MODERN SHILLELAGH TRAINING (Cleachtadh Sail-Éílle Nua-aimseartha)

I get many questions from readers about the state of modern Irish stick-fighting. People who are new to the whole concept often want to know more about modern practitioners. Many people write looking for ways to learn shillelagh fighting today, and it can be a bit confusing to figure out what this is all about. Given the many frauds found in Asian martial arts some write asking if this is even legitimate or for real. Those interested in training in Irish stick-fighting today have several options open to them depending on what it is they are trying to achieve, and their philosophies about reaching these goals. Most of the people who contact me are coming from another martial art and are really looking to compliment their training with something that is a part of their Irish heritage.

Modern Source Materials

It would be great if we had at our disposal a definitive guide written by an authentic Irish stick-fighter of the past which could explain the history and techniques of Shillelagh fighting. While this does not exist per se (to my knowledge) we are very fortunate in that some written instructional material has in fact survived. Through these it is relatively easy to get started in Irish stick-fighting on your own. Today there are four main sources for learning the techniques of what I refer to as “classic shillelagh” and both groups of practitioners which I discussed above avail themselves of these surviving materials:

Traits and Stories of The Irish Peasantry, by William Carleton (1830);

Defensive Exercises, by Donald Walker (1840);

Broad-Sword and Single-Stick, by R.G. Allanson-Winn (1890);

The Irish Faction Fighters Of The 19th Century, by Patrick O’Donnell (1975).

The second and third books are instructional manuals with minimal information on the shillelagh. But what information does exist in these books, is enough to really help us understand the basics of how the techniques were performed when read in conjunction with Carleton, O’Donnell and the literally dozens of other writings on 19th century Ireland related to shillelagh fighting. Classic shillelagh fighting is not all that different from single-stick and yet it seems to incorporate elements from quarterstaff fighting as well.

I have concentrated my own work on researching Irish stick-fighting and translating this work into books for the modern reader. My book Irish Gangs and Stick-fighting, condences all of the stick-fighting material in the works of William Carleton into a shorter book with a martial arts introduction, an extra story not in Traits, and it includes a large glossary explaining the many terms in the stories which modern readers would not be able to understand. My second book Shillelagh: The Irish Fighting Stick, analyzes the information from all of these (and many other) sources, and instructs the reader in the history of Irish stick-fighting and the basics of the three main styles of classic shillelagh fighting.


Shillelagh E-list

The list was created to help facilitate learning about Irish stick-fighting and an Irish martial arts path. Anyone wishing to join the list can apply here:

Shillelagh e-list

You can also send me a brief e-mail with your name and a sentence or two about why you would like to join and I can send you an invite e-mail to join.

Cead Bua Fighting Arts/Doyle Family Bataireacht

People of Irish birth or 2nd or 3rd generation extraction, who grow up in some kind of Irish cultural setting, who are aware of the existence of the Shillelagh and the arts of Irish stick-fighting, and have either heard of them, researched them or actually experienced them directly, I refer to as “Hereditaries”. Within this group there are people who assume that shillelagh techniques have died out and there are also people who have actually been trained in shillelagh fighting. Using traditional methods, either type might train in the Gaelic game of Hurling (the inheritor of the “sport” of Faction Fighting) to hone the physical skills used in traditional Irish combat with sword, axe, spear and stick. They may have trained in Classical fencing, studying sabre techniques which can be translated into the Bata Pionsa style. Whether this training was done as conscious training for the Shillelagh really is not important; with the hindsight of history, it is apparent that Irish stick-fighting traditions have survived in a myriad of ways from within Irish culture. Why this has been forgotten by some is discussed elsewhere on this web site. Understanding the continued existence of shillelagh fighting is often a matter of simply being made aware of the fact that actual techniques have survived, because the shillelagh culture itself – weaponry, attitudes, songs – has survived. As a result, there are thousands of Irish people participating in this “residue” of Shillelagh Culture, who are not always fully conscious of the fact that that is what they are actually doing. They may have heard of the Shillelagh, but have assumed that any systematic techniques of its use have died out long ago. Yet the Hereditary Irish stick-fighter has been imbued from birth with a kind of cultural affinity for fighting and for the shillelagh stick (you know who you are!) and once the various strands of knowledge discussed above come together, an epiphany takes place connecting fighting, hurling, fencing, etc., with the traditons of Irish stick-fighting. The ultimate goal of this first kind of Hereditary is then usually to find a teacher who is also an hereditary Irish stick-fighter to instruct them.

Then again, many Hereditaries have been made aware from a very early age about the traditions and techniques of Shillelagh fighting. There are actually many families with hereditary lore which imparts some actual shillelagh technique. But the only full-time traditional teacher of an unbroken line of Irish stick-fighting that I am currently aware of is Newfoundland’s Glen Doyle, a highly skilled and accredited martial artist. Glen’s hereditary family style was brought to Newfoundland by his paternal grandfather and is called Rince an Bhata Uisce Beatha (Dance of the Whiskey Stick) and you can read extensively about its techniques on Glen’s excellent website by clicking on the link above.

© 2003 John W. Hurley


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