This story is over 5 years old.


Real Irish Fighting: A History of Shillelagh Law and Hob-Nailed Boot Stomping

Irish stick-fighting was not only an ancient martial tradition; it became a symbol for Irish culture.
"But Kelly himself, his arms akimbo stood calmly over his enemy." From The Party Fight and Funeral (Carleton's Irish Peasantry by William Carleton, George Routledge & Co, 1854)

The myth of the violent Irish hooligan, perpetuated through popular culture representations authored, most frequently, by their British rulers, hinges on the Shillelagh, a weapon that is as ancient and enigmatic as Ireland itself.

Ireland is an old country, settled thousands of years ago and becoming a bastion of Christianity in the formerly pagan Europe. In the Annals of Ulster, a historic text that covers the operation of the country of Ireland from Saint Patrick's arrival in the mid-5th century A.C.E. to 16th century A.C.E., the people who occupied Ireland, known as the Celts, maintained an agrarian lifestyle frequently interrupted by both local skirmishes and international warfare. In the 9th century, the Vikings began their invasion of Ireland, intermingling with the now occupied Irish, until they were defeated and essentially driven out of Ireland by Brian Boru, famed Irish King, in 1014.


Irish autonomy would be short-lived. In the 12th century, the Normans invaded Ireland, beginning the reign of the English in Ireland. Henry VIII named himself King of Ireland in 1541, and less than one hundred years later, under the reign of his daughter, Elizabeth 1, the country was ripped apart through harsh penal laws and the persecution of Catholics. As rulers changed, politics evolved that continued to reduce Irish autonomy on a grand political scale, yet, as is so often the case when comparing history on a micro rather than a macro level, individual Irishmen and women asserted their individuality not in their politics, but in their fighting.

Ancient Irish warriors used a great deal of weapons, including swords, spears, and sticks, which were in common use by all their neighbors. In his book, A Social History of Ancient Ireland, historian P.W. Joyce notes that the ancient Irish used broadswords, much like their neighbors, although the English would claim to be the ones who invented the broadsword. In Ireland, fighters routinely adorned their swords and other weapons with jewels and gold, although the vogue in ancient times was to festoon one's sword with the teeth of large sea animals, known colloquially as claideb dét or 'sword of teeth.' The use of weapons in Ancient Ireland and in historic Europe in general, advanced and changed as warfare evolved. The Irish may have loved their use of stones, sticks, and swords, but they were not necessarily particular to their culture. Geneticists found that there appears to be little difference in the DNA of the Irish and the Brits, although similar genetic make-up does not preclude a vast history of distrust, hatred, and war. And while they may have carried similar weapons, every country had their own and approach to combat.


Ancient Irish fighters used carefully hewn stones as weapons, throwing them with apparently expert precision at enemy combatants at surprisingly far distances. The English and other groups roundly ridiculed the Irish, comparing their attack to small boys throwing rocks, but these throwing stones were no mere pebbles. Carved to fit the thrower's particular and imbued with mystical power, Irish throwing stones were still being used, with accuracy, in the 19th century. Irish warriors also created slings and other projectile apparatuses to fling their throwing stones further distance with significantly more power.

Sir Edmund Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland, written in 1596, claims that Irishmen wore their thick hair long in an effort to help protect their heads in battle. The Fairie Queen author also discussed the habit of Irishmen to wear very long cloaks that doubled as sleeping bags or tents during times of rest. The cloak had further functionality as a makeshift shield: "often times their mantle serves them, when they are nigh driven, being wrapped about their left arm instead of a target [shield], for it is hard to cut through it with a sword." Additionally, the cloaks were lighter, easier to carry, and eminently less cumbersome than a large wooden shield to warriors always on the move.

