The Shillelagh is one of the most globally-recognized symbols of Ireland. But how much do we actually know about the Shillelagh?
What is a Shillelagh?
The word Shillelagh comes from the Irish phrase sail éille which translates into English as “thonged willow-stick.” The Shillelagh is thought to have originated in the village of Shillelagh, County Wicklow, which was once said to be surrounded by vast oak forests.
Shillelaghs are usually made from Blackthorn wood with a leather wrist strap joined to the handle. the Shillelagh was commonly used as a walking cane or walking stick, and can sometimes described as a cudgel. It is typically made from a stout knobbly and knotty stick with a knotty head, which can be used for gripping or striking.
Bataireacht and “Shillelagh Law”
The Shillelagh was the primary weapon used in Bataireacht – a form of traditional Irish stick fighting popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. During the 18th century bataireacht was practiced primarily with Irish gangs called “factions” who often fought each other at gatherings and events. While most of these fights were purely for sport they eventually took on a political and violent edge as the years went on. Faction fights remained a common occurrence up until the 1840s and the last recorded brawl took place in 1887 at a fair in Co. Tipperary.
By the 19th Century Shillelagh fighting evolved into a martial art. Fathers taught their sons how to fight and many young boys received shillelaghs as a significant rite of manhood. Some boys were educated in the ways of the Shillelagh by the local Maighistir Prionnsa or “fencing master”.
The Shillelagh in Irish Folk Music
“Cut a stout, black thorn to banish ghosts and goblins” – The Rocky Road to Dublin
The Shillelagh gained fame through mentions in several well-known Irish folk songs. The ballad “Finnegan’s Wake” is generally considered to have coined the term “shillelagh law” which refers to refers to a brawl. In “The Rocky Road to Dublin” the singer describes how he fashions a shillelagh to use as a striking weapon to defend himself against bandits and highwaymen.