Romance with a fighting stick

The notion of weaponry and romance linked together seems at first to be an odd one. But in the universe of “The Dawn of Ireland,” weaponry was not just common–it was a necessity.

During the freewheeling days when St. Patrick first went to Ireland, ca. 432 AD, the people of Ireland or Éire (call them the Éireannach people) were largely land holders, farm workers and cattlemen. Cattle, the mainstay of the economy, were prized above all. So cattle rustling was the order of the day. In fact, the most famous piece of literature that has come down to us from ancient times is “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” where opposing forces of great gods and warriors do battle over a bunch of cows.

There were no handy swords lying about, nor a tradition of knives. What the people had in abundance were oak trees and blackthorn bushes. And so the branches of these ubiquitous trees were used as their weapon of choice.

 The main characters in all the Dawn novels learn one weapon in particular–the shillelagh. When used as a weapon, it is now common to call such a weapon a “bata,” and the art of bata fighting is called “bataireacht.” Research suggests that the shillelagh, a rugged, knobby-sided stick cut from the blackthorn (sloe) bush, has been part of the culture since ancient times.

The blackthorn can begin as a straggly, widespread bush and grow into a gnarly, twenty-foot tree. To this day, blackthorns are used as natural hedges to keep interlopers (human and otherwise) from people’s property. The spring flowers of the blackthorn, or sloe, are a mass of pretty flowers; and by late summer, sloe berries are a favorite of birds and of gin-lovers everywhere, for the berries are the basis for gin-making throughout the world.    One of the most interesting features of the blackthorn is its dark, burnished appearance. And the makers of shillelaghs enhance that dark appearance even more by smearing them with some kind of animal fat and putting them into a chimney or otherwise exposing them to smoke. The second compelling feature of these sticks is their knobby, nubby appearance. The makers deliberately leave part of the thorns along the stick to add a bit more “bite” to their strike.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The first to seize a stick of blackthorn when the immigrants landed in Éire is, of course, Caylith herself. She takes her companion Swallow to a stand of dark, prickly bushes and begins to cut thorny branches, which she trims with her knife to make sticks that the pilgrims later lash together to symbolize the Christian cross. But she keeps one about three feet long to use both as a walking stick and as a weapon.

When a band of wild clansmen show up to confront the immigrants, the men are wearing shillelaghs–probably really batas–stuck through their waist-thongs. One of those warriors is Liam, later to become Caylith’s husband. Her own armsman Gristle and Liam sit together comparing fighting techniques, and Liam naively shows the expert martial artist some bata moves.

After she has settled down in Derry, Caylith organizes four other women into a group they call the “Terrible Trousers” (the word trousers comes from the Gaelic word triús). Small and innocent looking as they are, the ladies become formidable warriors using the blackthorn stick, for Liam has taught her the techniques that she shows her friends.

The Terrible Trousers use their bata skills in two tense situations–first when they are attempting to rescue a clansman from the                     clutches of two malevolent druids (in The Wakening Fire), and next when they find out who is behind the nefarious slave-trading that had resulted in much agony for captured women (in Captive Heart).

In more amorous moments, Caylith and Liam use the bata as a synonym for the phallus, and their play-fights always end in passion.

To this day in Ireland, the shillelagh is a potent symbol. There was a time in the 19th century when it was outlawed, so misused it was by gangs. Now it abounds in Éire as–among other things– a walking stick, a beer label, and a standby in many Gaelic songs.