So, over the last few months I’ve been getting into Irish Bataireacht—that’s shillelagh stick-fighting for the non-initiated. It’s like no martial art I’ve seen before. Trust my ancestors to come up with something so profoundly strange. That’s the Irish for you, aisteach ach alainn mar sin fein!
What’s it all about then? Basically, it’s about fighting with an Irish shillelagh. If you don’t know what that is, have a look at the picture above but, in short, it’s a stick roughly the size of a walking stick with a heavy knob at the top. This means the weapon is asymmetrically balanced but so long as you know what you’re doing, you can use that to your advantage. You can hit or parry with either end, whatever the situation requires, and, so they claim, with it you can hold your own against fellow shillelagh bearers and swordsman alike.
How do you fight with it then? Well there’s two main traditions which have survived. On first glance they seem completely different though the more you delve into them, the more you can see how they overlap, but more on that later. The first of these we’re going to look at is called Rince an Bhata Uisce Bheatha and the second is called Antrim Bata. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to refer to them as Rince Bata and Antrim Bata from now on.
See, I’m starting with Rince Bata cause, although we believe it developed after Antrim Bata, it’s much weirder to get your head around. So get this, all you’ve got between yourself and they guy trying to take you down is a stick. And you hold your stick, not at the end to give you as much reach as possible, pointing out threateningly towards your opponent, but with each hand a third along the stick, held horizontally across the body. What good is that going to do? Well, surprising a lot actually. It means you can cast out from either hand to strike which makes you hard to predict. You strike by letting go with the hand on the side you want to strike towards and cast your other arm out, pivoting the stick in your hand so it casts out towards your opponent. Suddenly you’re using two thirds of the stick after all, something they mightn’t expect if they haven’t come across it before. Here’s the catch though, you’re striking horizontally. Sure, it becomes fairly biomechanically sound by aligning to your arm, even more so if you step into it, but it’s still nowhere near as biomechanically powerful as giving a proper diagonal blow—Lichtenauer would be rolling in his grave.
What about parries though? They’re even weirder. Most weapon styles seem to make parries either by counter cutting or transiting into a guard that covers the line, both of which are more likely than not to make the most of diagonal lines and protect you with a form of Silver’s true cross. There are some fancy, strange parries you can do with the krumphau in German longsword perhaps but they’re a one-trick pony and not the cornerstone the whole system is based around. In Rince Bata however, you parry by letting go of one hand again and making a windscreen wiper motion by rotating the stick in your hand, trying to catch the blow with basically horizontal momentum. I can’t stress this enough, THAT’S REALLY WEIRD. It’s basically the exact opposite of what most other systems would tell you to do. And yet it works, partly because you’re largely parrying horizontal blows rather than diagonal ones so if you time your parry right, you do, in a weird way, form a kind of true cross. But, you only approach a true cross at the moment of impact, whereas a more diagonal style usually gives you more room for error as the diagonal lines are more likely to intersect at some point. Basically, it works, especially against another shillelagh striking horizontally, but it feels fundamentally wrong all the same.
Why do they do it then? I’ll get to that later. Let’s actually take a quick look at Antrim Bata before we get there. In Antrim Bata, you still hold the stick at a third but, good news, you use it in a much more normal way. You hold it fairly vertically, either near or over your head, and at the lower third with the knob pointing roughly towards the sky. While this means if you have no idea what you’re doing or if you panic and just start flailing, you’re likely to strike with the knob and cause some kind of damage, there’s actually a more efficient system of striking with it. You basically cast the shillelagh forwards, pivoting in your fingers, using the bottom third like a pendulum to help the knob at the top surge forwards. You’ll find you can make fast, direct strikes straight at their head again and again, rechambering and using the momentum to power each successive strike. It’s surprisingly fast, and powerful. You can still use those weird horizontal deflectional parries in this style but you also have the option of keeping the shillelagh vertical and parrying left or right with your hand as well, kind of like parrying with a sabre. All in all, a much more aggressive style that lets you parry in a way you’re more used to. Definitely much easier to pick up and make sense of.
