The whacks of a Shillelagh

Posted by Dave Tabler | February 20, 2015

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.

shillelagh fighting sticksIn 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)
online at:
Jamieson’s Dictionary of the Scottish Language, by John Johnstone, John Longmuir, W.P. Nimmo, 1867


2 Responses

  • R.Harlan Foster says:

    Is it proper to decorate a Shillelagh? Does decorating them with runes change their names, if so what? If decorating them is okay should I use Irish runes or can I use Welsh runes?

  • Cal says:

    You should use whatever you want as it is your stick, you could even use Norse runes or Arabic, Scots runes, Irish runes… all are valid

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The Definitive ‘Appalachian Novel’ Celebrates Its Diamond Anniversary

Posted by Dave Tabler | February 19, 2015

ted olsonPlease welcome guest author Ted Olson. Based in Johnson City, TN, Olson has edited a collection of James Still’s poetry and another of his short stories as well as two anthologies of scholarly writings about Still. Olson, the author of two books featuring his own poetry, has received three Grammy Award nominations for his work as a music historian.


Seventy-five years ago this month the definitive ‘Appalachian’ novel was published—James Still’s River of Earth. ‘Appalachian’ literature did not exist then. Still and his novel essentially spawned the phenomenon of people writing consciously and reflexively about Appalachia, a storied if misunderstood American region.

To be sure, earlier authors—Mary Noailles Murfree, John Fox Jr., and Horace Kephart, among others—had written about the region, but their works tended to view it through romanticized or stereotyped lenses. Still’s contemporaries in Depression-Era Appalachia—Jesse Stuart and Don West spring to mind—broke new ground toward fostering deepened understanding of that time and place.

But it was Still who by force of his published writings, personality, and mentoring roles convinced young writers emerging in Appalachia, from the 1960s forward, to observe the region unapologetically, yet compassionately. He demonstrated how to see Appalachia objectively while imaginatively recreating regional life in vivid literary works.

River of Earth

First published by Viking Press in February 1940, River of Earth excited many literary critics who had no discernible connection to Appalachia. They were enthralled by the poetical prose in the novel and by the author’s evocation of eastern Kentuckians’ everyday lives—people who refused to define themselves as disadvantaged despite the hard times they endured.

Still, critics recognized, took chances in writing his novel. Using dialect in writing is risky, but Still did so with a vengeance, crafting a literary approximation of Appalachian regional speech that was simultaneously earthy and graceful, literal and richly metaphorical. And he created his novel by weaving together nearly a dozen previously published short stories, and by all accounts he succeeded in crafting a seamless larger work that was greater than the sum of its parts.

River of Earth was not intended as ‘Appalachian’ or ‘regional’ literature. In fact, Viking Press thought it entirely possible that the novel might become a national bestseller like another Viking novel published the year before, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. That did not happen. In the early 1940s the U.S. was recovering from its recent economic collapse and was bracing to confront another world war, and Still’s novel must have seemed to many readers at the time as reflecting the concerns of an earlier era.

While not commanding a lasting national readership, River of Earth flourished for 75 years, influential to those who sought it out but not beholden to any literary school. The novel may not have received the Hollywood treatment, but it never fell out of print.

Still (1906–2001) has cast a long shadow. A diverse canon of ‘Appalachian’ literature has emerged in recent decades, and many authors, including Lee Smith, Ron Rash and Silas House, have acknowledged River of Earth as the book that inspired them to write about their home region. Some writers from outside Appalachia, such as Wendell Berry, have similarly cited Still as a formative influence.

Still, were he here today, would undoubtedly not claim credit for founding a regional literary movement. He dearly loved the region to which he moved when a young college student (after growing up in Alabama). Yet, Still often told interviewers and friends that he thought of himself as a Southern writer and that he yearned to be considered in the company of William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Flannery O’Connor.

James Still in 1938. The John Jacob Niles Photographic Collection, University of Kentucky

James Still in 1938. The John Jacob Niles Photographic Collection, University of Kentucky

Before enlisting in the military during World War II, Still published three critically acclaimed books with Viking Press, and he published poems and short stories in leading periodicals. He was a national literary figure who preferred working at the Hindman Settlement School in eastern Kentucky to participating in the New York City literary scene. Letting his work speak for itself, though, eventually resulted in people forgetting about him.

