At various times throughout history, Irish people have followed codes of conduct which governed their behaviour when fighting. In the Irish folk-song “Finnegans’ Wake”, the “no-holds barred” rules governing the Faction Fight which takes place during Tim Finnegans wake, are referred to as “Shillelagh Law”. This phrase always struck me as a perfect description for the fighting code which governed the way Irish martial artists used to fight in the 18th and 19th centuries. In my writings I refer to this code (and the fighting culture which it embodied) as either “the Shillelagh Code” or “Shillelagh Law”. Briefly, the main tenants of this code were:

1.) It must be a fair fight; that is, the Factions must be evenly numbered.

Fighters must be even in weapons, numbers and ability. If it’s 5 to 3, a member of the 5 man Faction will join the opposite Faction, (making it 4 on 4) and fight his own friends to the best of his ability. Doing this upholds the Shillelagh code of honor, by making the fight fair.

2.) Dirty fighting among Factions is to be avoided.

If a stick-fighter gave a cheap shot to an opponent, or if two fighters attacked a single man, this was considered dirty fighting. If caught, a stick-fighter guilty of this could expect to receive a blow from the leader of his own Faction for disgracing and dishonoring his side. The idea was that Shillelagh-fighters cared about the thought of other Factions thinking that they needed to fight unfairly in order to win. Factions with a reputation for dirty fighting were considered unskilled at fighting and cowardly and hence had to resort to cheating to win.

3.) Women could participate in the fighting, but under no circumstances were women to be hit deliberately by men.

Women could throw stones enmasse at enemy Factions and then, usually carrying stones in a sock or purse, strike enemy Faction members on the head by swinging the sock or purse. Men could try and avoid the blows, but they could not parry them or strike back. Sometimes men would wield long Cleithí or Wattle sticks at fairs, and knock down men, women and children in long sweeping motions. But people were not hurt in these actions; they were knocked down either in good-natured fun, or to help clear an area for other Faction members involved in a fight. For example, if an enemy Faction group was retreating, creating a mass of fallen people in their path, hindered their escape. Striking people in the legs in this manner was not considered a breach of Shillelagh Law.

4.) Other than these basic rules, anything goes.

There were many other rules which governed the rituals of Irish Faction Fighting, but these four rules governed how Irish martial artists actually fought.

© 2002 John W. Hurley


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