Bataireacht

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Bataireacht (from the Irish bata, meaning stick) is the term used in Irish martial arts traditionally applied to various forms of Irish stick fighting. Today the word bataireacht is being used among both Irish and English language speakers to distinguish between traditional and non-traditional stick-fighting styles.

Bataireacht is a term used to describe the various stickfighting martial arts of Ireland. The term is found in most large format Irish language dictionaries – such as those published by An Gum and by Dineen.[1] Researcher and author John W. Hurley attributes the reintroduction of the term into modern usage among English speaking practitioners of Irish stick-fighting to his works, as these are where the term first appeared in modern popular culture before being popularized.[citation needed]

“Bata” (or “bhata” depending upon context), is a general term which can mean any kind of stick. The actual bata or stick used for bataireacht is often referred to as a “Sail-Éille” or phonetically in English as “shillelagh”. The word “cudgel” is also used in period texts. Traditionally, blackthorn, oak, ash and hazel were the most common types of woods used to make shillelagh fighting sticks.[2] In the 19th century bataireacht became associated with Irish gang or “faction” fighting. Some evidence exists which indicates that, prior to the 19th Century, the term had been used to refer to a form of stick-fencing used to train Irish soldiers in broadsword and sabre techniques.[3]

The Irish have used various sticks and cudgels as weapons of self-defense for centuries.[4]

Since ancient times, the arts of stick fighting had been handed down from fathers to sons or learned in traditional military fencing schools.[5]

The traditional Irish shillelagh is still identified with popular Irish culture to this day, although the arts of bataireacht are much less so. The sticks used for bataireacht are not of a standardised size, as there are various styles of bataireacht, using various kinds of sticks.

By the 18th century bataireacht became increasingly associated with Irish gangs called “factions”.[6] Irish faction fights involved large groups of Irish men (and sometimes women) who would engage in melees at county fairs, weddings, funerals, or any other convenient gathering. One social historian, Conley, believe that this reflected a culture of recreational violence.[7] However, most historians (best summarized by James S. Donnelly (1983) in “Irish Peasants: Violence & Political Unrest, 1780”), agree that faction fighting had class and political overtones, as depicted for example in the works of William Carleton.

By the early 19th century these gangs had organized into larger regional federations, which coalesced from the old Whiteboys, into the Caravat and Shanavest factions. Beginning first in Munster the Caravat and Shanavest “war” erupted sporadically throughout the 19th century and caused some serious disturbances.[8] Over time, traditional rules and methods of bataireacht and Shillelagh Law degenerated into more murderous fighting involving farm implements and guns.

As the push for Irish independence from Great Britain gained steam toward the end of the 19th century, leaders of the Irish community believed it was necessary to distance themselves from customs associated with factionism and division, to present a united military front to the British, hence the “United Irishmen” of the Republican movement. Foremost of these customs were the arts of bataireacht, and the shillelagh was soon replaced with the gun of the new unified faction of the Fenian Movement.

Modern practice of Bataireacht has arisen among some practitioners from a desire to maintain or reinstate Irish family traditions, while for others a combination of historical and cultural interest has lead to their interest in bataireacht.[9] Practitioners exist in Ireland, the United States and Canada, in movements started somewhat independently of each other. Bataireacht is also gaining popularity among the non-Irish, especially in the United States, as a form of self defense, since a cane or walking stick can be carried easily in modern society. As is the case with most martial arts, multiple versions exist.

A few forms of bataireacht survive to this day – some being traditional styles specific to the family which carried them through the years, like the “Rince an Bhata Uisce Bheatha” (whiskey stick dance) of the Irish Newfoundlanders Doyle family[10]. Others styles survive in the techniques used in the sport of hurling and of course in military sabre fencing which continues to have a great following in Ireland.

Additionally, members of the Western Martial Arts movement have “reconstructed” styles using period martial arts manuals, historical newspaper articles, magazines, pictorial evidence and court documents. Surviving instructional manuals which describe some use of the shillelagh include those by Rowland Allanson-Winn, 5th Baron Headley and Donald Walker.[11]

Only two formal schools can be found teaching traditional bataireacht, but of the more recent bata style, there are about 8 informal study groups.[12]