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We are presently doing a cataloging of antique shillelaghs which can be found in museums or private collections. The shillelagh is a symbol of Irish identity but it seems has received very little attention and so it can be quite hard to identify or date a shillelagh which rarely come sin a standard pattern. This is the reason why we are trying to gather all the examples we can find in the hope that we can come up with an effective tool to help collectors and scholars. If you have any pictures of antique shillelaghs or pictures of people holding them please send them our way. try to include as much information as you can, for example where it came from, how old do you think it is and of course try to photograph its most distinguishing features. These pictures will be posted on a Pinterest page for the moment so that they can be easily accessible by anyone. Here is the link: http://www.pinterest.com/maximechouinard/antique-shillelaghs/

A lot of shillelagh in collections today were made around the late 19th to early 20th century to satisfy the demand of tourists. So big was the demand for the famed blackthorns that the slow growing trees were getting rare and that dealers had to import sticks from America… to sell to American tourists!

Fake_blackthorns_American_Friday, September 25, 1908 Grand Forks Daily Herald

Grand Forks Daily Herald, September 25th 1908

Various ways could be employed at making the perfect sticks.

Blackthorn_making_Thursday, March 13, 1919Elkhart Truth

Elkhart Truth, March 13th 1919

But the most impressive description comes from William Wright’s “The Brontës in Ireland” published in 1893. Wright describes the process by which Hugh Brontë makes a shilellagh fighting stick which is quite unique and advanced.

"The shillelagh was not a mere stick picked up for 
a few pence, or cut casually out of the common 
hedge. Like the Arab mare, it grew up to maturity 
under the fostering care of its owner, and in the 
hour of conflict it carried him to victory. 

The shillelagh, like the poet, is born, not made ; 
though, like the poet, it is developed and polished. 
Like the poet, too, it is a choice plant, and its growth 
is slow. 

Among ten thousand blackthorn shoots, perhaps 
not more than one is destined to become famous ; 
but one of the ten thousand appears of singular 
fitness among its gnarled companions. As soon 
as discovered it is marked and dedicated for future  
service. Everything that might hinder its well- 
balanced development is removed from its vicinity, 
and any offshoot likely to detract from the perfect 
growth of the main stem is skilfully cut off. 
With constant ca*re it grows thick and strong, and 
the bulbous root can be shaped into a handle 
which in an emergency can be used as a club. 

Hugh Bronte was a man who looked before and 
hastened slowly. In early life he planted two oak 
trees by the edge of the Glen to supply wood for his 
coffin. They have become large trees, and they 
were pointed out to me by the nearest neighbour, 
Mr. Christopher Radcliffe, on the occasion of my 
last visit to the Bronte Glen. 

Hugh had for many years been watching over 
the growth of a young blackthorn sapling, as if it 
had been an only child. It had arrived at maturity 
about the time the diabolical article appeared in 
the Quarterly, The supreme moment of his life 
had arrived, and the weapon on which he depended 
was ready. 

Hugh Bronte returned home from the manse 
with his whole heart and soul set on avenging his 
niece. His first act was to dig up the blackthorn 
carefully, so that he might have enough of the 
thick root to form a lethal club. Having pruned 
it roughly, he placed the butt end in warm ashes 
night after night to season. Then when it had 
become sapless and hard he reduced it to its final 
dimensions. Afterwards he steeped it in brine, 
or " put it in pickle/' as the saying goes ; and when 
it had been a sufficient time in the salt water, he 
took it out and rubbed It with shamois and train oil 
for hours. Then came the final process. He shot 
a magpie, drained its blood into a cup, and with 
the lappered blood polished the blackthorn till it 
became glossy black with a mahogany tint. 

The shillelagh was then a beautiful, tough, 
formidable weapon, and when tipped with an iron 
ferrule was quite ready for action. It became 
Hugh's trusty companion, esteemed and loved for 
its use as well as for its beauty. No Sir Galahad 
ever valued his shield, or trusted his spear, as 
Hugh Bronte cherished and loved his shillelagh."

The reader might be surprised by this peculiar method of “pickling” the stick. After all is salt water not damageable to wood? Not by this method. I showed this to a Phd in wood chemistry who was quite impressed by how advanced this process was for the time. Indeed the salt from the brine solution penetrates the wood and acts in the same way as chemicals would in modern treated lumber, the crystals filling every pore and making the wood impervious to rot while giving it a certain added strength. The oil – the train oil being another name for whale oil – would simply seal everything. Secondly by putting the knob in warm ashes, the wood fibers would essentially become carbon fibers: so very hard but potentially brittle. This stick is now essentially dual hardened, much like a sword. The shaft remains softer as it is meant to parry, while the top of the walking stick meant to strike is now hardened to deal more damage. The magpie blood comes as the end of course to give a cosmetic appeal, the blood being a common wood stain at the time.
So remember, send us any pictures you think might be interesting for the project and if you are interested in learning how to use a shillelagh visit: www.Irishstick.com

 

 

One thought on “Shillelaghs!

  1. Pingback: A thorny issue: what did the sticks look like? | I don't do long sword

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