A shillelagh also known as an Irish walking stick, is a knotty blackthorn cane with a large, round, and polished knob at the top.
This wooden walking stick has historically been used as a club or cudgel. It has deep rooted associations with Ireland, the fighting Irish, and Irish folklore.
Part of Irish popular culture, it’s used in leprechaun cartoons and sport’s logos. It was also the weapon of choice for an ancient form of Gaelic stick fighting called ‘bataireacht.’
Shillelaghs are sold as souvenirs all over Ireland, and in Irish shops throughout the United States. It is a symbol of Ireland for the Irish diaspora throughout the world.
So let’s explore this famous blackthorn stick and determine if it was a helpful walking aid or a potentially vicious weapon.
What Does a Shillelagh Look Like?
A shillelagh is usually a black stick with a polished wooden knob as a handle at the top.
The length of a shillelagh can vary greatly. Some are between 4 feet and 5 feet and others are the length of a walking stick, measured from the floor to the wrist,which is about 3 feet long.
They also come in the form of short mallets measuring only 12 to 24 inches in length. These would be known as shillelagh bata (pronounced shill-ay-lah bah-ta) and this hammer form of shillelagh is what is usually found in souvenir shops and associated with leprechauns.
Some are taller than a person with long pole shillelaghs ranging from 6 to 9 feet.
They had many uses as a form of protection and as an ancient weapon in Irish martial arts which we’ll explore a little more shortly.
How To Pronounce Shillelagh:
Let’s start with a little pronunciation lesson. Irish words are notoriously difficult to read because the phonetic and written rules of this Celtic language are very different from the rules of English linguistics.
Here is one phonetic pronunciation… Shi-lay-lah. Others pronounce is as shuh-lay-lee.
The g at the end of the word is silent.
This is a Gaelic word that has been transferred to the English language.
Irish Language And Gaelic Names For Shillelagh:
The word we use today, shillelagh is Hiberno-English.
In the Irish language or Gaeilge the word would be sail éille (pronounced shal eh-la) and which means a willow stick with a strap.
‘Sail’ is the Irish word for “willow” or a ‘cudgel” and éille is the genitive case of iall (pronounced eel) which is the word for a strap or a thong.
The other name for this famous stick in Irish Gaelic is maide draighin (pronounced mah-deh dri-hin) which means a blackthorn stick.
In Scottish Gaelic the word is shillelagh which is the form the word takes in English.
How to Spell Shillelagh:
Now writing the word shillelagh presents all kinds of challenges and there are many, many variations of this difficult little word.
Here’s a list of some of the close, and not so close attempts at this word. I’m sure Google gets many requests for information on words somewhere close to the ones on the following list.
No matter how you spell it, this little Irish stick is world famous.
So let’s delve into the history of the shillelagh.
Origins Of The Shillelagh:
This Irish stick finds its origins in a small village in County Wicklow called Shillelagh.
The surrounding area belongs to the Barony of Shillelagh.
This Irish place name comes from the Irish language and means the descendants of Ealach (Siol Éalaigh). Ealach was a 7th century Irish king in Leinster, one of Ireland’s four provinces.
The area was surrounded by large oak forests and the people of Shillelagh made wooden sticks or cudgels.
In 1773 the Oxford English Dictionary explained the word shillelagh as meaning a wooden cudgel.
Shillelaghs In Ancient Irish History and Folklore:
For thousands of years ancient Irish warriors were renowned as stick fighters.
In the first millennium the warrior clans of Shillelagh were so adept at using their cudgel style weapon their name was given to the wooden club.
The blackthorn tree is associated with the fairies in Ireland, especially moon fairies. These magical inhabitants of this thorny tree are not the friendliest toward humans.
It was said that when the moon was full the fairies would leave the blackthorn tree and it was the safest time to pick the fruit or sloes, and to chop the branches of the blackthorn.
Shillelaghs are also associated with leprechauns. They’re notorious for defending their gold with this ancient Irish weapon.
These antique, magical artifacts were supposedly used by leprechauns and were powerful magical conduits. Every leprechaun is said to carry his very own shillelagh.
