster, the Caravats and the Shanavests. The flipside of such a rare find is more well-known songs and tunes whose faction fighting associations have become obscured. For example, some of my colleagues in the Department of Music at UCC had never heard of the Caravats and Shanavests. Nonetheless, they recognized some common faction tunes from the repertoire of Irish traditional music, but they did so under alternative titles.

The Flaherty Scholarship allowed me to establish connections with a network of academics outside music. Two scholars from UCC’s Department of Folklore and Ethnology, Ciarán Ó Gealbháin and Stiofán Ó Cadhla, were very generous with pointing to me towards resources on faction fighting. Their insight helped me hear it as an aspect of 19th-century popular culture in Ireland, particularly with regard to the vestiges of pre-Christian ritual found in stick-fighting battles at ‘patterns’ (i.e., festivals for patron saints of a parish). Furthermore, Ó Gealbháin is also a singer and musician whose research focuses on Irish song, and we are keeping in touch about stick-fighting airs. Cormac Ó hAodha from UCC’s Centre for Spoken Irish has graciously agreed to help me with translations of Gaelic text, having found that his own research on songs from the Muscraí Gaeltacht overlaps with my project.

Colin McGuire (left) and Martin Forrest (right) at the Tobereenkilgrania holy well, which was previously the site of patterns.
Colin McGuire (left) and Martin Forrest (right) at the Tobereenkilgrania holy well, which was previously the site of patterns.

Outside the academic sphere, I established or deepened relationships with fieldwork consultants. I was able to interview Middleton’s Martin Forrest, the creator of a brand new style of shillelagh martial arts called Maide Uisce [Stick of Water]. Martin has done considerable research on historical faction fighting, but he’s keen to distance his art from that kind of violence. Instead, Maide Uisce is a made-in-Éire alternative to Asian martial arts that is suitable for health, wellness, and self-defence. I also took lessons from him, adding an embodied element to my fieldwork trip. In Dublin, I was interviewed by a Doyle stick-fighting practitioner named Nathan Featherstone for his Mind Your Movements podcast. Nathan is working to repatriate this traditional style of shillelagh martial arts to Ireland and thus continues to support Shillelagh Studies. Finally, I attended weekly meetings with the Cork Branch of the Celtic Stickmakers. I had begun learning how to make proper knobbed walking sticks with them in 2017 during a two-year postdoctoral fellowship from the Irish Research Council. In an effort to help stick-fighting practitioners get their hands on real shillelaghs (see the “Buy Sticks” section of this blog), I’m working with members of Celtic Stickmakers to see about getting some of their bata for sale.

Now that I’m back in Canada, the research continues. Much work remains to be done categorizing, analyzing, and cataloguing the many versions, variants, and alternative titles of the tunes I collected. I’m also working on getting translations of the Irish titles/lyrics. All told, there is easily enough musical material to record a full-length album, which is a long-term goal of this project. I’m envisioning academic journal articles suitable for the Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland and Martial Arts Studies alike. In the meantime, RTÉ has expressed interest in getting me to submit a piece on the music of 19th-century faction fighting for Brainstorm, which is their online forum for academic work written for public audiences.


Watch this blog for updates, and make sure to like, follow, and share on social media!




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