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Bataireacht: The Art of Irish Stick-Fighting

By John W. Hurley
Special to The Wild Geese Today

PART 1: THE 'FACTION-FIGHTING' IRISH

Dating its origins exactly, of course, is speculation, but what is certain is that the use of the stick as a weapon seems to have been considered -- by the Irish themselves -- a quintessentially Irish characteristic.

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The origins of the Irish martial art of Irish stick-fighting, colorfully and accurately portrayed in Martin Scorsese's Oscar-nominated film "The Gangs of New York," goes back millennia.

Dating its origins exactly, of course, is speculation, but what is certain is that the use of the stick as a weapon seems to have been considered -- by the Irish themselves -- a quintessentially Irish characteristic. This Irish fondness for the stick as a weapon also belies a cherished cultural preference, rather than a historical necessity, which dates from Ireland's ancient past.

The Gaelic game of hurling, for example, was itself a form of martial arts training before it was tamed (only somewhat!) and standardized into a national sport by the Gaelic Athletic Association. Like the "melee" of the Norman knight, hurling matches were originally meant, in part, to both imbue young warriors with a feeling for combat, and to aid them in their agility with sword and axe weaponry.

"Gangs" Film Shows Rites of Violence

Martin Scorsese's film "The Gangs of New York" has received both commercial success and critical acclaim, along with 10 Oscar nominations. Yet some Irish-American commentators and scholars have criticized it for its manipulations of history.

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With regards to certain details (such as the New York City Draft Riots), it is true that Scorsese took artistic license with places, dates, and events. But without question, the overall content of the movie depicted with remarkable accuracy the sufferings of the Irish immigrants of the 19th century. The film was unabashedly pro-Irish.

Particularly well-portrayed in the film are some of the traditions of Irish faction fighting and how these traditions were transplanted into 19th century America. Both Herbert Asbury (author of the "The Gangs of New York" book that inspired the film) and Martin Scorsese were likely unaware of these traditions, yet their historical existence was documented by Irish author William Carleton in his "Traits And Stories of The Irish Peasantry" and other works. Carleton lived from 1794 to 1869, and grew up near Clogher in County Tyrone. Through his writings, we can examine these traditions and see how accurately they were depicted in the film.

Many accurate details made it into the film. For example, Irish factions always carried a symbol of their gang into battle on a pike. In Carleton's childhood, his faction symbol was a potato stuck on a pike, and this is depicted in the film with the Dead Rabbits carrying their rabbit on a kind of spear.

One of Carleton's faction fighters wielding his "shillelagh."
Brendan Gleeson's character is armed with one kind of the Irish club known as a Sail Eille or "Shillelagh" -- a "thonged cudgel." As Carleton and other Irish writers of his generation show in their stories, Irish faction fighters also used a variety of weapons besides shillelaghs -- everything from scythes, sickles, and flails to swords, brass knuckles, hobnailed boots, and guns. This variation is displayed in "Gangs of New York."

I do wish Scorsese had included more authentic styles of Irish martial arts -- especially the various forms of Irish stick-fighting. But he very clearly delineates the bloody nature of the struggles fought between the Catholic Irish and Protestant Americans in the 19th century. And that, after all, seems to have been his ultimate intention. -- JWH

Fatalities often occurred in hurling matches, just as in the melee, and even at much later dates, such as the 19th century, some of the largest stick-fighting battles on record -- involving whole villages - started out as a kind of hurling match known as a "Scuabin". The various arts of Irish stick-fighting reached their zenith in the first half of the 19th century, when Irish gangs were beginning to dominate New York's streets. These sorts of outbreaks, along with the generally chaotic nature of stick-fighting matches, aided in the demise of popular stick-fighting in Ireland.

Stick-fighting matches usually occurred at fairs and on Pattern (or "Patron") Days, and involved two opposing gangs or "factions." These matches became known as "Faction Fights," and eventually Irish stick-fighting became strongly associated with them.

At first encouraged by English authorities as a way of keeping the Irish divided, faction fighting was eventually outlawed as fatalities at matches increased and the size and political power of the factions grew. They encouraged lawlessness within the already largely lawless "underground" culture of the Gaelic Irish and aided in the empowerment of the network of Irish secret societies that came to dominate the life of the countryside.

In time, An Gorta Mor (The Irish Famine), the influence of the Catholic Church, and the rise of Fenianism (militant Irish republicanism) put an end to large-scale Faction Fighting, as more and more of the agrarian faction groups united and were absorbed into the Fenian organization in the latter half of the 19th century.

Eventually, Irish Faction Fighting was outlawed. The last of the classic Faction Fights is often said to have taken place in 1887. But real stick-fighting faction feuds are known to have continued, even into the 20th century, in parts of Cork, Kerry, and Tipperary. Today there is an unfortunate reemergence of a kind of faction fighting in the almost daily battles in the streets of Ulster.

Perhaps more remarkably, the Irish art of stick-fighting (Bataireacht in Irish) continues to this day in a style passed through generations of a branch of the Doyle family of Newfoundland, Canada. Called Uisce Beatha Bata Rince, the style is now being taught publicly for the first time by Glen Doyle, a well-known Canadian Kung Fu stylist, through his Cead Bua stick fighting club in Toronto.

Part 2: Sorting through theories about origins of Faction Fighting.

John W. Hurley is the author of "Irish Gangs And Stick-Fighting: In The Works Of William Carleton, " and "Shillelagh: The Story of The Irish Stick." He is a researher and practitioner of Irish stick-fighting. For more information on the history of Irish stick-fighting, visit www.JohnWHurley.com.

Buy John's book here: Irish Gangs and Stick Fighting: In the works of William Carleton.

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