The Old World in the New
Maker attributed to Michael Casey, c.1850
Gift of Veronica (Sally) & Demi McGinley
A shillelagh (pronounced shi-LAY-lee) is sometimes a walking stick, but it is always also a club. When needs arose, a whack from the knob end could pack quite a punch! Shillelaghs have a history in Ireland going back hundreds of years. Receiving one was part of a young man’s transition into adulthood and he would continue to carry it as part of being a man. Male immigrants leaving Ireland often brought their shillelaghs with them to America. Like the shamrock, the shillelagh has become closely associated with Ireland and Irish-American identity. This one, made and owned by Michael Casey, is a reminder of the many immigrant groups that settled in the Blue Mounds area.
Michael Casey, like scores of other Irish immigrants, brought his shillelagh with him when he left Ireland. A shillelagh (pronounced shi-LAY-lee) is a type of walking stick and club particular to Ireland. Generally ranging from between three to four feet in length, shillelaghs are also sometimes called “knob-sticks” because of the large bulbous head on one end. Throughout their history, shillelaghs have variously been symbols of manhood, used in depictions to mock the Irish, and as emblems of Irish pride.
This specific shillelagh was made by Michael Casey himself, probably around 1850. To make it, Casey would have cut a section of the trunk with a limb extending from it from a blackthorn bush. Blackthorn is a species of European bush noteworthy for long, sharp thorns. The blackthorn limb formed the length of the cane, whereas the trunk became the knob at the top. Casey would have carved the section of trunk to make in rounded and comfortable to hold in the hand. To finish the shillelagh, Casey would have either smeared it with butter and hung it in a chimney, or buried it in a pile of manure for several weeks. These processes both serve to cure and strengthen the bark of the cane, which gives the shillelagh its characteristic black color. That Michael Casey left the thorns on the cane’s shaft suggests that he primarily used it as a walking stick. A shillelagh meant to be used as a weapon generally has these thorns cut off so that its user can wield it comfortably by the shaft.
The history of shillelaghs in Ireland spans several centuries, but they are poorly explained in much of the historical record. Use of clubs in Ireland appear in art and the literature at least as early as the seventh century. Whether these clubs are related to the traditions surrounding shillelaghs is unclear. The absence of shillelaghs in historical documents likely stems from their use primarily by members of the lower classes. Shillelaghs begin to appear frequently in historical sources during the late eighteenth century while Ireland was under British rule. During this time period and continuing through the nineteenth century, there are reports of shillelaghs being used in “factional fighting”. These fights occurred between gang-like groups or factions and often occurred at fairs and other social gatherings. These fights probably were somewhat recreational in nature, following certain rules and allowing participants the opportunity to demonstrate their skills. In this regard, shillelagh fights bear a resemblance to other combat sports, such as boxing. In any case, British authorities suppressed the practice and it gradually declined by the start of the twentieth century, with the last major fight taking place in Carrickmacross, Ireland in 1929.
Shillelaghs have taken on different symbolic meanings depending on place and time. In Ireland, itself, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, shillelaghs were given from fathers to sons as a rite of passage to manhood. The importance of the shillelagh is apparent by the way in which they retained the form of the club even when that was no longer their primary purpose. With the increase in immigration from Ireland to England and America as a result of the Potato Famine in the mid-nineteenth century, shillelaghs took on a negative connotation. Anti-Irish sentiment ran high in both countries. Exacerbated by religious differences, the English and Anglo-Americans stereotyped the Irish as backwards, belligerent people. Newspapers frequently printed caricatures of Irish men as drunk and wielding a shillelagh. As Irish immigrants gained stature within American society, they reclaimed the shillelagh as a positive symbol of Irish identity. Today it stands among shamrocks and Saint Patrick as emblems of Irish heritage and pride.
Hurley, John W. Shillelagh: The Irish Fighting Stick. Pipersville, PA: Caravat Press, 2007. https://books.google.com/books?id=ZrFMHmsMmWAC&dq=bata+fighting&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Kavanagh, Peter. “The Shillelagh: A Weapon of Honor.” American Mercury, May 1951. http://www.unz.org/Pub/AmMercury-1951may-00525?View=PDF