Jean McClelland: Collectors appreciate the history of the Shillelagh, the Irish Cane
It was quite the fashion statement during the 19th century for a man to carry a cane. Just as it was trendy for a woman to carry a parasol, the stylish young man had a walking stick as part of his daily presentation. This fad continued until the beginning of World War I. In those days a cane had nothing to do with handicaps or ill health but with the right look in public.
Since March 17 is our St. Patrick’s Day celebration, it is fitting to mention the Irish cane often called a bat or a Shillelagh. The Shillelagh, though an item of fashion, meant more than that to the Irish lad of a hundred years ago. Those gnarly walking sticks were often used as a weapon in fights that usually broke out at wakes, fairs and confrontations with the English.
As a rite of passage young Irishmen learned how to protect themselves in a fight. There were even trainers or fencing masters called “Maighistir Prionnsa” to help them perfect their bat skills. From the 17th thru the 19th Century, those fights were most prevalent between political groups called ‘factions’. As time moved on, the fights took on a sportsman type venue at many ale intensive celebrations.
The Irish fighting stick came by the name of Shillelagh due to the fine woods most favored in the making of the cudgel that were found in Ireland’s Shillelagh Forest. Interestingly it was an English writer who first dubbed the bat a Shillelagh due the origin of the wood. Now, the names are synonyms. Early on this cudgel was whittled leaving the knobs and thorns in place so as to make it a better weapon when giving their adversary a good wallop.
Today’s collectors look for special features in old canes such as hidden swords, camouflaged whiskey flasks or unusual materials forming the head of the cane. The more unusual the cane the more collectible and valuable it becomes. This ornate special featured Irish cane can be sold for hundreds or even thousands of dollars however most Shillelaghs are sold for less than $100.
Today, as you look down at that green beer be glad that the Irish tradition of engaging your buddies in a contest with a Shillelagh is no longer the fashionable way of celebrating. Headaches from overindulgence are much more preferable to those that result from a wallop of a Shillelagh. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
Jean McClelland writes about antiques for The Herald-Dispatch.