How Were Shillelaghs Made:
Shillelaghs are handmade cultural treasures from Ireland’s past. But what is a shillelagh stick made of?
The traditional material used for making a shillelagh is the wood of a blackthorn tree.
Originally oak may have been the chosen timber for shillelaghs. Oak became a scarce resource, with the destruction of Ireland’s forests in the 16th century under the direction of Henry VIII of England. Blackthorn was used instead to make these sticks.
The root of the blackthorn was used for the knob of the stick, since it was strong and not prone to cracking.
Skill and knowledge were required to make a durable shillelagh. Curing the wood was required and was achieved by smearing it with whiskey butter and placing it up the chimney. It was left there for months on end. Sometimes the wood for a shillelagh would be cured for years.
Soot accumulated on the outer layer of the wood, giving the shillelagh a glossy black appearance.
Other curing methods involved wrapping the wood in greasy paper and burying it in a dung pile. Brining in salt water was also used as a way to draw moisture from the wood while preventing warping.
Once cured the wood was coated in soot and sealed with oils.
Today the sticks made for the souvenir market are simply painted black with an oil based sealant. This is not the traditional and genuine method of coloring a shillelagh black.
How Was a Shillelagh Used?
The Shillelagh was a walking stick or cane used by Irish people throughout the centuries. However, it doubled up nicely as a weapon.
In the 1600’s the British Government enacted the Penal Laws, a strict legal code that outlawed Catholics from owning weapons. This was one of a host of other laws designed to subdue and control the rowdy Irish, who were not very happy to have been thrown off their land.
Whether a walking stick was needed or not, Irishmen began to carry these Gaelic cudgels for protection. A walking cane that also served as a weapon was a cunning way to work around the English law.
What Was Bataireacht?
Sheillelaghs came to be known as Irish fighting sticks and were an important weapon in the ancient Irish sport of Bataireacht, pronouced bat-ur-ock-th.
This was a traditional form of Irish stick fighting that was extremely popular in 18th and 19th century Ireland.
Shillelaghs of varying sizes and forms were the main weapons used in Bataireacht. Irish gangs or family groups formed factions, and fights were often organized at large gatherings like fairs, markets, weddings and funerals.
The derogatory stereotype of Irish gangs creates an image of unplanned scuffles and riots with drunken Irish men and women clubbing each other with shillelaghs. This image was unhesitatingly portrayed in British publications of the 19th century.
Without a doubt, there were many unplanned squabbles and fights, but it’s important to note that most contests were planned, some even months in advance. Stick fighting was viewed as a sport or martial art in 18th and 19th century Ireland.
Fathers taught their sons the art and skill of stick fencing, and rules were established for these brawls or fights.
The rules of faction fighting or shillelagh fighting were known as Shillelagh Law.
They included guidelines such as only allowing one-on-one combat, ensuring that weapons were evenly matched, and disallowing use of guns.
Women were not to be struck, and there were rules that allowed punching, kicking and wrestling.
Now there’s no guarantee fighters stuck to these rules in the middle of a melée, but they did exist.
Shillelaghs in Irish American Culture:
The Irish brought shillelagh fighting with them to America. Reports of a shillelagh frolic are found in the New York American Newspaper of March 31, 1825 where several hundred sons of Erin gathering for the event.
In 1837 a large scale faction fight broke out in New Orleans.
The Jewelled Shilelagh is a football trophy presented to the winner of the annual USC vs Notre Dame game. They’re not called the Fighting Irish for nothing.
And if you check out the Boston Celtic’s team logo, the green clad leprechaun is leaning on his very own shillelagh.
And there you have it – a review of the importance of the shillelagh in Irish and Irish American history and culture.
Do you own a shillelagh? If so, display it with Irish pride. We’d love to hear about it in the comment section below.
My father has a beautiful blackthorn walking stick which he keeps as a treasured family heirloom.
Thanks so much for stopping by to learn all about the shillelagh, an iconic emblem of Ireland.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
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