Sláinte Mhaith and… take THAT!

When moving into my new abode, I unpacked two old Irish trophies that hadn’t seen the light of day for many a year; a well worn shillelagh (figure 1), and a hand stone (figure 2).

Fig. 1. The old wormridden bata.

Fig. 2. Painful, however used.

Hand stones, perhaps, and certainly, shillelaghs were used in Ireland until quite recently to settle faction fights (figures 3 & 4).

Fig. 3. An illustration of a faction fight by William Henry Brooke, from William Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, 1830.

Fig. 4. The faction fight between the O’Callaghans and the O’Hallaghans at Knockimdowney. From William Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, 1830.

Faction fighting typically took place between rival gangs, which could be constituted by families and extended family, or by those with certain ideological inclinations, or specific business dealings. The purpose of a faction fight could be due to numerous issues, but it seems that the primary motivation of large-scale shillelagh battles was the ritual, the performance of Shillelagh Law, which, while violent and dangerous, was also somewhat romantic and fashionable. The factions would often agree ahead of time to a melee, and then meet at a specific time and place to parlay, and then fight. Women and children attended to watch, music played, and both sides would stand in lines, facing each other while singing, taunting, laughing, and generally building up morale before the mounting tension broke, and each group prepared to charge. Generally certain members of each faction would step forward and ‘wheel’ his weapon, brandishing his shillelagh and ‘wheeling’ it about while hurling insults at the opposing sides. Once the fighting began, the men would use their shillelaghs or other weapons before striking, wrestling, and stomping their opponents. Sometimes the women and children watching from the sidelines would throw stones, hopefully striking the men of the opposing faction rather than their own fighters. As the general melee died down and most of the fighters were too exhausted or injured to go on, the fight was over, and drinking would begin in earnest.

Shillelagh Law constituted a set of ethical guidelines that dictated not just a specific stick-fight, but a series of rules of engagement that acted as combat and cultural conventions.  Historian John Hurley carefully outlined the rules in [his] book, Shillelagh, and are listed as follows:
If a faction is greatly outnumbered, members of the more numerous faction must join them in order to even out the sides.
If a third faction is involved, they should join with the less numerous faction.
No attacking of one man by more than one man.
If one man unfairly attacks another man, his own faction will attack them.
The weapons used should be evenly matched – sticks versus sticks, etc.
Punching, wrestling and kicking are allowed.
No striking of women, even if they strike you.[1]

My shillelagh is a typical blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) cudgel while the hand stone, found in my home county, Tyrone, is made from igneous rock (either dolorite or gabbros) which was quarried in the Sperrin Mountains during the Neolithic period. Given its highly worked surface, its purpose would have been as a status symbol rather than a working tool.

Sadly the hand stone is now a fragment, but when whole, would have looked more like that in figure 5.


Fig. 5. A lia lamha laich, or champion’s hand stone. (John Boyle O’Reilly, Athletics and Manly Sport/Ancient Irish Athletic Games, Exercises, and Weapons.)

I cannot say whether my shillelagh ever drew blood or not, or if the hand stone was broken on someone’s head. I haven’t used either weapon in anger, though I have been sorely tempted by some radicals and zealots at the front door.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

Jack Plane

[1] L.A. Jennings, Real Irish Fighting: A History of Shillelagh Law and Hob-Nailed Boot Stomping, Fightland Blog.

About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Distractions and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sláinte Mhaith and… take THAT!

  1. Joe M says:

    Happy St Paddy’s day to you Jack!


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