Bataireacht: The ancient Irish martial art making a comeback

Bataireacht: The ancient Irish martial art making a comeback

While bataireacht is a relatively safe activity when practised in gyms under the supervision of experts, in the 1700s and 1800s it was wild and deadly. Back then, this martial art was central to a lethal form of mayhem called faction fighting, said John W Hurley, author of the book Shillelagh: The Irish Fighting Stick.

These massive organised brawls between rival factions bound by blood, parish or geography could involve hundreds, even thousands of Irish men. During these illegal melees, held at festivals and funerals, men hurled rocks, fired guns and swung shillelagh. “The spirit of ‘Shillelagh Law’ was to always be willing to go out and fight, and die if necessary, to maintain your personal or family or faction reputation,” Hurley said.

Ironically, this blood-soaked bedlam often was recreational, according to Carolyn Conley, professor emerita of history at the University of Alabama and an expert on Ireland’s crime in the 1800s, with arranged melees filling a void in entertainment options in rural Ireland. In fact, between 1866 and 1892, more than 40% of murders in Ireland were linked to recreational brawls. “My research indicates [arranged violence] was not only common but often viewed with approval by judges and landowners, some of whom participated,” she said.

One County Kerry brawl in 1834 saw 35 people killed. A plaque marks that site in the serene seaside town of Ballyheigue, which, thanks to its pristine, 2km-long beach, is now a popular stop on the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,600km driving route along Ireland’s west coast.