It’s hard to read much of the literature of Shillelaghs and Irish stickfighting without coming across the phenomenon of the “Faction Fight”, or the “Fair Fight”.
“Faction Fighting” refers to large organised groups of (usually) young, (usually) men, meeting to participate in a mass stickfighting battle. Sometimes they were described in terms we’d use to describe a local-derby sporting event today, and yet in other descriptions Faction Fighting seemed more like a kind of episodic, low-level gang warfare.
Yet just where these events sat on the spectrum between sporting event, martial arts contest, riot, or actual gang battle is hard to say.
There may be several clues in the types of weapons that turned up at them.
“Faction” fighting refers to the fact that this was an organised fight between (usually) two groups, that themselves would have been well established often with their own traditions and fighting style. These groups might have been linked geographically by town or parish, or a large area might have several groups that fought together (much like how the sports teams in a big enough town start to split out into smaller regional sports teams).
The notion of a “Fair” fight doesn’t so much denote balance or equity , rather the fact that the fights often occurred at town fairs, a rare occasion in Irish rural life when large groups of men from different towns would be in the same place at the same time.
This tradition is described in a range of sources, particularly in the writings of an Irishman named William Carelton, who wrote towards the end of the practice’s popularity, around the turn of the 20th century.
Shillelagh and “Graduated Lethality”
It’s popular today to think of Faction Fighting as closest to a modern semi-combat sporting event, in tone somewhere between stickfighting and paintball.
Certainly shillelagh were popular as a folk weapon because they allowed a certain “graduated” lethality- with the right shillelagh it’s possible to inflict injuries that are painful rather than debilitating, with minimal risk of unintentionally killing an opponent.
This in part is why stickfighting duels were one way to settle matters of honour for rural Irish men in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, among a populace that often had good reason to mistrust the “legal” structures in place at the time. It’s possible to fight reasonably hard with a (moderately weighted) shillelagh with a manageable risk of inflicting or receiving fatal injury. The demands of honour can be satisfied, and both participants can go home to lick their wounds and consider the preferable elements of arbitration next time they should disagree.
There are certainly accounts of faction fights that eventuated as reasonably close to a team sporting event, where neat displays of stickflighting were noted by the participants and onlookers alike and no fatalities occurred.
Writing in the early 19th Century Sir John Barrington writes of seeing faction fighters receive nothing more than the “whacks of the shillelagh – bruises and bumps and usually little more.”
Modern stickfighting enthusiasts might readily identify individual shillelagh by whether they’re suitable for duelling (settling matters of honour without inflicting fatal injury), fair fighting (the same, but with the added requirement that one’s staff be robust enough to survive the rough and tumble of a days’ fighting), or staves that were simply weapons -objects designed to kill or maim (these often being closer to hefty clubs, or shorter truncheons).
Certainly stickfighting culture specified the kinds of sticks appropriate for a faction fight.
Whilst it’s generally agreed leaded staves did make it onto the field from time to time, a well-made leaded staff can be hard to detect without close inspection and so it’s hard to speak with any great certainty as to how often participants’ staves were “loaded”. This is especially the case when we note that until recently most of the recorded historiography of stickfighting was from people outside the tradition, who might not have known how to even recognise a weighted stave by its appearance or handling.
Far more taboo was the use of sticks with “life-enders” – bumps or “knobbies” on the head. These bumps greatly increased the chance of blows causing cuts, broken skull plates, or cranial oedema (which, absent modern medical care was usually fatal). Interestingly we often see these knobs present on first World War trench clubs either organic to the club, or added as metal studs. These were plainly desireable on object designed and intended as a lethal weapon, and taking a shillelagh with these bumps to a faction fight plainly would have communicated one’s intent to do real harm.
Knives were less common at faction fights.
This may have been not so much a case of faction fights having “rules” as knives simply not being much use at a fight where everyone else had a club. The modern knife fighting theorist Michael Janich notes that a knife provides the ability to kill someone, but without training a knife wound is seldom fatal or debilitating quickly. Stab a man holding a heavy club and one is likely to be clubbed to death by an angry stickfighter even if the stabbed man dies shortly after.
As such knives provided little advantage, whilst also clearly marking out the user as intent on murder rather than sport.
Missile weapons were also not unknown.
William Carelton reports the partners of combatants bringing stones either to throw or give to “their men” to throw during faction fights.
“Blacksmith made” firearms are even reported by British constabulary as having been confiscated at fights.
However these were firearms only in the broadest sense, and may have had more in common with flare guns (which themselves were occasionally associated with football violence in the 1980’s and 1990’s) than modern pistols. A muzzle loading blacksmith pistol might well be loaded so lightly as to create noise and pain but again minimal risk of death. For context, as late as 1908 duelling with lightly-loaded gunpowder pistols was actually an Olympic event.
Fair fights were therefore by no means limited to shillelagh, which to the modern eye creates an impression closer to a riot than a sport.
The notion of one choosing to participate in a faction fight like we would today “participate” in a sporting event may be muddy as well. Faction fights often occurred at times when large groups of younger men were around or visiting another town.
As we see in football-related violence in the UK and Europe, often visiting groups of hooligans if unopposed will make a nuisance of themselves in the town until fight is given. This likely created a social obligation for young men to go out and “defend” their town or at least create a fight for their “visitors” to go to, rather than letting them create mischief unopposed.
Viewed in this light the faction fight could begin to look more like football violence without the element of football, rather than some “martial arts”-like expression of a folk fighting style.
We know stickfighting occurred as an organised martial art across Ireland certainly in the 19th century and likely before. Likewise, commentators from that period observed faction fights and appeared to have been impressed by (in at least some cases) the minimal levels of harm inflicted. This was especially notable as these reports come at a time when the (often English) writers’ own cultural curricula would have been better served by telling lurid tales of “the barbarism of rural Irish people” than by making reports of some benign local sporting practice.
Yet the evidence from constabularies serving in Ireland at the time also note many faction fights either were, or became “genuinely” violent. Fatalities were uncommon but not unknown, the use of missiles and firearms suggests violence outside of what we would understand today as sport or martial arts contexts.
So what was Fair fighting? A sport, a riot, or something between the two?
The truth is likely that the types of fights that occurred would have reflected the places and conditions they occurred in, the nature and preferences of the factions, and their relationships to each other.
The cultural framework for Faction Fights was plainly malleable enough to include “actual” fighting, which meant that any given contest might well have devolved into it even if it had started out relatively benignly. It is likely that participants joined a faction fight perhaps knowing the tone with which it would start, but cognizant that it might well become more serious by the end.
What this does tell us is that the fighting art of the shillelagh benefited both from ritualised martial arts combat, formal training and handing-on of knowledge, and unrestrained fighting that would certainly have had no holds barred. Such combat quickly strips away techniques that look good in the dancing hall but don’t fly in battle.
Like many martial arts the tragedy for us as modern enthusiasts may simply be how little of that battle tested art survives to be with us today.