Patrick Jones’ “My Blackthorn Stick”
In honour of Saint Patrick’s Day, I’m delighted to have secured permission to share a previously unpublished poem titled “My Blackthorn Stick” by Patrick Jones (c. 1875–1956) of County Cork, Ireland. The text depicts the experience of finding a shillelagh-worthy blackthorn shank, the labour of transforming it into a proper walking stick, the pride of carrying such a noble piece of wood, and the pain of realizing on Patrick’s Day that the prize possession has been stolen. Please note that this copyrighted work may not be reproduced without permission, so make sure to share my post/link (not just the poem below) for integrity’s sake.
Biography of Patrick Jones, Poet of Bandon Town
Patrick Jones hailed from the town of Bandon in West Cork, which is in the Province of Munster, an area infamous for its history of bataireacht (Irish stick-fighting). Jones apprenticed for seven years as a stonemason before joining the Munster Fusiliers in Kinsale at the age of 19. He fought in the Second Boer War (1899–1902) under secondment to the Berkshire Regiment, receiving decorations for bravery. Back in Ireland, Jones returned to stonemasonry, writing poetry and newspaper articles during the off-season. From the unheated parlour of his home on Kilbrogan Terrace in Bandon, Jones crafted a historical record of his times, bequeathing keen observations on local events, customs, and people.
Guide to Terminology in the Poem
The vocabulary in “My Blackthorn Stick” may present a minor obstacle to some readers, so here is a quick guide. Boreen is a name for a rural or country lane and comes from the Irish bóithrín. Gorse is an evergreen shrub that sports brilliant yellow flowers and is often to be found in the hedgerows lining a boreen. Old Nick is a nickname for the Christian devil, Satan. In modern times, a hob is what one calls a stovetop cooker in Ireland and the UK, but the older usage in “My Blackthorn Stick” refers to a shelf/grate above or beside the hearth of a fireplace. The Blarney Stone is a famous piece of rock in the battlements of a castle in County Cork, which legend says bestows eloquence upon anyone who kisses it.
The Shillelagh-making Process in Jones’ Poetry
The first three stanzas of “My Blackthorn Stick” depict the steps and stages of crafting a shillelagh from wild-grown, Irish blackthorn. Given that the poem begins in Cork, where Jones was from, and ends in New York City, where Jones appears to have visited (thanks to Jim Fahy for pointing out this visit*), let us assume that the poem is at least semi-autobiographical. That is, I will place Jones as the main character/narrator of the poem.
First, Jones cut the stick in November when the sap would have been down, making it more likely that the wood might dry without cracking. Jones described the stick as having a “real old fashioned knob,” but also that it was a “lofty thorn,” which combine to suggest that it was a stout branch, rather than a full root ball. After harvesting the blackthorn, Jones hung it over the hob of a fireplace to dry and season until it was “hard as any brick.” N.B. this proximity to smoke and ash is also what traditionally made a shillelagh black in colour, because blackthorn is naturally a purplish brown.
Once thus prepared, Jones straightened the stick, likely by making it temporarily pliable through heat, either wet or dry (i.e., steam or fire). Finally, the knob was polished till smooth (the bark is typically left on the shank), the stick coated in “paint” (possibly varnish, lacquer, or oil) to make it glossy, and the tip fitted with a ferrule to protect it.
Themes in Jones’ “My Blackthorn Stick”
There are three themes I find relevant to Shillelagh Studies in this poem: metamorphosis, duality, and heritage. When Jones described the uncut blackthorn stick as “all angry as ‘Old Nick,’” he was hardly exaggerating. Anyone who has dealt with prunus spinosa (or its relatives) knows that the thorns can be nasty. They are large enough to cause serious scratches and punctures that can easily become infected if the sharp point breaks off in one’s skin. The stick-making process, however, turns a “demon into a saint,” taming the gnarly thorns and transmuting the wild bit of stick into a trusty shillelagh.
Jones recognized the rich duality of a good blackthorn stick. He referred to it as a “a weapon to shorten every mile / a weapon nice and thick” where a good walking stick assists ambulation while also offering a tool for self-defence or even combat. It is not clear from Jones’ biography if he knew bataireacht himself, but this couplet suggests that he was at least aware of Irish stick-fighting practices.
Faction fighting with shillelaghs in Ireland peaked before the Great Hunger (1845–1849), and, although he was born after that era, Jones was close enough to it that stick-fighting culture would have been a living memory for his elders. In the poem, Jones referred to his trusty blackthorn stick as “an emblem of old Erin’s isle,” i.e., a symbol of Ireland. He also called the new shillelagh “our grandad’s blackthorn stick,” which connects to the idea of an “old fashioned knob” and furthers a heritage connection to faction fighting and/or bataireacht as a distinctly Irish practice.
The final symbol of heritage comes at the end of the poem in New York, closing on a bitter note in the last stanza. After having extolled the virtues of his stick to the locals in Brooklyn, the blackthorn went missing. It is notable that Jones did not realize the theft until Saint Patrick’s Day when he went looking for it. March 17th is both the day of Ireland’s patron saint and now the national day of the Irish Republic. The fact that Jones reached for his blackthorn on that day depicts how the shillelagh acts as a physical symbol of heritage, particularly for the Irish diaspora. If this aspect of the poem is based on fact, then it shows that Jones’ blackthorn stick was indeed a prized possession—considering he brought it with him to America. Even if this New York story is fiction, its themes are still potent in semiotic weight.
Source and Text of the Poem
“My Blackthorn Stick” is part of a 50-poem collection by Patrick Jones (Cork City & County Archives ref. SM772). The foreword of the collection claims that the bulk of the poems were written between 1920 and 1940, although it seems that they were not compiled and typeset by his family until after Jones’ death. Thanks to Steven Skeldon of the Cork City & County Archives, Jim Fahy of the Cork Masons Historical Society, and the Jones family for their assistance and support.
* This blog post was edited on 18 March 2020 after I received a follow up email with more info from Jim Fahy.