How do they fit together then? The more you study especially Antrim Bata, the more you realise it isn’t just a style of one guard and a lot of tricks, but more a complete system made up of micro-styles to swap between for different situations. If you want to fight your opponent at a normal measure, you’d use the style I described above. If you wanted to fight at a closer measure or really trick your opponent, you’d actually swap basically to the Rince Bata grip and start throwing a few Rince Bata style strikes, and if you really wanted to keep them at a distance, especially if you have multiple opponents, you actually hold it at the end and start swinging it around in diagonal motions, kind of like a slightly clumsy montante. How do they fit together then? Well, where Antrim Bata has a style for all occasion, Rince Bata takes the close style and perfects it, so it can be used for all occasions. The key difference between Antrim Bata and Rince Bata is what you’re trying to do; what underlying philosophy you’re working with. Antrim Bata basically says, I’ll play whatever game you want; its underlying philosophy is to be flexible, a jack of all trades but master of none. It can fight at wide, medium or close measure and so long as you know how and when to swap styles for the measure you’re in, you’re fine. Rince Bata, however, tries to make all situations converge into one—namely close measure. Its goal is to always be in a perfect close measure guard and then close as soon as possible, either by evading their strikes or creating a bind and then moving in, where it then definitely has the advantage. It has a better understanding of what you can do with the single guard it uses, but the downside is you largely have one main game plan each time.
Let’s get back to all these horizontal strikes and parries not being the most efficient biomechanically, now that we know what the styles are trying to do. This is where things get really interesting. See, the horizontal strikes and parries are bad for getting the most force out of a blow, but that’s not what they’re designed for. They’re not meant to be a single fight-ending strike but the first of a two-part plan. Roughly speaking, you keep striking quick horizontal blows until they hard parry one of them and then, now you have a bind, you close in. Same for parries, once you parry them, you bind and close in. Either way, once you’ve closed in, more often than not, you grab the shillelagh at both thirds again and use the rotational force of your body to cast alternating blows from either end incredibly quickly. This is where the soul of Rince Bata lies, in having closed with your opponent to keep you safe and in being in the most optimised guard to beat them at close measure. Turns out the biomechanics work out just fine, so long as you realise what kind of game you’re playing.
A quick side note on using a shillelagh against a swordsman. Basically, my money’s still on the swordsman. Sorry to say. Especially if you’re using the Rince Bata style. Let me break down for you why. You could say there’s three things which are the biggest predictors of the outcome of a fight: a fighter’s individual skill, the pros and cons of their weapon (relative to the opponent’s) and the pros and cons of their style (relative to the opponent’s). Though historically it seems shillelagh fighters may have had more experience on average than swordsman of the era, let’s assume for the sake of argument both are equally skilled. A sword often has more reach than a shillelagh, especially once you consider you’re almost always losing a third of the reach of the shillelagh as a pendulum. This means the swordsman can be in measure when you still aren’t which, as we discussed in a previous blog post, is often the biggest game changer more than anything else anyway. Add to that the sword is more lethal, being deadly at a thrust and more harmful with any individual strike, it’s largely a superior weapon. The shillelagh might be better at close range once you’re at a bind because you can safely grip it anywhere along its length and strike from multiple directions more quickly, but the catch is you’ve got to get there first. Any competent swordsman will keep their distance and either snipe at your hands or keep feinting you till they get an opening. I’ve personally been on either side of this scenario and I feel much safer being the swordsman each time. The idea that they will give a single, easily blockable blow or let you close easily is nonsense. You can do it, but it’s very hard. Rince Bata does not feel threatening at all to a swordsman who can keep their distance. Antrim Bata seems to be slightly better here in that you can parry sword blows more conventionally, and its more offensive nature in striking quickly to the head repeatedly makes it slightly more likely the swordsman will need to parry, in which case you then have your bind and can close in to do Rince Bata-style close measure blows. Doable for sure, but still very difficult. So, I apologise heartily to my roots, but I think the sword is ultimately a superior weapon.
Sword snobbery aside, which style is better? I’d say Rince Bata is better against someone in Antrim Bata; it seems to have been specialised against other shillelaigh and I believe it gives you the edge against them. Against multiple people though, if you wanted to keep them at a distance, use Antrim Bata’s long montante style; if you wanted to get amongst them and cause some havoc, and you really knew what you were doing, use Rince Bata. And, as we just discussed, use Antrim Bata against a swordsman at distance, and close to Rince Bata after the bind. They both definitely have their uses. Rince Bata certainly offers more possibilities to very skilled fighters to do things their opponents don’t expect, though Antrim Bata seems easier to learn and get competent with in order to create decent fighters so, in short, probably start with Antrim Bata but learn both if you can. They’re both really interesting and will change how you think about fighting, so I’d say definitely give them a shot.
Eirinn go brach