Bataireacht

Bataireacht is a traditional stickfighting martial art of Ireland. Often associated with hurling gangs and faction fighters, it was dramatised in Gangs of New York, and classically by Irish author William Carleton in “Traits And Stories of The Irish Peasantry”. “Bata” (or “bhata”) is a general term which can mean any kind of stick. The stick is mostly referred to as a shillelagh, traditionally, but can often be a hurley. The word “cudgel” is also used in period texts. Traditionally, blackthorn, oak and ash were the most common types of wood used.

No known textbook for the use of the bata exists; its use has been reconstructed using period sources by modern practitioners, or has been passed down through families. Rince an Bhata Uisce Bheatha means whiskey stick dance and refers to a specific style of Bata passed through the Doyle family, where the stick is often held in two hands.

Cumann Bhata is an organization that has reconstructed a one-hand version where the hand is approximately one-third of the way from the end and the stick is held just above the head.

In contemporary Irish slang, a “beating” is often referred to as a “bating” or “batin'” (pronounced ‘bay-ting’) and it is thought that this stems from the Irish word “bata”.

Bataireacht is a traditional Irish term used to describe the various stickfighting martial arts of Ireland. The term has been introduced into modern English-speaking popular culture by researcher, author and bataireacht practitioner, John W. Hurley as seen in his many articles and books. In the 19th century bataireacht became associated with Irish gangs called “factions”, but previous to this it had been used as a form of stick-fencing used to train Irish soldiers in broadsword and sabre techniques.

“Bata” is a general term which can mean any kind of stick, although some modern practitioners mistakenly use the term “bhata” which actually means “boat” as in the traditional Irish song “Fir an Bhata” or “Boatman”. The stick used is referred to as a “Sail-Eille” or phonetically in English as “shillelagh”. The word “cudgel” is also used in period texts. Traditionally, blackthorn, oak, ash and hazel were the most common types of woods used to make the sticks.

Irish stick fighting emerged sometime in the 17th century when the Irish were banned from owning formal weapons. At that time the innocent looking walking stick, called a bata or shillelagh, came into use as a serious weapon. In the centuries that followed, stick fighting became an integral part of Irish culture. It was used in Faction Fights, wedding and funeral brawls, and settling disputes.

Although Irish stick-fighting fell in popularity in the late 19th century, it has never died out and today is experiencing a resurgence of sorts. Would be practitioners will unfortunately find the modern world of Irish stick-fighting divided into two camps: those doing bataireacht and those doing “bata”. The first group is comprised of people who have living methods of Irish stick-fighting which have been tried and tested as far back as the faction era of the 19th century and which have been passed down to them through Irish born family members.

An example of this living traditional style would be Rince an Bhata Uisce Bheatha which means whiskey stick dance and refers to a specific style of bataireacht passed down through the Doyle family, where the stick is held with two hands, one at either end of the stick, somewhat like the popular image of quarterstaff.

The two-handed Rince an Bhata Uisce Bheatha style of Irish stick fighting was developed after the traditional one-handed styles of Irish stick fighting had become ingrained in the Irish lifestyle. The originator of the style was a pugilist from a Doyle Family living in the west of Ireland, who was hired to ‘put things right between families’ and sometimes guard illegal distilleries (this gave rise to one of the rumors that originated the term ‘Whiskey’ in the name of the style). He applied his boxing expertise to the existing art of stick fighting and changed the standard one-handed grip of the bata to a two-handed grip and Rince an Bhata Uisce Bheatha was born.

The second group is an outgrowth of the modern, Western Martial Arts movement in which research is done to “reconstruct” dead martial arts (like medieval sword fighting) in an attempt to revive them, by reading and interpreting old martial arts manuals. Generally speaking this group of people has no real connection with Ireland and when they started their research were not aware of much of the existing documentation on Irish stick-fighting or the fact that a number of Irish stick-fighting styles are not dead and do not need to be reconstructed. Unsure how to spell “shillelagh”, they chose to call their style “bata” which they still do today. To date their methods remain untested in any actual life or death situations.

The main proponent of the reconstructionist “Bata” theories is the Cumann Bhata group, founded and promoted by American Ken Pfrenger. Pfrenger uses a one-handed style based very loosely on the writings of author Donald Walker who described the shillelagh fencing exercises in his manual “Defensive Exercises”, published in 1840. Pfrenger has discarded much of the information in this manual, but holds the hand in what he calls a “choked up 1/3” grip, (essentially half way from the end of the stick) and just above the head.

The “reconstructionists” tend to be skepical towards those with a living family style, because the methods (and indeed the very existence) of the living styles tends to devalue the work of the “recons” by throwing much of their research into question. This, along with debates over the unproven methods of the “recons” has unfortunately caused much controversy and friction between the two groups.