SHILLELAGH STICK-FIGHTING (Bataireacht Sail-Éílle)

Methods of Shillelagh fighting have evolved over a period of thousands of years, from the spear, staff, axe and sword fighting of the Irish. There is some evidence which suggests that the use of Irish stick weapons may have evolved in a progression from a reliance on long spears and wattles, to shorter spears and wattles, to the shillelagh, alpeen, blackthorn (walking-stick) and short cudgel. By the 19th century Irish Shillelagh-fighting had evolved into a practice which involved the use of three basic types of weapons, sticks which were long, medium or short in length. Within these categories there are further divisions based on whether or not the stick has a knob or iron ferrules at the end(s).

There were numerous regional and personal variations of these weapons; as a result a precise classification of every type of Irish stick weapon would be presumptious. However there are more precise names for certain sticks, and I do use these. In my book Shillelagh: The Irish Fighting Stick, I discuss in great detail how by the 19th century, the term Shillelagh had come to be used in a general way to describe the many different kinds of stick weapons used in Ireland. I continue this tradition in writing and in conversation, and I tentatively classify the basic weapons of Shillelagh-fighting as being:

Length Irish Name(s) English Name(s)
6-9′ sleá, gapícemaide ceathrúnstafóg ceathrún

cleith

 spearpikequaterstaff

quaterstaff

wattle

 

4-5′ sail éillebata siúil éilleailpínbata mór/tríú shillelaghshillelaghalpeengreat/third stick
3′ bata pionsa “backsword” cudgelor “single-stick”
3′ bata siúilmaide láimhebata mór/tríú walking stickwalking stickgreat/third stick
3′ camán hurley stick
2′ smístecrann bagair cudgelcudgel
1-2′ smachtín buta luaidhe “loaded butt”

Styles of Bataireacht (Cineálacha Bataireacht)

These sticks were used in various ways – Irish stick-fighting styles were more methods of combat than strictly stylized and adhered to “martial arts” – but certain patterns of common styles did exist. Some evidence suggests that there may have been many types of basic stick (fighting) games or training activities used by the Irish. Early references mention the Fiancluichi, a series of games for aristocratic (and hence warrior) youths, and these may have included various forms of martial arts and stick-fighting. We know for example, that the Fiancluichi seem to have included:

Camánacht – a type of hurling using what looked like walking-sticks, similar to todays shinty;

Iomainacht – similar to modern day hurling.

A type of play used in both of these styles was called Scuabín or “Scoobeen”, and involved whole parishes and villages in cross-country matches, where the first goal won the game. These Scuabín matches survived into the modern era and seem to have been an ancient Gaelic Celtic form of the Norman “melée”, used to simulate combat. If Hurling and Scuabín once comprised part of the Fiancluichi, it may be that the Fiancluichi referred to an actual curriculum of martial arts training. Other stick-fighting arts which might have fallen under the category of the Fiancluichi, may have been:

Sleádóireacht (or spear play), Lansaíocht (or lance-fighting), (also Ropaireacht) – iron-tipped lances, and javelins which could also be used like thrusting or slashing swords. These would all fall under the term “Ropaireacht” or stabbing violence;

Maide Ceathrún or quarterstaff play – iron-shod (long) staff fighting;

Cleathadh or wattling – shorter than quarterstaff and not shod with iron;

Cleith aílpín or alpeen play – shorter than quarterstaff, sometimes using a (four foot long) stick with a knob at one end.

Bata Mór/Bata Tríú or great stick/third stick – using a 3 to 4 foot stick with both hands, dividing the stick roughly into thirds.

Sail-Éille or shillelagh play – using a four foot long stick shod with iron at both ends.

Claíomhóireacht or old Irish swordsmanship – characterized by the “cut and thrust” of the Irish Broadsword, which was later referred to as Bataireacht or Bata(ireacht) Pionsa, or backsword/singlestick.

Probably separate from (and in some cases definitely later than) the original Fiancluichi, were other Irish stick-fighting arts, including:

Trodaireacht Dó Bata (lit. “two-stick fighting”) or cudgel play – possibly sword and dagger play from the 16th century, although there are probably native Irish styles prior to this. Two sticks were used, one 3 feet long and the second 14 inches long; in the pan-European style, both sticks had basket hilts;

Bataireacht/Bata(ireacht) Pionsa or backsword/singlestick – using the 3 foot cudgel from the Troid Dó Bata, by itself;

Bata(ireacht) Siúil Éille/Maide Láimhe or walking-stick – using a 3 foot walking-stick without a basket-hilt, with or without a knob;

Smísteoireacht or cudgelling – using a short bludgeon or truncheon.

Pionsóireacht or later Irish swordsmanship – characterized by the “thrust” of the Rapier, later Small Sword, Foil and Epeé.

It is hard to say exactly how or when these arts evolved into their more modern form, but certainly by the 19th century, the arts of Irish stick-fencing or Bataireacht, can be divided into seven main categories:

Maide Ceathrú or quarterstaff, which divides the stick into quarters for gripping;

Cleathadh or two-handed wattle fighting, gripping the stick like a sword;

Bata Mór/Bata Tríú or two-handed wattle fighting, which divides the stick into thirds for gripping;

Shillelagh or one-handed wattle fighting with the Bata Mór;

Trodaireacht Dó Bata or two-stick fighting;

Bata Pionsa or single-stick play;

Smísteoireacht or truncheon fighting.

© 2002 John W. Hurley

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