History of the Irish blackthorn
The Irish blackthorn stick was originally called the Irish Shillelagh and today's version is the blackthorn walking stick or walking cane. Centuries ago the Shillelagh was the weapon of choice and often called the 'bata' or fighting stick and would have been made from blackthorn, oak, ash or holly. The original 'bata' stick gets its name from the Shillelagh Forest in County Wicklow which was once famous for its abundance of oak trees. The majority of the Shillelagh forest has been cut down and exported to Western Europe for furniture making, sadly there are few oak trees remaining in Ireland.
When used as a weapon the knob on the end of the shillelagh was hollowed out and filled with molten lead, this was referred to as a 'loaded' stick. The purpose of this was to increase the force the stick would have on impact making it a fearsome weapon indeed. However with shillelaghs crafted out of the blackthorn bush this was not necessary as the knob of the stick is actually the root of the bush and it would not have been necessary to load it as the know could pack a mighty wallop. The bark of the blackthorn bush is left on the stick to give added strength and a copper tip is added to the end of the stick for better balance and to protect the blackthorn stick from muddy or wet ground. A minimum of a two year curing and drying process is used to mature the blackthorn stick, originally this would have involved burring the blackthorn stick in a manure pile or smearing the blackthorn stick with fat and placing it up a chimney.
The blackthorn walking stick is not so much considered a symbol of Ireland as such, but more of a badge of honor for those that carried it. Young Irish boys were exposed to the tradition of the bata stick and on coming of age they were presented with their own Irish blackthorn stick which represented the passage into manhood. Traditionally young Irish men practiced the art of bata stick fighting regularly as they needed to keep fit and agile with their techniques. Fathers taught their sons to always hold the bata tightly to the chest and young boys were given lessons by a Maighistir Prionnsa (fencing master) who would teach the young men the finer points of bata stick fighting.
Modern practitioners of Bataireacht or bata stick fighting study the use of the shillelagh or blackthorn stick for self defense and as a martial art worldwide. Of the practice, researcher J. W. Hurley writes: Methods of Shillelagh fighting have evolved over a period of thousands of years, from the spear, staff, axe and sword fighting of the Irish. There is evidence which suggests that the use of Irish stick weapons may have evolved in a progression from a reliance on long spears and wattles, to shorter spears and wattles, to the shillelagh, alpeen, blackthorn (walking-stick) and short cudgel.
Links to youtube Irish stick fighting:
By the 19th century Irish Shillelagh-fighting had evolved into a practice which involved the use of three basic types of weapons, sticks which were long, medium or short in length. Irishmen carried their shillelagh most everywhere they went, it was at events such as a fair, a wake, a wedding or a feast day celebration that the weapon was most likely to be needed. Bata fighting was also known as faction fighting and up until the great famine of the 1840's faction fighting was always present at most social gatherings. Factions were mostly territorial gangs, political groups or most often groups of family members. Faction fighting was fearsome and the fights would consist of hundreds of men; women would also participate in the fighting by wielding a stocking filled with stones gathered from the ground. After the 1840's fraction fighting gradually became extinct the last one recorded historically was in Co. Tipperary in 1887.
Bata stick fighting was not always of the faction variety. Some were sporting events, while others were provoked just for fun and provided entertainment to onlookers. These were friendly fights which sometimes ended up a little rough, although it was rare for a participant would become seriously injured in participating.