Fortuitously, beginning in the 1970s, three Kentucky-based publishers—the University Press of Kentucky, Gnomon Press, and Berea College Press—issued new editions of his writings, including River of Earth. Because of their efforts and the timeless power of the literary works they disseminated to new generations, many younger writers, within Appalachia and increasingly outside the region, aspire today to be considered, someday, in the company of James Still.

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The madstone would stick to the wound and draw the poison out

Posted by Dave Tabler | February 18, 2015

Right up till the early years of the 20th century, a bite from a rabid animal could strike terror in the hearts of Appalachian residents. Rabies slowly destroys the nervous system. It finally attacks the spinal cord and its victim may froth at the mouth, scream and fight. Before Louis Pasteur developed a successful vaccination in 1885, death from rabies was a forgone conclusion, unless a madstone could be obtained. This trusted folk medicine gets its name from the delirious behavior caused by hydrophobia, a condition produced by the rabies virus.

rabid dog“The mad-stone? People believe it will cure snakebites and hydrophobia,” hunter Ben Lester told the authors of ‘The Heart of the Alleghanies’ in 1883. “Here’s one. It was found in the paunch of a white deer I shot this fall was a year ago; and, mind you, the deer with a mad-stone in him is twice as hard to kill as one of ordinary kind. Five bullets were put in the buck that carried this one.”

Ben Lester’s madstone, “smooth and red, as large as a man’s thumb, and with one flat, white side,” was technically a calculus, a stone-like object sometimes found in the stomach of animals who chew their cud.

According to beliefs surrounding this folk medicine, a madstone from a brown deer will work in a bind if another cannot be found. A better grade of madstone comes from a white or spotted deer. The very best madstone comes from an albino or witch deer.

To treat someone bitten by a rabid animal you’d boil the madstone in sweet milk and then, while it was still hot, apply the stone to the wound, states Douglas Mahnkey in ‘Hill and Holler Stories.’

“If the dog was actually mad, the stone stuck to the wound and would draw the ‘pizen’ out,” he continues. “Once the stone was filled with the poison it would drop off, and it was again boiled in sweet milk and applied to the wound. The milk would turn green. This process was repeated until the stone no longer adhered to the wound.”

Madstones have always been greatly prized by anyone fortunate enough to come into possession of one, and would be handed down in the same family for generations. Before Pasteur’s immunization came to North Carolina in 1915, some owners charged up to $100 for lending a madstone, or required a $1,000 bond to guarantee its return.

And in North Georgia “Faith Cochran advertised his madstone every week in the county paper. People came from as far away as Alabama to be treated,” according to Floyd C. Watkins and Charles Hubert Watkins in ‘Yesterday in the Hills,’ a portrait of farm life in Cherokee County at the turn of the twentieth century.

madstonesThe Mad Stones of Vacherie [LA] featured in “Dixie Roto Magazine” June 19, 1949. The NC Museum of History has a madstone in its collection (no photo available, sorry!) whose catalog description reads: “Light brown trapezoidal stone; ‘R.L. Steel/1829′ scratched into 1 end of stone; ‘809’ scratched into other end; small black leather pouch.”

“It looked like a worn creek rock about the size of a partridge egg with a chip broken off one end. Faith dipped the stone in milk and stuck it to the wound. After it had sucked out the poison, it dropped off the wound.”

Worn creek rock? What happened to white deer calculi? Dr. Thomas M. Owen, Director of the Department of Archives and History of the State of Alabama, in a letter dated September 22, 1917, wrote:

“Some of these stones are reputed to have been taken from the stomach of a deer, but they were in fact nothing more than native rock, worn smooth, and which, because of their porosity, were capable when heated of drawing out or absorbing liquids.”

We know today that rabies is caused by a virus that is usually spread through contact with an infected animal’s saliva. Whether madstones were made from deer stomach calculi or rock, was their ability to absorb quickly and efficiently the real issue, was it a chemical reaction (the tight bonding of the madstone to the wound and the milk), or some combination of both?

“Yesterday in the Hills,” by Floyd C. Watkins, Charles Hubert Watkins, Quadrangle Books, 1963
“The Heart of the Alleghanies, or Western North Carolina,” by Floyd C. Watkins, Calvin S. Brown, A. Williams & Co., 1883
“Hill and Holler Stories,” by Douglas Mahnkey, S of D Press, School of the Ozarks, 1975

One Response

  • Byron Ballard says:

    I’m doing a book tour and in a discussion yesterday someone mentioned madstones. I had heard about them as a child but they were never explained to me. I’m grateful to see this!

