It has been said "A man without a blackthorn stick is a man without an expedient."
The Irish cudgel/cane which is known by many names, the most popular being Shillelagh, has come to symbolize Irish culture almost as much as the Shamrock. Often seen nowadays as a tourist favorite at airport giftshops. A quaint little twisted knobby stick complete with a green bow and a nifty painted shamrock can be found anywhere there may be a tourist looking for an Irish souvenier. This handy little item has very little to do with the oaken or blackthorn cudgel of the early 19th century and earlier.
The original shillelagh gets it name from it's point of origin, the Shillelagh forest near Arklow in county Wicklow. The Shillelagh forest was widely known throughout the British Isles as being one of the finest areas that oak could be obtained from. Unforntunately most of the Irish oak was exported to England for use in the manufacture of pipe stems a little comfort can be found in the knowledge that many of the most famous buildings of western europe were built with imported oak from Ireland, including Westminster Hall in England and the Stadthouse in Holland.
The wood of choice for a stick, or in gaeilge a bata, was indeed this oak from the Shillelagh but over many years of exporting the fine Irish oak the Irish substituted the blackthorn for the ever diminshing oak. Blackthorn is a very strong and easy to find wood. The knob on the end of a blackthorn stick is the rootknob and packs one helluva whallop. The bark is left on for added toughness and often a metal ferrule is secured at the end opposite of the knob. To keep the wood from splitting during the drying process the Irishman would often bury the cudgel in a dung heap or smear with butter then place in the chimney to cure.
Folklorist Padraic Colum says the oaken cudgel should not be considered a symbol of Ireland but a badge of honor for those who carried it. From a young age Irish boys were exposed to the traditions of the bata, when they came of age to carry a stick it was as if the journey into manhood had taken place. A young man was taught by his father to hold the bata tightly so as not to be taken unaware at the fair. Many young Irishmen practiced with the stick regularly. Constant sparring was needed so as not to lose face at the fair or funeral.
While the stick was carried by the Irishman most everywhere he went, it was at the Fair ot Funeral that most of the fights broke out. To quote an Irishman at the funeral of his father in northern Leinster "Tis a sad day, when my father is put into the clay, and not even one blow struck at his funeral." This quote helps show the Irish view towards rowdyness at funerals and wakes in the early 1800's. The Factions were sure to be present at both wakes and fairs often roughing up a person who had refused to join them but more often fighting members of other factions.
A little about the Faction fights: Faction fighting was prevelent from the seventeenth cetcury up until the famine of the 1840's. Most often the factions were members of certain families or of political groups. Some of the more infamous factions were named The Three year Olds, The four Year Olds, Coffeys, Reaskawallaghs, Cooleens, Black Mulvihills, Bogboys, Tobbers....sometimes the Fenians would take part and the most infamous of all the Molly Maguires. Sometimes the fights would consist of hundreds of men and women. The weapon of choice was the Bata. Guns were rarely used and women used rocks, often wrapped up in a sock at their weapon, leaving the stick play to the men. After the 1840's the Factions fights became fewer and farther between. The last recorded Faction Fight was at a fair in Co Tipperary in 1887.
Fights with the bata were not always of the faction variety, some were sport while others were conflicts of a more personal nature. One tradtion at fair was for a man to drag his coat on the ground behind him and exclaim"Who'll tread on the tail of my coat?" or to ask a crowd "Who'll say black is the white of my eye?" These combats were not always a deady duel, often they were friendly if somewhat rough contests. The bata was held somewhat towards the lower middle of the stick and was snapped out with the wrist rather than swung like a tradional cudgel. it was a simple art in terms of numbers of techniques. yest it took years of practice just as any other weapon to achieve mastery of. Sir john Barrington a member of Irish Parliament wrote in his 1790 book titled "Personal Sketches of His Own Times" wrote that the stickfights were exhibitions of skill...."like sword exercises and did not appear savage. Nobody was disfigured thereby, or rendered fit for a doctor. I never saw a bone broken or a dngerous contusion from what was called 'whacks' of a shillelagh (which was never too heavy)."
"Oh! an Irishman's heart is as stout as
It beats with delight to chase sorrow and woe;
When the piper plays up, then it dances gaily,
And thumps with a whack to leather a foe.
A Dictionary of Irish History since 1800 by D J Hickey and J E Doherty Gill and MacMillan Ltd 15/17 Eden Quay Dublin 1980
A Treasury of Irish Folklore by Padraic Colum Crown Publishers, Inc New York.
Of Irish Ways by Mary Murray Delaney 1973 Dillen Press Inc
Irish Wake Amusements by Sea/n O/ Su/illeabha/in 1967 Mecier Press Cork ISBN 1 85635 173 4
Defensive Exercises, 1840, by Donald Walker
Things Irish by Anthony Bluett 1994 Mercier Press Cork ISBN 1 85635 079 7
Ireland: Its Scenery, Character and History Vol.1 1911 by Mr. & Mrs. S.C. Hall