The Shillelagh (An Sail-Éille)

The Irish “Shillelagh” (Sail-Éille) is one of the best known yet least explored icons of Irish culture. Inorder to understand why, we have to go back to the year 1845 when the ancestors of modern Irish people, began to suffer from the traumatic effects of what was to become the largest artificial shortage of food in human history, known to some as the “Great Irish Famine” and to others as “An Gorta Mór”.

The Great Hunger (An Gorta Mór)

Although debate continues as to the number of people killed, there can be no doubt but that as a result of An Gorta Mór, millions of people died of starvation, disease and exposure while millions more were exiled from Ireland forever. In what was one of the earliest documented cases of ethnic cleansing in the modern era, Ireland was systematically depopulated by the British government. As shocking as these facts may be, many Irish people feel that the political, economic and cultural conditions which allowed for this horrible yet deliberate tragedy to happen, were the culmination not of momentary transgressions on the part of British government administrators, but of centuries of government policy towards Ireland, her people and her culture. Although the tragedy appeared to have ended by 1850, the reality was that the effects of An Gorta Mór and British government policy in Ireland, have continued to traumatize generations of Irish people. (Various statistics show that the effects are still being felt to this day, for example in Ireland’s economic and political domination by the U.K., or in the continued depopulation of the Irish Republic, whose population statistics have never reached the pre-1845 level).

These facts are dramatic, but in ways even less tangible, the negative effects of An Gorta Mór, and the centuries of what anthropologist’s term “ethnocide”, continue to plague people of Irish birth and ancestry. The instability, alienation and stress created as a result of the breakdown of Gaelic Irish culture has its name in “anomie”. Anomie is a condition whereby the loss of a person’s culture manifests itself in a sense of aimlessness, hopelessness or lack of purpose. This feeling of hopelessness can manifest itself in spiritual, mental and eventually physical ills, and many of the critical social problems facing Irish civilization today, are a direct result of the anomie created by the ethnocide and ethnic cleansing committed against Gaelic Irish culture and people. This ethnocide resulted in significant loss of life and culture over the centuries (and unfortunately it continues today) but reached its apex with An Gorta Mór.

Not all Irish people suffered in equal degrees from loss of life or anomie, and in the wake of the events of this period, many Irish people fought the effects of despair by adopting a myriad of social and spiritual ideals which informed and gave meaning to their lives. Some became devoutly religious where before they had not; others became English speakers and sought to become more “English”. One of the side effects of An Gorta Mór was the “voluntary deportation” of millions of Irish people, and their relocation in thousands of Irish communities around the world. Millions settled to the United States, became English speakers and Irish-Americans, and created a hybrid subculture uniquely their own.

The Warriors (Na Fíanna)

This hybrid culture enthusiastically followed already existing Irish-American ideals about militantly creating and defending republican democracy’s, making the Irish in America the leaders in the worldwide Irish community (or “Irish Diaspora”), in the movement for Irish independence. These Irish-Americans were militant, often violent, and although many suffered from the effects of anomie, many remedied this by continuing to espouse the traditional ideals of their hereditary Irish, ancestral warriors. Prior to An Gorta Mór, hereditary Irish warriors had been banding together to wage a prolonged war for independence which had its origins as far back as the 1500’s. But in the generations which had followed, much dissention had been created in Irish society, as many agrarian warrior bands had degenerated into family based “Factions”, which fought each other constantly. Determined to never again live as slaves, second-class citizens or a disempowered majority, the Irish as a community, vowed to dismantle the Faction system, unite once and for all, and fight for their rights both through the law and in the streets, in a movement part spiritual, part martial arts and part socio-economic-political, called Fenianism or the Fenian Movement. (Fenianism seems to have always been interpreted by historians as a purely political movement, but my research indicates to me that it was much more). Old Irish culture cultivated in many individuals above average self-defense skills and this, along with a ready willingness to use those skills against continued racial discrimination and ethnocide (for example at the hands of white, Anglo-American hate groups such as the “Know-Nothings”), garnered for the Irish a reputation for violence and fighting. This reputation, and other aspects of Irish warrior culture, came to be personified by both the Irish and the non-Irish alike in the Irish cultural symbol of the Shillelagh, the Irish fighting stick. Reviled by some, cherished by others, the Shillelagh became one of the quintessential symbols of Irishness in the 19th century, and it continues to retain much of this symbolism for people of Irish ancestry, albeit unconsciously.

Today the negative stereotypes associated with the Shillelagh often make it a tabooed topic of discussion for many Irish people, with the result that it remains one of the last icons of Irish culture yet to be seriously studied. My ancestors were Irish-speakers who were forced to lose their language, and my own attempts to overcome what I feel are the continuing effects of this ethnocide and anomie have taken me down a martial arts path which has lead me to the Shillelagh, the symbol of Irish martial arts. Through my martial arts path and writings, I continue to try to further unlock the old Irish cultural beliefs, practises, ideals and culture, for which the Shillelagh was and is, the key to understanding.

© 2002 John W. Hurley

2 Responses to “INTRODUCTION (Réamhrá)”

  1. I don’t understand the point of referring to the anglo-americans as white, anglo-americans. I would think they were pretty much all white, as well as the new coming Irish? Why not just leave the white out? My ancestors were Irish, as well as anglo Irish, and they married each other so they couldn’t have all hated each other.

    • irishstickfighter Says:

      Hi David,
      I guess you mean:

      “(for example at the hands of white, Anglo-American hate groups such as the “Know-Nothings”)”

      Today people assume that the Irish are “white” but racist Anglo-American hate groups like the Know-Nothings, insisted that the Irish were not white, were not even human but were a primate “missing link” between Africans and Europeans. Given that there are still ignorant white hate groups out there the point of calling them white Anglo-American hate groups is just to help people understand that these are the same people/groups that existed in the 19th century. I know that today we consider the Irish white it can be confusing. Incidentally, this belief about the Irish being non-white applied to the Gaelic, Catholic Irish only. The Scots-Irish or Ulster-Scots were considered good Anglo-Saxon white Protestants which may explain the “Irishness” and marriages of your ancestors.
      Take care,


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