(Image credit: Bernard Leddy)
https://www.bbc.com/-By Ronan O’Connell
It all but disappeared in the late 1800s, but Irish stick fighting – which was used to rebel against the occupying British – is being revived by fighters around the world.
In a gym in Ireland’s County Leitrim, Bernard Leddy rocked back on his heels to measure up his target. Then his hips pivoted, his weight shifted forward, and he used a cudgel to deliver a thunderous blow to the jaw of a rubber sparring dummy. Leddy was wielding this wooden weapon in the manner of his Irish ancestors.
Similar strikes killed many men in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Back then, this long wooden stick with a bulbous head, called a shillelagh, was key to bataireacht, or Irish stick fighting. And this Irish martial art, which dates back more than 500 years, was once as central to national identity as kung fu in China, judo in Korea or Samurai jiu-jitsu in Japan.
From its 16th Century origins, bataireacht – which is a blend of fencing, boxing and grappling that sees fighters punch, jostle and strike with their sticks – boomed in the 1700s after the occupying British banned Irish people from carrying many types of weapons. Instead they protected themselves with supposed walking sticks, which were actually shillelagh. By the 1800s, bataireacht was so popular it was taught in Irish schools, before changing attitudes towards fighting and the impact of the Great Irish Famine all but erased it by the turn of the 20th Century. Now, thanks to Leddy and members of the huge and proud Irish diaspora, bataireacht is making a comeback.
Leddy has been involved in martial arts for 40 years and first came across bataireacht videos online around a decade ago. Investigating further, he discovered that one of the world’s only remaining bataireacht instructors was Glen Doyle, a Canadian of Irish descent whose family members have been stick fighters for generations. Leddy travelled to Newfoundland to train under Doyle and has since become a coach himself and helped spread bataireacht across the globe.
The Irishman has moulded many new instructors and supervised the creation of about 50 bataireacht schools and study groups in Ireland, the UK, US, Taiwan, Pakistan, Mexico, Egypt and the Czech Republic. “I’m delighted at the growth of bataireacht, but I’m not surprised,” Leddy said. “Because once people realise how effective bataireacht is, they immediately want to know more. In 20 years, I want it to be in every hall in Ireland, if not the world.”
Tourists to the Emerald Isle have long been interested in learning traditional Irish skills. At facilities throughout the country, travellers are taught to Irish dance, beat the Bodhran drum, blend Irish whiskey or play the tin whistle.
Now, travellers can enter the dynamic world of Irish stick fighting. They can admire ancient shillelagh at Dublin’s National Museum of Ireland, visit the sites of Irish stick fighting brawls, or attend a bataireacht class at Leddy’s Fighting Hares schools in Manorhamilton and Belcoo.
While bataireacht is a relatively safe activity when practised in gyms under the supervision of experts, in the 1700s and 1800s it was wild and deadly. Back then, this martial art was central to a lethal form of mayhem called faction fighting, said John W Hurley, author of the book Shillelagh: The Irish Fighting Stick.
These massive organised brawls between rival factions bound by blood, parish or geography could involve hundreds, even thousands of Irish men. During these illegal melees, held at festivals and funerals, men hurled rocks, fired guns and swung shillelagh. “The spirit of ‘Shillelagh Law’ was to always be willing to go out and fight, and die if necessary, to maintain your personal or family or faction reputation,” Hurley said.
Ironically, this blood-soaked bedlam often was recreational, according to Carolyn Conley, professor emerita of history at the University of Alabama and an expert on Ireland’s crime in the 1800s, with arranged melees filling a void in entertainment options in rural Ireland. In fact, between 1866 and 1892, more than 40% of murders in Ireland were linked to recreational brawls. “My research indicates [arranged violence] was not only common but often viewed with approval by judges and landowners, some of whom participated,” she said.
One County Kerry brawl in 1834 saw 35 people killed. A plaque marks that site in the serene seaside town of Ballyheigue, which, thanks to its pristine, 2km-long beach, is now a popular stop on the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,600km driving route along Ireland’s west coast.
