St. Patrick’s Day is only a couple of weeks off, and one of the things you’ll always find plenty of at that celebration is shillelaghs.
The shillelagh [siúil éille is an old Gaelic word meaning “oak club”] is a wooden cudgel associated with the Shillelagh Forest in County Wicklow, Ireland, famous for its once massive stands of oaks.
As often seen in depictions of leprechauns, shillelaghs appear to be nothing more than Irish walking sticks, and they certainly are that. But consider another Gaelic term for the staff: ‘bata,’ which means ‘fighting stick.’
Both the Scots and the Irish used them this way, especially during the historical era when neither group was legally allowed weapons for self-defense. And at other periods the shillelagh served well for those who simply could not afford a gentleman’s sword. The Scots called their staff a ‘kebbie’ or ‘kebbie stick.’
In addition to being used as a weapon to ward off wild animals, muggers, and thieves, shillelaghs could be brought out to settle disputes—a ‘kebbie-lebbie’ to a Scotsman. Stereotypes of drunken shillelagh-swinging louts have overshadowed the existence of a disciplined martial arts training with the stick.
In his 1790 book, ‘Personal Sketches of His Own Times,’ Sir John Barrington wrote that stickfights were exhibitions of skill….”like sword exercises and did not appear savage. Nobody was disfigured thereby, or rendered fit for a doctor. I never saw a bone broken or a dangerous contusion from what was called ‘whacks’ of a shillelagh (which was never too heavy).”
The preferred material for shillelaghs is oak or blackthorn (‘pear hawthorn’ to us) due the density and hardness of those woods. The blackthorn, in particular, also has longstanding religious connections to staffs. One old legend says St. Joseph’s staff was cut from the same hawthorn tree that produced the Crown of Thorns placed on Jesus’ head at the crucifixion. Another states that the first hawthorn bush grew from the staff of St. Joseph.
The knobby end can be bored out and filled with molten lead, transforming the shillelagh into a ‘loaded stick.’ To keep the wood from splitting during the drying process and to harden it, sticks were often buried in a manure pile, or smeared with butter and placed in the chimney to cure, which gives them their distinctive black patina.
When the Scots-Irish settled in Appalachia, they had very little trouble locating materials for shillelaghs: The forests of the southern and central Appalachians are full of black, northern red, white, chestnut and scarlet oaks, and several species of hawthorn are common throughout the region, including may, pear, fanleaf, cockspur, and rome, all of which grow in woodland thickets at altitudes up to 8,500 feet.
In Appalachia as elsewhere, the fighting stick continues to be a symbol of pride for all Celtic and Gaelic cultures.
The Holy Thorn Ceremony: revival, rivalry and civil religion in Glastonbury, (Presidential Address by Marion Bowman to the Folklore Society, March 2005)
Jamieson’s Dictionary of the Scottish Language, by John Johnstone, John Longmuir, W.P. Nimmo, 1867