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Fight with Cudgels by Francisco de Goya, circa 1820, resembles a bataireacht brawl   Source: Public Domain

Bataireacht: The Irish Stick Fighting Martial Art Making a Comeback

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Many countries have martial arts that are closely associated with their national identity. Kung-fu and China, Tae Kwon Do and Korea, and Muay Thai and Thailand. Few people would ever associate Ireland with any kind of martial art, but Ireland is actually home to a 500-year-old martial art that is being revived today. It goes by the name bataireacht, meaning ‘stick fighting,’ and it has a fascinating history.

The Origins of Bataireacht

Bataireacht has its origins in the 16th century, although it wasn’t until the 18th century that it really boomed in popularity. Bataireacht is a blend of fencing, boxing, and grappling in which fighters punch, jostle, and strike each other with sticks. A large reason for the rise in its popularity was the occupying British forces. In an attempt to reduce and prevent uprisings and rebellions, the British banned Irish people from carrying weapons. In response, Irish people resorted to protecting themselves using walking sticks which were actually shillelagh. Shillelagh were indeed walking sticks, but they also doubled as clubs, thanks to the large knobs located at the top.

Shillelaghs came in assorted lengths and styles, but they all packed a serious punch during bataireacht (Samuraiantiqueworld / CC BY SA 3.0)

Shillelaghs came in assorted lengths and styles, but they all packed a serious punch during bataireacht (Samuraiantiqueworld / CC BY SA 3.0 )

The martial art of bataireacht wasn’t just used to fight against the occupying British forces either. The British legal system’s mistreatment of Irish people created mistrust in the system. This resulted in many Irishmen settling disputes outside the court system using faction fights involving bataireacht. A regular reason for disputes was the abuse of power by British landlords occupying Irish territory. The men who felt wronged would often fight the people loyal to the landlords.

Bataireacht and Faction Fights

Bataireacht was a wild and deadly martial art that was primarily used in faction fights. These were massive brawls organized by different rival factions bound by family, parish, or geography, which could include hundreds, or even thousands, of men. The brawls were illegal, but that didn’t stop them from happening regularly. They were usually held at festivals or funerals, although this certainly wasn’t the only time they were held. During these brawls, rocks were hurled, shillelagh were swung, and sometimes guns were even fired. It was mainly men who took part, but women would get involved as well, carrying stones in their aprons for the men to throw at each other.

The spirit of so-called Shillelagh Law was to go out and fight and die if necessary in order to protect the reputation of your family or faction. That is quite a cost to pay for something that was only a recreational activity. These brawls were really only filling an entertainment void in rural Ireland. They simply had nothing better to do than beat each other silly with sticks. According to Carolyn Conley from the University of Alabama, an expert on Ireland’s crime in the 1800s, over 40% of murders in Ireland between 1866 and 1892 were linked to these recreational brawls. There is even a plaque still sitting today in the seaside town of Ballyheigue, County Kerry that remembers some 35 people killed in a brawl in 1834.

Of course, calling these brawls recreational is simplifying things just a little bit. People didn’t put their lives on the line for nothing. The brawls were deeply personal. Bataireacht’s popularity boomed from the 17th to 19th centuries for a reason. It was a time when the working class people of Ireland were downtrodden, and swathes of British aristocrats controlled their land. Bataireacht became popular out of widespread necessity. It was about the ability to defend loved ones and their honor. It gave meaning to people’s lives at a time when they really needed it.

By the 20th century, bataireacht had all but died out. This was mainly due to the Great Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s. During that time, over a million Irish people died, and another two million emigrated to avoid starvation. Recreational brawls were the last thing on people’s minds at the time. They simply didn’t have the energy to focus on such trivial things. Even before the famine, bataireacht had declined in popularity and was something that mostly occurred in the poorer regions of the country that still spoke Irish. Those were the regions of the country hardest hit by the famine too, which didn’t help bataireacht’s popularity either.

After the famine, bataireacht continued to decline in popularity. There was a concerted effort in the decades following the famine to eradicate faction fights. Since these fights were the main use for bataireacht, it wasn’t able to recover from the huge impacts of the famine and essentially died out. That was, at least, until the sport was rejuvenated in the last decade and once again boomed in popularity.

Over two million Irish people immigrated to the United States due to destitution, contributing to bataireacht’s decline. An Irishman looks at a poster advertising voyages to New York and resolves to emigrate, Erskine Nicol, circa 1820. (Wellcome Collection / Public Domain)

Over two million Irish people immigrated to the United States due to destitution, contributing to bataireacht’s decline. An Irishman looks at a poster advertising voyages to New York and resolves to emigrate, Erskine Nicol, circa 1820. (Wellcome Collection / Public Domain )

Bataireacht techniques

A large reason for this surge in bataireacht’s popularity is its simplicity and accessibility. Bataireacht is a fast martial art that allows for offense or defense from close quarters. Participants hold their shillelagh in one or both hands and use it to strike their opponents, block incoming attacks, or push their opponent off balance. The techniques used are similar to that of boxing, according to John W. Hurley, author of Shillelagh: The Irish Fighting Stick : “Traditional pugilism (boxing) is the root of our system, so each move is using the body's natural rotation to produce a strike with maximum efficiency” (as cited in O’Connell, 2022).

The strikes used in bataireacht are not long and looping, like those found in other stick-fighting techniques. Instead, they are short and quick, like a jab with the occasional strike that is more powerful. Bataireacht also differentiates itself from other stick-fighting techniques in that it incorporates punches, kicks, and grapples. While sometimes the shillelagh can be used to maintain distance from your opponent, bataireacht also allows for its users to get up close and personal with their opponents.

Bataireacht Brawls, from Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, 1864 (British Library / Public Domain)

Bataireacht Brawls, from Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, 1864 (British Library / Public Domain )

Top image: Fight with Cudgels by Francisco de Goya, circa 1820, resembles a bataireacht brawl   Source: Public Domain

By Mark Brophy

References

19th Century Faction Fighting. n.d. National Museum of Ireland. Available at: https://www.museum.ie/en-IE/Collections-Research/Folklife-Collections/Folklife-Collections-List-(1)/Other/History-of-policing-in-Ireland/History-of-policing-in-Ireland-1814-2014/19th-Century-Faction-Fighting

Moraghan, S. February 15, 2020. Days of the Blackthorn: Faction Fighting and Brutal Activity in Kerry. Irish Examiner. Available at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/arid-30981889.html

O’Connell, R. October 17, 2022. Bataireacht: The Ancient Irish Martial Art Making a Comeback. BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20221016-bataireacht-the-ancient-irish-martial-art-making-a-comeback

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