Beyond their recreational value, the brawls were also deeply personal, Hurley stressed. Defending honour, with bataireacht or other physical means, was especially important in an era when wealthy Brits controlled swathes of Ireland, leaving its working class downtrodden. “Bataireacht’s not about trophies and titles,” he noted, “it’s about surviving, self-defence and defending those you love.”
Not only was the martial art used by Irish people to rebel against the occupying British, but the Brits also helped drive the popularity of shillelagh, bataireacht and faction fighting – notably via their ban on Irish people carrying other weapons. In addition, Hurley explained that the British legal system’s mistreatment of Irish people created distrust, resulting in many Irishmen settling disputes outside of the courts and in faction fighting, involving bataireacht. Finally, he said, abuses of power by British landlords occupying Irish territory often prompted faction fights between the Irish men who felt wronged and Irish people loyal to those landlords.
Bataireacht’s not about trophies and titles, it’s about surviving, self-defence and defending those you love
By the time Irish freedom fighters finally helped regain the country’s independence in 1921, bataireacht had all but died out. Hurley explained that the Great Irish Famine of the mid-1800s caused more than one million Irish people to die and another two million to emigrate. “By the 1830s, it seems like bataireacht was something being done more by the poorer people in Irish-speaking communities, and they were the people hardest hit by the famine,” he said. “The famine really dealt [bataireacht] a terrible blow.”
Sports like bataireacht became a distant priority for starving people. In the decades after that disaster, there was also a concerted effort to eradicate faction fighting. Given this was the main outlet for bataireacht, the martial art didn’t make a post-famine recovery, and remained largely in hibernation until the past decade.
Although modern bataireacht largely takes the form of training and friendly sparring, there are also occasional competitions in Ireland and North America, during which competitors score points by landing clean blows with their sticks.
Now Irish stick fighting’s popularity is booming thanks to its simplicity and suitability for a wide range of people. Rather than favouring brute strength, or dense technique, it’s a fast, uncomplicated martial art that allows for offence or defence from close quarters. Participants hold their shillelagh with one or both hands, using it to hit their opponent on the body or head, to block their foe’s strikes or to push them off balance.
“Traditional pugilism (boxing) is the root of our system, so each move is using the body’s natural rotation to produce a strike with maximum efficiency,” Hurley said.
Shillelagh hits are not long and looping, like some other stick-fighting techniques. Instead, they are mostly short and quick, akin to a boxer’s jab, mixed with the occasional, more forceful, and expansive strikes. In addition to hitting or blocking with their shillelagh, bataireacht fighters also punch, kick and grapple. “We get in close, whereas other stick-fighting systems stay further away from the aggressor,” Leddy added. “But we can also use the length of our stick to strike from the outer range and maintain a safe distance.”
Despite its origins as a brutal man-on-man sport, bataireacht is no longer a male domain. Many women attend stick-fighting schools, such as New Yorker Patricia Chiovari, who recently graduated from student to teacher. Although she has no Irish ancestry, she felt drawn to stick fighting. “I have always enjoyed learning about Irish culture and history, and I find the deep historical roots of bataireacht fascinating,” she said.
I have always enjoyed learning about Irish culture and history, and I find the deep historical roots of bataireacht fascinating
After her husband bought a shillelagh, she looked into bataireacht and began training in early 2021. Late last year, she became an instructor with the Whiskey Stick Faction in Albany, New York, where she conducts two bataireacht classes a week and has three female students.
Chiovari says that Irish stick fighting suits women more than most martial arts because it doesn’t emphasise physical power. “Women can be effective at bataireacht by being fast instead of being super strong,” she said. “I also really like the fact it’s not as well-known of an art as something like karate or taekwondo. It’s been lots of fun spreading the word about something new and different.”
Once associated with deadly brawls, bataireacht has found a new identity. Yet at the core of its revival is the pride and spirit of Irish people, a resilience that helped them survive more than seven centuries of occupation and subjugation by the British. “This is the martial art of our ancestors,” said Leddy, “They all would have done this in some shape or form, and we as Irish people should embrace it and carry the tradition onwards.”