While the Irish may have been unique in their use of rocks, cloaks, and animal teeth, Irish martial arts historian John W. Hurley notes nearly all of Europe, both in ancient times and in the modern era up to the 19th century, basically practiced the same fighting sports and had the same weapon technology, although the Irish, British, Scots, French, and Spanish might vehemently object to such a claim. Of course, this is true for nearly all fighting sports, across time and space, due to the functionality of the human body, which dictates that striking arts with hands and feet, and grappling are the basic empty-hand fighting arts in every community, differentiated primarily by and rules. In the case of the Irish, boxing, known as Dornálaíocht, was part of the Gráscar Lámh, the Irish hand-to-hand fighting styles, and was very similar to what the British practiced. Shin-kicking (Speachóireacht) remains a part of the Irish martial arts and is, rather tellingly, referred to as Irish Shin-Kicking or English Shin-Kicking, depending on one's perspective and, no doubt, nationality.


The Irish did far more wrestling than boxing on a communal and cultural level, although individual Irish boxers certainly made names for themselves as they fought against British pugilists, especially in countries, like Britain, where boxing was far more popular and profitable. Irish wrestling (Gleacaíocht or Coraíocht in Gaelic) had several distinct styles, including Collar and Elbow, Square Hold, Scuffling, and Backhold wrestling.

The dominant ancient Irish sport is hurling, a stick-ball game similar to field hockey that remains popular today. Hurling was the most popular sport, both 3,000 and 300 years ago, and while it may not be a fighting sport by definition, the sticks used to strike the ball, known as a hurley stick or camán, could double as a weapon, particularly when games devolved to fighting between teams. If one brought a camán to a faction fight, the paddle portion on the bottom might be wrapped with wire in order to increase the devastation from a blow. It seems that when a fight was brewing, each Irishman used whatever weapon served him best, whether it be a shillelagh, cudgel, camán, or any other striking apparatus that could be easily and effective welded. But the most famous Irish weapon, and one that would become synonymous with that country's culture and customs, was the shillelagh.

The shillelagh remains a bit of an enigma, simply because the term itself is a sort of catch-all for nearly every iteration of a weapon used in and around Ireland. The etymology of the word shillelagh is also unclear, as it is neither English nor Gaelic in origin. The lexical history of shillelagh remains a bit of an epistemological mystery, as clear roots of the word cannot be definitively traced, although numerous theories, from the name of the Shillelagh forest to a combination of words that, over time, became degraded to the singular name of the weapon.


While the vagueness of the shillelagh's precise lexical roots may make it seem that any stick could be referred to as a shillelagh, that was certainly not the case. An Irish shillelagh is approximately one meter in length and constructed only from woods of oak, ash, crab tree, hazel, or blackthorn, which was the most prized of the Irish woods. They typically have a knob at the end, made for crushing craniums, and doubled in functionality as a walking stick. In popular culture, one often thinks of the shillelagh as a short stick, a small bat, but that weapon is actual a cudgel. An Irishman would have probably carried both, a long shillelagh as a cane-cum-weapon, and a cudgel, a shorter stick that, at some point, became synonymous with the shillelagh although the two are distinctly different.

Shillelagh fight culture evolved over hundreds and thousands of years, forming an implicit set of protocols that reveal the rather organized nature of street fighting, most likely assisted by the structural nature of the factions, or gangs, that ruled the country's underbelly. Pre-arranged fights between individuals or factions could be organized by the length of the bata and whether or not there was a knob at the end of the stick. In ancient days, fighters tended to use longer sticks or staffs, most likely because they were more similar in use to a fighting spear or broadsword. As time progressed, sticks became shorter, most likely to accommodate the close-quarters of street fights in packed urban areas.