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The Waldensians in North Carolina

Posted by Dave Tabler | February 17, 2015

The largest Waldensian colony in the world outside of Italy–Valdese, NC–was officially incorporated as a town on February 17, 1920.

The Waldenses, or Waldensians, are a Christian sect founded in the 12th century by Peter Valdo (hence Valdese = Waldensian), a merchant of Lyons, France who lived only a short time before St. Francis. For many years the group was confined to a rugged area in the Cottian Alps along the boundary between Italy and France. King Louis XIV was determined not to let Protestant beliefs seep into Catholic-driven France and persecuted the Waldensians mercilessly.

Not until the Edict of 1848 did the sect finally receive freedom to worship as they wished. Toward the later part of the 19th century many Waldenses emigrated to North and South America to form missionary colonies—no longer because of religious persecution but because their small strip of land in the Alps had become overcrowded.

They migrated to New York City, Chicago, Missouri, Texas and Utah, as well as Valdese, NC, in Burke County between the towns of Morganton and Hickory. The Valdese colony became the largest Waldensian colony in the world located outside of Italy. After crossing the Atlantic on the Dutch ship Zaandam, the original Valdese settlers arrived via train on the Salisbury-Asheville line of the Southern Railway on May 29, 1893. Eleven families formed the first group, led by Reverend Charles Albert Tron, a pastor and philanthropist. Rev. Tron did not come to settle, however, but to lead the immigrants and help launch their enterprise.

Valdese NC settlersInitially the settlers tried to make their living off the land as they had in Italy, but the poor soil would not produce. They turned instead to manufacturing. In June, organizers led by Rev. Tron formed the Valdese Corporation, including Waldenses and American investors, and purchased 10,000 acres of land. Due to the undesirable layout of the land and the independent nature of the Waldenses, the corporation was an unpopular arrangement. It was dissolved the following year when the Rev. Barthelemy Soulier arrived in Valdese to replace the leadership lost when Tron returned to Italy to recruit more colonists.

In 1895 the Waldensian Church in Valdese united with the Presbyterian Church, which shared similar structure and theology. The Waldensian Hosiery Mill was established in 1901 and the yarn factory, Valdese Manufacturing Company, in 1913. Valdese became a hub of the American textile industry. The town’s first mayor, John Long, was also the groom in the first Waldensian wedding in Valdese.

Since 1967 an outdoor drama, From this Day Forward, has been performed each summer by Valdese’s Old Colony Players. The saga features authentic costumes and folk dances that highlight the heritage of North Carolina’s Waldensian settlers.



Phifer Jr., Edward W. , Burke: The History of a North Carolina County (1982). Print.

5 Responses

  • kathy says:

    i loved studying the history of the waldenses. initially, i had been told that the waldenses had been hunted and murdered down to the last man, woman and child and consequently, the group did not exist anymore. i was very upset and cried bitter tears, but this was many years ago. i was estatic when i found out that the waldensians has actually survived the persecutions in the alps some had fled to north america. i had hoped to study you more, however, i was very sorry to read you had merged with the presbyterians because their religious beliefs were similar. for me, that was a sad momemt. originally, you guys were so very pure! as you know, today there are many groups that worship on the 7th Sabbath. i worship with Sabbatarians and am anxious to visit the cogic sabbatarians (church of God in Christ).

    be safe in your quest to teach the world His message – we must be faithful in our responsibilities to God through the Son Jesus.

  • kathy says:

    sorry, i meant to say “as you know, today, there are many groups that worship on the 7th day Sabbath.

  • John Barnette says:

    Spent two days in this city, i will be back. Protestants owe everything to this great people!Keep the faith.

  • John from Argyle,TX says:

    We are planning to visit the Waldensian Museum there.
    Their trials in their native Italy are very stirring. Makes you hate French King Louie XIV.

  • Phil Howerton says:

    My uncle wants to know who started the Mill and who owned it in the 1940s. “I would like to add to the account the relation that Papa had with the owner of the Waldesian Hosiery Mill and the Valdesian yarn mill. What was his name?”

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Happy Presidents Day

Posted by Dave Tabler | February 16, 2015


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