Rodney Bennett, our fervent video archivist from Victorian and Edwardian Martial Arts found an interesting video of a certain Dr.Condon principal of New York Public School 12 (quite the inspiring name!) in the Bronx teaching some “stick fencing” to a group of young students. The video passed under the radar of a lot of people, as the technical quality demonstrated is not very high. That said, some of the regulars to my blog and videos might recognize a few details about his style, especially the part about the stick being held at the third in the aim of protecting the forearm. I was quickly asked the question: is this Irish stick? Well, let’s look at it.
First thing first, who is Dr.Condon? If you are a Lindbergh fan the name might sound familiar. Dr.John Francis Condon, or “Jafsie”, was made famous when in 1932 he acted as the intermediary between the kidnappers of the Lindbergh baby and the parents. Condon was a retired school principal with more than 40 years of experience. He had also coached athletes in various sports including baseball, football, and boxing, a sport in which he competed successfully. He was born in New York, in 1860, from parents John and Ellen Condon.
John Sr. was born in Ireland in 1821, and immigrated to the United States in 1848, fleeing the Great Famine. John would have grown right at the height of bataireacht, in pre-famine Ireland when faction fights were at their zenith. It is then entirely possible that Dr.Condon learned Irish stick from his father, who at the time would have been himself in his 50s or 60s.
A note about this video before we start. Dr.Condon is apparently been filmed for a short newsreel showing his stick fencing lessons to students, as well as his boxing. The sequences we have here are rough cuts, and as you will see they exhibit very sloppy technique, particularly from the students.
To examine the technique, we will look mostly at Dr.Condon, who seems the most reliable of the group. That said, his own technique level – with all due respect- is itself quite mediocre, and not representative of bataireacht. The techniques being presented are very basic, only 4 or five strikes and parries, and little to no footwork. Yet, it is possible to draw some commonalities between what we are seeing here and Antrim Bata, the traditional style that I happen to practice from Northern Ireland.
Let’s start with the stance. One thing which is unusual for the time is the use of a very squared stance, with the feet on two lines, front foot aimed straight at the opponent and the back foot at 45. This is a very common stance all around the world, and one which used to be fairly common in Europe until the 18th century when it was massively superseded by the L shaped stance developed in Italian and French fencing. It is then very unusual to find it in a 1920s setting, which admittedly could be coming from Condon’s boxing background, but considering that this is shown in nearly every source on Irish stick fighting from 1840 and up, both documentary and oral, I would say this is rather a strong element in favor of an Irish style.
The grip is probably the most recognizable Irish element. Condon explains his grip very clearly: “See that the end of the stick reaches at least to your elbow and then no weapon can injure you from your wrist to your arm.” This is a point which is hammered in nearly every source on Irish stick fighting, making it one of the most unique aspect of the art. It is not impossible that this grip was present in other styles, but this is a very strong point in the favor of it being bataireacht. The thumb is not extended on the stick but this could be explained by the dowels being too large or heavy for this grip, by the specific style simply being different, or by the Condon’s preference or forgetfulness.
The guard is hard to determine. In most of the video, the engaging guard seems to be a low one, but in another, a high guard seems to be used. It is far from a correct Irish guard, and one which would get you in trouble if facing a skilled Irish fighter, but the intent seems to be there. The main difference also lies in the guard. Instead of keeping the off arm on the plexus to protect vital parts of the body, Jafsie keeps it hanging down. In one part he is seen holding it to his back like Walker, but this is only done for a very short while. To be fair, this seems to be where every method of Irish stick differs. Some will hold it behind the back, others in front or to the side. There is no one single commonality in this regard.
The high guard in Antrim Bata compared with Jafsie’s high guard. As is often the case in the video, Condon seems here to forget to hold the stick past the elbow even though he does mention its importance.
The low guard of Antrim and that of Jafsie’s method.
The parries are another very similar aspect. All the guards demonstrated are found in Antrim Bata.
1 a low chopper to the knee
2 a head parry
3 an outside parry (and sometimes a reverse chopper)
4 a low half circle
It is again hard to pinpoint a style from this aspect alone though, as all these parries are very common to many styles of stick fighting. But at the same time, none of them are unknown to bataireacht, and are even the first parries taught to beginners.
The strikes are another telling aspect. Irish stick is known for using direct strikes instead of rotational moulinets that were mainly the norm at this time. The strikes in this video – and this is the case for nearly everything being shown – are rather clumsy but do show this aspect reasonably well.
There is not much footwork being presented, but we can determine two points in favor of an Irish origin: First, the lack of lunging. Most, if not all stick arts at the time were based on the lunge. Irish stick was one exception where both feet nearly always moved in unison. Secondly, the switch steps made by Condon. Irish stick fighting does switch between feet when needed, instead of relying on the lunge or traverse.
A very interesting part of the demonstration is the use of a song by Condon to instil a rhythm to his practice. This is not something which was part of my training in Antrim Bata, and after discussing it with my meister he confirmed that this was also absent from his own learning experience. We do know that singing was, until the 20th century, an integral part of manual work in most societies, Ireland included. Mechanical timekeeping was absent, and songs would help coordinate effort, alleviate boredom and create a sense of camaraderie between workers. This would have been a common element for many stick fighters who spent their time working the fields as well as sailors who sang to keep the rhythm during group efforts such as pulling anchors or riggin. The practice died out in the industrial era, where the noise of machines rendered signing difficult, and rhythm and time started to be kept by mechanized means. Songs moved from the workplace to the time of leisure, building a wall between the two.
Condon uses the popular song Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! Or The Prisoner’s Hope, which was written during the American Civil War for Union soldiers by George F. Root. It is an interesting choice, probably explained by Condon’s apparently very strong sense of patriotism as reported in a few stories. This is an interesting aspect of Irish stick fighting if this was indeed a common thing, which would be interesting to resurrect.
Based on all this I would say that there is a very strong case for Dr. Condon teaching bataireacht to his pupils. He is unfortunately not the most skilled practitioner and is obviously working from memories of an art he learned a long time ago and which he clearly hasn’t practised much. His grip slips, his footwork is jumpy, his parries are off and uneven and his strikes lack proper development. But we must also take into account that this is a 68-year-old man who learned this skill probably more than 50 years ago from an already ageing father and that these are all the excerpts that were rejected on the cutting room floor.
Hopefully, the final cut can be found and made accessible again to maybe answer our questions more precisely. The video also covers boxing, and both videos can be seen in these links:
In the meanwhile, it is quite exciting to see the first video evidence of what is most probably bataireacht and which corroborates what is taught in living lineages of Irish stick fighting, even though the quality of the demonstration doesn’t do justice to this wonderful martial art.