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Walk Softly And Carry A Big Stick

Stories of Ireland

Story by Korinn Braden
"It is extraordinary what a lot of knocking about a sturdy Irishman can put up with, and what whacks he can receive without any apparent damage." R.G. Allanson-Winn and C. Philipps-Wolley, London, 1890.

I was speaking with Jackie the bartender the other day and she said she had a story and question for me. Some of her customers had told her shillelaghs, or walking sticks, were used as weapons and did I know this. I hadn't heard this, which means I needed to find out more.

The name Shillelagh comes from a forest in Co. Wicklow. However, shillelagh became a generic term for any Irish walking stick. Traditionally the canes or walking stick were made out of oak. However, over time, oak had been felled and exported. Blackthorn then became the preferred material. Both woods have great significance in the Celtic world. Blackthorn is a more sturdy wood, having thorns and a large root-knob. The knobby bit with its broken thorns are some of its desired traits. The wood was placed in manure or covered with butter and cured in a chimney to ensure the wood would not split during drying. The length of a shillelagh should be from your wrist to the ground, with a slight bend in the elbow. A shorter version, a cudgel or bata, does exist. Bata, from the Gaelic, means fighting stick. It is suggested that our word "bat" and "baton" come from this word.

Brilliant! Here is the correlation between a walking stick and fighting stick. Folklorist Padraic Colum asserts that young Irish boys were taught and skilled in the traditions of the bata. As they grew older, carrying a stick was seen as a rite of passage into manhood. It was not uncommon for Irishmen to carry their stick wherever they went. Another example of this is the character Sherlock Holmes. His creator gave him a walking stick and made him a master of single-stick fighting. While back in Ireland, often large crowds gathered at religious observations, fairs and wakes consisting of clans or political groups where faction fighting often would occur. And a stick might come in handy. An example Irish faction fighting can be seen in the movie Gangs of New York. Then I think about my great-grandfather's walking stick. It is a bit more refined. Instead of a knobby head to do battle, the handle and shaft contain a flask. Perhaps my family would rather enjoy a drink and a good tale of fighting.

Many thanks for information obtained from on-line sources, including:
Bata, Comhraiceoir
Irish Stick Fighting, Faction Fighting, Celtic Martial Arts
Haggerty, Bridget
Is Your Shillelagh a Sham?
Irish Culture and Customs
Smith, Lolly
Irish Blackthorn and Hazel, the History and Uses