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Traditional Irish walking stick packs an interesting history

Mar. 16, 2013 @ 10:35 PM

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 today is our St. Patrick's Day celebration it is fitting to mention the Irish cane often called a Shillelagh. The Shillelagh, though an item of fashion, meant more than that to the Irishman of old. Those gnarly walking sticks were often used as a weapon in fights that usually broke out at wakes and fairs.

The rowdy Irishman in those early days would learn how to wield the stick so that he could protect himself. There were even trainers or fencing masters called "Maighistir Prionnsa" to help them perfect their skills. From the 17th through the 19th Century these fights were most prevalent between political groups called factions. As time moved on the fights took on a sportsman-type characteristic at many celebrations where most times lots of ale was served.

The Irish fighting stick came by the name of Shillelagh because the wood most favored in the making of the cudgel was found in Ireland's Shillelagh Forest. Fine Oaks and blackthorns were the woods of choice for the Irish canes. Early on this cudgel was whittled leaving the knobs and thorns in place so as to make it a better weapon. The largest knob usually was the head of the cane and used to give an adversary quite a 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. The ornate special featured cane can be sold for hundreds of dollars, however the Irish Shillelagh usually goes for less than $100.

Get your green on and enjoy your St. Patrick's Day celebration. As you down 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.