“Holistic Investigation of Stick-fighting Culture and Knowledge (HOLISTICK)”

October 4, 2019

James M Flaherty Research Scholarship 2018/19 Visit Report

Name:                                Dr Colin McGuire
Home Institution:       York University, Toronto
Visited Institution:     University College Cork
Date of Visit:                  October/November 2018

Title of Research:
Holistic Investigation of Stick-fighting Culture and Knowledge (HOLISTICK): Musical Decolonization of 19th-Century Irish Faction Combat Skills to Foster Healthy 21st-Century Shillelagh Walking Stick Martial Arts

Field of Research:     Arts

Visit Details:
From mid-October to the end of November 2018, I was hosted by the Department of Music at University College Cork (UCC) during fieldwork for a James M. Flaherty Research Scholarship. I am an ethnomusicologist, but I also work in martial arts studies, so the project overlaps both areas. The primary objective of the visit was to gather materials on the music and culture of 19th-century faction fighting in Ireland, as well as trace its musical and martial legacy.  Overall, the trip was extremely successful; I obtained content for years of interpretation and analysis. Moreover, I developed productive relationships with scholars, stick-fighting practitioners, and stick-makers in Ireland.

This research project listens to the musical aspects of stick-fighting in Ireland during the 1800s in order to hear a heroic martial ethos that has been obscured by discriminatory colonialist historiography. The oral musical culture provides an antidote to extant written records from the time period. Briefly, faction fights were organized battles between rival groups of men in Ireland that occurred at fairs, markets, and festivals throughout the 19th century but especially before the Great Hunger. The weapon of choice was a knobbed wooden walking stick known in English as a shillelagh. Faction fighting declined after the Great Hunger, but stick-fighting methods were preserved by a small number of Irish families. Efforts are underway in Ireland and the diaspora to revive and promote stick-fighting as a modern martial art for fitness, self-defence, and cultural heritage. This project contributes to such efforts by providing cultural context through music that offers a decolonizing narrative to counter the racist historical record.


Irish Traditional Music Archives

The sites I visited include: UCC’s Boole Library, Special Collections, and Traditional Music Archive; the Cork County and City Archives, as well as the Cork County Library; and, in Dublin, the National Library of Ireland and the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA). I consulted numerous compilations of instrumental dance tunes and sung airs collected during the 19th and early-20th centuries, finding many pieces of music with titles and/or lyrics (in both Irish and English) related to faction fighting and fighting sticks. Some of this music came from the faction era, while later pieces echoed, memorialized, or satirized shillelagh culture—sometimes all at once. Much work remains to be done categorizing, analyzing, and cataloguing versions, variants, and alternative titles of the many tunes I collected, as well as getting translations of the Irish names/words, which is the next phase of the project now that I am back in Canada. All told, there is easily enough material to record a full-length album, which is a long-term goal of this project.

Colin McGuire at Cork City & County Archives

Several of the items that I found are of rare value, and I will provide a key example. I listened to many archival recordings from the 1950s and 60s featuring an older generation of musicians whose parents and/or grandparents had been alive to see faction fights. The crowning gem was a short song recorded from noted sean nós singer and uilleann piper Séamus Ennis by the RTÉ in the 1960s. Sung in Irish, the air is called “Is Buachaill o Chluain Meala Me” [I’m a Boy from Clonmel], and it was reputedly used to start battles between the two largest factions in Munster, the Caravats and the Shanavests. The flipside of such a rare find is more common songs and tunes whose faction fighting associations have become obscured. For example, some of my colleagues in the Department of Music at UCC had never heard of the Caravats and Shanavests, although they recognized tunes related to these factions by alternative names.

The Flaherty Scholarship allowed me to establish connections with a network of scholars outside music, as well as establish or deepen relationships with fieldwork consultants. Two scholars from UCC’s Department of Folklore and Ethnology, Ciarán O Gealbháin and Stiofán O Cadhla, were very generous with pointing to me towards resources on faction fighting as an aspect of 19th century popular culture in Ireland, particularly with regard to the vestiges of pre-Christian ritual found in stick-fighting battles at ‘patterns’ (i.e., festivals for patron saints of a parish). Cormac O hAodha from UCC’s Centre for Spoken Irish has graciously agreed to help me with translations of Gaelic text, having found that his own research on songs from the Muscraí Gaeltacht overlaps with my project. Outside the academic sphere, I was able to interview Martin Forrest, the creator of new style of shillelagh martial arts called Maide Uisce [Stick of Water]. Martin has done considerable research on historical faction fighting, but he is keen to establish a made-in-Éire answer to Asian martial arts that is suitable for health and wellness. I also took lessons from him, adding an embodied element to my research that builds on training I had done previously with Canada’s Glen Doyle, the curator of a faction-era style of Irish stick-fighting that survived in Newfoundland. Lastly, I was interviewed in Dublin by a Doyle stick-fighting practitioner named Nathan Featherstone for his podcast. Nathan is spearheading the attempt to repatriate this traditional style of shillelagh martial arts to Ireland and strongly supports my project.

In conclusion, I will discuss my ongoing efforts at dissemination. At the start of the scholarship, I launched a website (and social media) called Shillelagh Studies. This platform is helping me connect to an audience of people around the world with an interest in Irish stick-fighting. It is becoming a hub for people interested in buying authentic blackthorn sticks through the information I post and list of vendors. I am already envisioning academic journal articles suitable for the Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland and Martial Arts Studies alike. In the meantime, RTÉ has expressed interest in getting me to submit a piece on the music of 19th-century faction fighting for Brainstorm, which is their online forum for academic work written for public audiences.

Double rainbow at Tobereenkilgrania (the little well of the church of grace), Co Cork