Due to the surplus of weapon options and the personalization of fighting styles, there was not a specific set of movements that every shillelagh fight entailed, although today, there are clear rules and structures dictated by the various organizations that host Irish stick-fighting tournaments. However, Hurley delineates several specific approaches to a respectable Irish shillelagh fight. The stick was held typically in the right hand, with 6 inches or so extending past the base of the hand and the remaining three feet or so extending upright. The left arm could be used for blocking strikes, throwing a punch or, once in close quarters, grabbing an opponent's stick to attempt a disarm. The first objective, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, was to knock the hat off the head of one's opponent, both as a sign of disrespect and to make the skull more easily accessible. A heavy blow from the side removed the hat, and the follow-up strikes were, hopefully, blocked by the bottom part of the stick. As the distance between fighters decreased, the tip of the stick, on both ends, but especially by the bottom of the hand, could be used to jab and strike. As fighters lost their weapons, they would then move to their wrestling, attempting to throw each other to the ground so that the final stomping could commence.

Irish stick fighting function as sport and as military training for the country's boys and young men. Seemingly always ready for battle due to tumultuous relationship with neighboring tribes in ancient times, and with their neighboring countries in the modern era, Irish stick fighting provided youth with the skillset needed in order to transition from stick to blade. However, there are also plenty of examples of the shillelagh being used as a weapon and not just as a training apparatus. In the 18th century, shillelagh matches were held at market days (magramores) or in large sporting events where two factions would face off in bloody battles. Faction fighting, known as bata briona, would come to dominate Irish Gaelic culture, and generate future crime families or syndicates that operated in other countries as the Irish community immigrated in the 19th and 20th centuries to England and the United States. In fact, it is because of the faction fighting that the shillelagh would become synonymous with Irish gangsters.


The typical shillelagh fight went through three stages: stick fighting, collar and elbow wrestling, and stomping. Shillelagh fights began with both fighters using their sticks to strike each other. Fighters would often lose their weapons as the fight progressed, either from being disarmed or sometimes due to injuries that made it impossible to grip their sticks. The combatants would then grab each other in the typical Irish Collar and Elbow style, sometimes with one or both sticks being employed in the grappling. When a shillelagh fighter was able to get his opponent to the ground, he (sometimes joined by his fellows) would stomp the downed fighter, often while wearing hob-nailed boots. Worn by nearly every Irish laborer, hob-nailed boots had nails or spikes protruding from the bottom to provide the wearer with increased stability while traversing the muck permeating Irish bogs and fields.

Irish stick-fighting was not only an ancient martial tradition; it became a symbol for Irish culture. The Irish had a reputation, perpetuated by British xenophobia, of being inferior hooligans who loved nothing more than drinking, fighting, and fucking. The image of the shillelagh signified the entire country's obsession with fighting, which was an unfair generalization, given that not every Irishman or woman engaged in fighting. But while the shillelagh was practically a pejorative projected upon the brutish Irish by their English neighbors, inside the country, the shillelagh symbolized their ancient warrior traditions, something that the Irish were proud of retaining in their modern lives. In fact, the shillelagh was emblematic of the toughness of Irish, and evolved, as a symbol, into the formation of what would be known as "Shillelagh Law," an idealized representation of Irish patriotism and strength. Shillelagh Law was a code of conduct that revealed the Irish system of morality and ethics, steeped in a love for fighting tradition, but not necessarily, as the English would have put it, a love of violence for the sake of violence.

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 those rules in this 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.
  • Depending on the situation, virtually any weapon can be used, including swords, stones and farm implements, although guns were originally avoided.
  • Punching, wrestling and kicking are allowed in some cases.
  • No striking of women, even if they strike you.

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.

These large-scale faction fights absolutely took place on Irish soil, and certainly on market days in cities and rural areas. Laws were enacted, specifically by the English, to curb violence and, more specifically, to reduce the fighting prowess of the Irish. The Penal Laws, which are far too vast or convoluted to detail here, essentially sought to diminish the power of Irish citizenry. But the shillelagh remained an important part of Irish culture and even today, one can participate in an organized Irish stick-fighting event. However, the prevalence of faction fights did diminish significantly in the 19th centuries, most likely due to the seriousness of poverty and starvation, which took precedence over the squabbles between rival gangs.