The shillelagh is an ancient walking stick/fighting stick that has been carried by many Celtic people for hundreds of years now. The actual origin is a bit dubious, though. The stick has a sister that was carried by Englishmen in and around the 1800’s. The Irish tended to like walking canes that were made from oak, blackthorn, ash and holly. They were strong sticks that did not easily break. Yet, they were light enough to wield quickly in a fight.
The name Shillelagh comes from a forest in County Wicklow. The famous fighting stick, though, was also known by the name of “bata” which is Gaelic for fighting stick. The old forest is almost gone now. But in its day, it sported some of the most beautiful oak trees in the world. To give you an idea, the woodwork of Westminster Hall is most likely Shillelagh oak.
Curiously, it was from the pen of an English writer who, on seeing an oak cane and knowing where it came from, coined the term Shillelagh. Eventually, it became synonymous for any Irish walking stick.
It’s the knot on the end of the stick that makes this such a great fighting stick. In fact, an old custom used to be to hollow out the knob, and fill it with lead. I guarantee you, though, you don’t have to do that with a stick made from blackthorn. The knob comes from a root, and is some of the hardest wood you will ever find. As the old song goes, when bashed on the head: “and we made it a tad tedious returnin’…”
The bark is typically left on, and a metal ferrule is placed on the bottom end, to keep the wood from splitting. The wood was often dried well also. The wood would be smeared with manure or butter, to keep the wood intact while it was drying. Often, the stick would be put in the chimney to dry.
For the Irish, having your own shillelagh became a kind of rite of passage. Young boys would be taught the art of stick fighting. Then, when they came of age, they could get a stick of their own. The sticks were used often, and young men would keep up their skills by sparring a lot. So, it became popular to carry the shillelagh everywhere. The youth would also learn from a Maighistir Prionnsa, or kind of fencing expert.
Perhaps the most famous use of the shillelagh happened every year at the Saints Feast Day. It was a time of year when all the local families would gather, so it gave everyone a chance to start some scraps. So, you would come to town, attend the festival, and have a pint, then a little punch up! Stories are told of fights that would have hundreds of people involved, men and women.
So, stay away from the fancy made shillelaghs. Now you know what the real ones are like.