There are a range of opinions on the origin of the term “Shillelagh”. Some believe it refers to the Irish words sail éille which refers to a willow staff with a cord about the wrist. This is possible, although of the options, willow naturally tends not to grow in a way that makes good shillelagh, unless the user has very large hands.
Others believe “Shillelagh” comes from the name of various places (such as Síol Éiligh town in County Wicklow) that were at one time or other famous for the production of wood, or oak forests (or both).
Historical Plaque in “Shillelagh”, County Wicklow, Ireland
Whatever the truth is, we know the term Shillelagh came into use around 1670 and was a general term for a stick, club or cudgel used for as a weapon, walking stick and good luck charm (although we’ll come that shortly).
For modern shillelagh enthusiasts looking to name different kinds of shillelagh it’s better to think of “types” of shillelagh in functional or descriptive terms. These wouldn’t be distinctions our historical forebears would necessarily have had one-word names for, but they’re certainly distinctions that would have been meaningful to them.
It’s also important to remember that in rural Ireland (or Scotland) of the 1600s there probably wasn’t a great need to name the types of shillelagh that might have existed. If you wanted to describe Pat O’Leary’s shillelagh, you just called it “Pat O’Leary’s Shillelagh” since Pat had probably been your neighbour his whole life and had probably carried the same shillelagh for most of that time.
Types by Function
The first distinction we can make about shillelagh would have been by function, in the sense of what they were primarily designed to do.
Duelling shillelagh were shillelagh adapted primarily for one-on-one fighting. For this task you could afford a slightly lighter shaft which allowed a little more speed on defense, and allowed you to use that speed to give your opponent occasional “discouraging” dings, or try to disarm him by swift strikes to the hand. We see this sort of form factor contemporarily in rattan sticks used by modern Southeast Asian stick fighters for competition, or in fighting canes used in India towards the start of last century.
Unlike rattan canes, a duelling shillelagh could still carry a reasonably heavy head, meaning it had the advantages of a light cane for speed and “cut and thrust” but could still deliver a solid whack if required.
This led to this style of shillelagh being adopted as a gentleman’s accessory by military officers who had usually (in the 17-1800s) been trained in some form of sword play which could be applied with a shillelagh of the right proportions.
Another advantage for lighter-shafted shillelagh was the fact that a “duel” with one wasn’t necessarily a lethal encounter. In rural Ireland you might very well want to settle your differences with Pat O’Leary on the weekend without being hung the next week for murdering him.
“Fair fighting” or “faction fighting” referred to a practice whereby groups of young men from one area would visit other areas (usually during a fair) and participate in semi-organised group stick fights. Interestingly, similar team fighting events existed as far afield as Italy, Russsia and India, so the practice was by no means solely Irish.
A shillelagh adapted to this purpose would be of a heavier, thicker, shaft both to survive an afternoon’s melee, and to be able to make any given strike count (since in the scrum there was no point wearing an opponent down by repeated blows since you might not ever face him for more than a few seconds.
At these, it was considered very bad form to have a weighted shillelagh, but that’s not to say it didn’t happen.
Defensive Shillelagh / Poacher’s Sticks / “Others”
It would be hard to believe that no one ever adapted shillelagh to the task of killing. Shillelagh ultimately came from the club, or cudgel, and it’s hard to think that no one ever had a shillelagh that was meant to be used as a weapon intended to do genuine harm against their fellow men.
Suffice it, these were likely heavier, and probably shorter than other shillelagh for the nasty business of close-in fighting. We think of Japanese samurai, who carried a short and a long sword, historical records seem to indicate in most non-battlefield homicides it was the shorter weapon that was drawn and used. Likewise in trench warfare from last century we see many daggers, coshes and cudgels, but few swords or “full-length” clubs.
One feature that often marked the distinction was whether knobs or bumps were left on the head of the shillelagh. A smooth-headed shilelagh made a more comfortable walking stick and was more likely to deliver a survivable concussion as a sporting or duelling weapon. A head with a small bump or knob on it was more likely to break the skull itself and cause immediate death or death by cerebral edema. Bringing a shillelagh with “skull breakers” to a faction fight was the equivalent of bringing a real rifle to a paintball field.
Poachers sticks refer to a kind of shillelagh, usually heavily weighted but longer for use as a cross country walking stick. Whether these really did turn up on the hands of poachers is hard to say but the literature refers to them in passing, and we can think of a longer, cross country walking stick weighted heavily, and intended for nefarious purposes.
