One of our most common emails is from Dungeons and Dragons players asking about the history of Shillelagh.
It turns out the game has had a druid spell called “Shillelagh” in its rules for almost 40 years. In the game the spell enables the player to take an ordinary club or quarterstaff (early editions required an oak club) and make it magical for the purposes of hitting immune creatures, and have various bonuses in combat (depending on the edition you play).
So a common question we get is what is a shillelagh, and where did the idea of a magical spiritually-imbued druidic weapon come from?
A shillelagh is a short staff or walking stick with a heavy bulge at one end. The name is thought to either come from the name of a town in Ireland once famous for its oak trees, or from the words for a Willow Staff perhaps as a kind of ironic euphemism (willow staves can make fine walking sticks but are generally not well-suited as clubs).
The idea of a shillelagh being magical might come from two places.
Firstly shillelagh were natural objects. To a druidic or animistic culture every interaction with nature carried spiritual valence. Finding a fine crop of fruit or a rich fishing pool was an interaction between the person (or community) and the ecosystem that produced it, people believed that in a very personal sense, the natural system was intentionally blessing or rewarding them. A perfect shillelagh staff was seen as a similar boon, nature in the form of the tree or forest giving a gift to the finder.
Thus finding a stick that would make (or did make) a great weapon indicated either that the finder had a great spiritual affinity with nature, or that the stick itself had been imbued with that sense of spiritual blessing to the wielder. To a community where natural objects were valued but often didn’t last especially long a shillelagh (that a person might carry the rest of their life) might well have felt like a very concentrated and enduring form of this spiritual blessing.
The shillelagh would naturally have come from many possible tree species, common ancient examples being oak, hazel, gorse (furze) and ivy, and more recently species like blackthorn, acacia, and even rhododendron or rosewood.
Later on, tradition states that shillelagh were made when a young Irishman would plant two oak trees (an important economic crop at a time), one tree that would be used to make his fighting club and one that would make his coffin.
Many modern, urban people took that to mean that at age 14 or thereabouts he would uproot the oak tree and carry it around as a club (as people did with blackthorn plants once Irish Oaks became scarce). In fact an oak tree would be of such a size by that point (and of such a growth form) that this would be impossible. It is more likely the old tradition referred to a young man having a single oak tree that he would make all his shillelaghs from for the rest of his life (which in fact might well also be the tree from which his coffin was made). Again this echoes a very druid-y idea of a special spiritual connection to a certain tree or grove.
Finally in later years shillelagh were used in “Faction Fights” a kind of sporting event that was almost but not quite a riot, in the form of a mass team stickfight . These faction fights would occur on feast or market days, and so became associated (in Ireland’s Christian tradition) with feast days of particular saints. Before too long people could come to make the cultural association between the feast day, the religious figure and the weapon itself.
Modern shillelagh take a range of forms but are very close in execution or intention to the ancient weapons they derive from. They are now mainly used as walking sticks but still harken back to a tradition of arms that reaches back to the bronze age. Part of their beauty remains the same though, they are an object from nature that reminds us that we exist because of the “blessings”of the ecosystems that support us – however remotely we live from them.