IRISH MARTIAL ARTS (Na Healaíonaí an Chogaidh Éireannach)

The Shillelagh is a symbol not of Irish violence and anger, but of what was once a coherent and respected tradition of the Irish martial art of stick or staff fighting. Irish stick-fighting and other martial arts once common in Ireland, are aspects of Irish culture which have received little or no attention from professional scholars. Yet Ireland’s martial arts heritage has had a profound effect on the lives of Irish people and it has dramatically shaped the roles played by the Irish both at home and abroad. I feel that understanding and re-claiming this aspect of our heritage is very important for people of Irish ancestry today, because it offers us an important avenue for channeling our energies into positive, healthy and traditionally Irish activities.

My own research indicates to me that Irish methods of “Féinchosaint” (Self-defense) can be divided into the two basic (and common) groups of armed and unarmed fighting, called in Irish “Troid Armáilte” (Armed Fighting) and “Gráscar Lámh” (Hand-to-Hand Fighting).

Armed Fighting (Troid Armáilte)

Of the armed fighting, sticks, spears, axes and swords, were some of the primary weapons used by the Irish. The realm of Irish fencing seems to have been divided into two basic kinds of swordsmanship:

Claíomhóireacht – or old Irish swordsmanship, which seems to be characterized by the “cut and thrust” of the Irish Broadsword, and later, European Sabre. (Also written as “Claíomhteóireacht”, “Claíomhtheóireacht” and “Claíodóireacht”).

Pionsóireacht – later Irish swordsmanship, which seems to be characterized by the “thrust” of the Rapier, later Small Sword, Foil and Epeé. (These two classifications are my own interpretation based on an amateur etymology. In the modern Irish language, these terms are used as interchangeably as English speakers might use the terms “fencing” and “sword-fighting”, which have the same general meaning).

While other armed Irish martial arts include:

Scianóireacht – knife arts.

Tuadóireacht – various forms of axe-fighting.

Corránóireacht – sickle fighting.

Spealadóireacht – scythe fighting.

Súisteáil – flail fighting.

But from the original Irish staff, stick, axe, spear and sword fighting methods, originated the later forms of Irish stick-fighting which came to be associated with the Shillelagh. Irish Shillelagh-fighters would have been familiar with various forms of self-defense including the other weapons styles listed above. But in an age when boundaries were not clear and the often misleading martial arts theories of today – which categorize styles and techniques – did not exist in Ireland, techniques from outside of stick-fighting would be used in fights. These would be the techniques used in Irish Gráscar Lámh or unarmed, “hand-to-hand” martial arts.

Hand-to-Hand Fighting (Gráscar Lámh)

Gráscar Lámh or unarmed martial arts, and would include:

Gleacaíocht/Coraíocht – native Irish wrestling. There are several styles of Irish wrestling which are known in English as “Collar-and-Elbow” wrestling, “Square Hold” wrestling or “Scuffling”, and Backhold wrestling.

Dornálaíocht – native Irish styles of boxing, and later boxing as imported from both England and France.

Speachóireacht/Speachadh – kicking techniques used in athletic competitions, Gaelic football, Irish dancing, and (believe it or not) the pan-European game of “shin-kicking”. (Shin-kicking was later incorporated into the French martial art of “Savate”).

Irish people used these martial arts both individually and in various combinations of groups. Of those who practised them, some were professional martial artists and fighters, while others were amateur martial artists just trying to survive in an extremely dangerous and violent world. Today a whole series of “Na Healaíonaí an Chogaidh Gall” or “Foreign martial arts”, are studied by Irish people such as: Okinawan Karate-Dó, Japanese Bujinkan, Chinese Chuan Fa, Korean Tae Kwan Do, Kickboxing, etc.

Tradition and ancestral heritage plays a central role in all of these martial arts; I feel that this is a good thing, as it encourages martial artists to aspire to the greatness of their family or spiritual ancestors. I feel that the pursuit of any martial art, when done for the right reasons, is a positive and healthy thing. But because of my own personal experiences, I also feel that it is equally important for an individual to seek out and explore his or her own personal or family ancestral traditions of martial arts or “warrior” culture, as this is sometimes an unconscious motivation behind an interest in the martial arts. Exploring my own cultural, ancestral warrior traditions, is an integral part of my spiritual journey as a martial artist, and has allowed me to re-claim aspects of myself, my culture and my heritage. As unlikely as it may sound, from childhood, my goal has been to pursue a personal martial arts path based in the cultural traditions of the “Fighting Irish”. Upholding and defending the ideals and heritage of a culture and a civilization, is a central responsibility of the martial artist. But due to the commercialization of many martial arts today, this process is actually often discouraged in areas which are the most empowering. As a result, I have found that pursuing an Irish martial arts path was not something readily encouraged either in Irish culture or by non-Irish martial arts culture.

This is something which I hope to help change.

© 2002 John W. Hurley

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