As time wore on, an increasingly urbanised populace took to carrying progressively lighter and lighter canes and walking sticks. Here the handsome form of a shillelagh meant that what was otherwise something that would have been culturally denigrated (we think of a traditional weapon from a rural and historically “othered” ethnic group) was adopted broadly by an urban population throughout the United Kingdom.
Canes wind up being light, slim, very straight shillelagh, suited to easy carry. However shillelagh style canes tended to retain enough thickness to be useful in the hands of those trained in european fencing, savate, or Japanese arts (often taught as “Bartitsu” after the fiercely-moustachioed E.W. Barton-Wright who popularised them).
Types by Head
As modern enthusiasts we can think of shillelagh also by the shape of the head. What most people think of as Shillelagh had either fully rounded heads or half round heads depending on the growth form of the plant they were taken from.
However other forms did and do exist.
One thing to remember is our Irish ancestors were in some ways a lot less particular than a modern collector. Especially for defensive shillelagh (which were only to come out with lethal intent) any head would do, the knobblier and more irregular the better.
Many modern collectors ignore shillelagh that despite (or because of) their irregular appearance probably have more blood and history on them than the smooth saville-row walking sticks we prefer today.
In addition to the well known round heads, New England shilelagh appeared in the United States after the mid 1800s. These shillelagh had heads that almost resembled conventional canes, but were more “T” shaped with a little of the handle protruding forward (to be gripped by pointer and middle finger) and a little protruding back (to be gripped by ring a pinky finger).
New England Style Shilelleagh
Eventually this form grew even more cane-like and now New England shillelagh can look very like conventional canes but for a notable large, thick handle (occasionally filled with lead).
The “Claymore” style of shillelagh (popularised by the Claymore workshop) is probably not new (with a 400 year history its unlikely there is much new under the sun) and refers to a shillelagh where the bulb of the head projects forward over the shaft. This serves several purposes, partly making the shillelagh easier to carry as a walking stick (as it can be lofted by the first two fingers of the hand and tends to fall back into the hand when lifted). The forward-projecting head also acts as a hand guard when gripped in a sword-style grip. This both protects the bones of the hand and gives extra leverage for faster movements.
“Claymore” Style Shilellagh.
Finally, some shillelagh simply didn’t have a distinct head at all, rather the weight at the top comes from a shaft that rapidly thickens towards one end (in some cases creating enough room to carry a certain amount of lead shot). These were hard to find, coming from slow-growing trees that grew in low or poorly lit conditions.
Another way to think about a typology of shillelagh is by the type of wood used.
There are several traditional woods for shillelagh. Blackthorn or oak come to mind first for many collectors. Hazel was used in the United Kingdom for walking sticks, and can be coppiced to produce good “heads” for shillelagh though there is no evidence that this was popular in Ireland for the making of shillelagh.
Gorse was also a very traditional wood (although extremely hard to find straight-growing examples , gorse wood is extremely durable and makes excellent fair-fighting staves).
Willow, Ivy, Hawthorn, Alder, Ash and Birch tend not to produce a lot of good Shillelagh-proportioned staves but can be used on the rare occasions they do.
Modern exotic woods such a Rhododendron, Acacia and Maple also make handsome staves (noting that rhododendron sap is poisonous and must be treated with care). Acacia especially tends to produce nicely proportioned shillelagh staves.
You’ve probably seen “Lucky Charm” style shillelaghs, a thin shaft attached to a round section of wood where a trunk has been sectioned.
There’s no historical evidence for a folk belief around these as “lucky charms” and what follows is speculation as to how these came to be identified as a cultural artifact.
Part of conditioning a shillelagh is drying. Historically one way to condition shillelagh was to hang them in the flue of a chimney or over a fireplace. Some writers believe this effected various changes to the wood to harden or lighten it. Some writers talk of the process converting wood to a material “like modern carbon-fibre”.
If this latter belief is the case it’s not a phenomenon explored outside the lore of shillelagh-making, so this may simply be a folk belief among modern enthusiasts.
If we imagine a time when Ireland was being administered by an occupying military (as happened from time to time), if someone asked the householder why they had a lump of wood with a big knot on the end hanging over the mantelpiece they had some explaining to do.
Rather than tell the local bailiff that they were conditioning a traditional weapon that their village had been practicing with for 400 years, it seems likely that a householder would simply explain it away;
“Oh” they’d say, eyes twinkling;
“Those are just good luck”.