Irish Stick Fighting

Original Name: 
Bataireacht / Shillelagh
Founded By: 
Various clan/family groups
Country of Origin: 

Ireland’s geographic position on the western outskirts of Europe with its nearest neighbour -historically one of the most influential and militarily powerful- only a short boat trip away has meant the Irish people have known conflict and combat since before written history.

The warrior cast the Fianna , the Kerns (ceithern- a collective noun mostly associated with fighters)  the Norse Gael Gallowglass (gallóglaigh- foreign young warriors)  that settled in Ireland after their expulsion from Scotland are all well known as Irish fighters, but as the islands control was increasingly governed by foreign powers- Norse in major settlements and later English , laws implemented restricting the carrying of swords saw the bata (stick) come to the fore as the Irish weapon of the people.

Of course the stick had been used as a training weapon for centuries and single stick play was commonly taught father-to-son as well as in a military environment and fencing schools. The Sail-eille (Anglicized to shillelagh) was well disguised as a common walking stick, but in the hands of practiced exponent it became a devastating weapon.

Irish Stick Fighting
More information about style: 

Most commonly made of Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) or oak, the stick would be lopped when the branch had the least amount of sap in it, cut to shape and size and cured in a chimney or dung heap often smeared with butter to give the glossy black finish. Size is personal preference, and there are many names to describe length and the inclusion of a knobbed end, leather thong, lead loaded butt and steel ended sticks: Ailpin, Cipin, Cleith and Sail Eille to name a few.

The “golden era” of the Irish fighting stick is generally accepted as the 19th century, when gangs or factions would gather at town fairs and challenge opposing factions to battle. While to the uninformed onlooker the ensuing conflict may appear to be a free-for-all, “Shillelagh Law” saw that at least through the early part of the century a form of ‘rules of engagement’ held the combatants to a code of conduct. Whilst much of the motivation for fighting was either sectarian or family grudges, as the century rolled on the honourable “Shillelagh Law” guided conflicts became fewer and people turned their attention and hostilities towards liberating Ireland from British rule and the struggles of surviving An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger or potato famine). With the goals of a self governing nation in mind the bata was replaced by the firearm and the practice faded away from the public conscience even though fake ‘Blackthorn Shillelagh’ became a must have buy for the visitor to Ireland.

For the better part of a century to follow it appeared that Bataireacht (the art of stick fighting) had become extinct, although remnant techniques are said to have been obvious in the truncheon skills of Irish police officers in the U.S east coast major cities, but no style, school or family was publically active in the art.  Various groups were attempting to reconstruct a style based on books and pictures, some even claiming that theirs was a family style and that they had inherited it, a claim that was blatantly false in more than one instance.

A gentleman from Ireland taught several people some techniques he said were shown to him by his family, but insists it isn’t a system or style. From these techniques- mostly with a one handed grip on the stick- some of these people have attempted to reconstruct a more complete style, others have taught the techniques they were shown and do so gratis as a way of keeping what they know alive. Many of the people attempting this reconstruct come from an oriental stick/martial arts background, so the development of style as truly ‘Irish’ must be considered dubious due to the input of oriental concepts.

So until someone comes forth with proof of direct transmissions- and it is possible, with the preeminent authority on the subject author John Hurley receiving correspondence from people with some passed down knowledge - the world is left with only one inherited complete style of Irish stick fighting, Rince an Bhata Uisce Bheatha (Whiskey stick dance) of the Doyle clan from Newfoundland, Canada.

Glen Doyle was taught the style by his father the late Gregory Doyle, who in turn was taught by his father and back to the originating progenitor. Stories abound as to the origin of the name, and the development of the style, but as a two-handed technique it is visually evident the pugilistic influences of the style. The style couldn’t be in better hands as Glen Doyle understands the world of martial arts due to him being a multiple Canadian Kung Fu champion, and because of his deep sense of responsibility to his father and ancestors to preserve the integrity of the art.

For further information regarding this culturally important martial art John W Hurley has a range of books on the history of the Shillelagh, cultural and literary references and even one on how to make your own shillelagh available. Mr Hurley’s books have been the predominant resource for researching and writing this article.

Sifu Glen Doyle has his Rinca an Bhata Uisce Bheatha schhol in Milton Ontario Canada.