The Big Shillelagh

Known by many names, including bata in Gaelic - which means, fighting stick - the original cane gets its name from the Shillelagh Forest in County Wicklow. The forest was once famous for its massive stands of fine oaks. Sadly, most of them were cut down and exported and, when you see how few trees remain in Ireland, there's little comfort in knowing that many famous buildings in Western Europe were built with Irish imported oak.

Curiously, it was from the pen of an English writer who, on seeing an oak cane and knowing where it came from, coined the term Shillelagh. Eventually, it became synonymous for any Irish walking stick.

Sometimes, the knob on the end was hollowed out and filled with molten lead; this was known as a "loaded stick." However, in sticks made of blackthorn, the knob was actually the root and it would not have been necessary to "load" it because it could pack a significant whack!

The bark is left on for added toughness and often a metal ferrule is secured at the end opposite of the knob. To keep the wood from splitting during the drying process, sticks were often buried in a manure pile, or smeared with butter and placed in the chimney to cure.

Folklorist Padraic Colum says the shillelagh should not be considered a symbol of Ireland but a badge of honor for those who carried it. When they were very young, Irish boys were exposed to the traditions of the bata, and when they came of age, to carry a stick was viewed as a passage into manhood.

Many young Irishmen practiced with the stick regularly because constant sparring was needed to improve their skills. And, while a young man would have been taught by his father to always hold the bata tightly to his chest, so as never to be taken unawares, the finer points of its use would have been learned from the Maighistir Prionnsa or fencing master.

While the stick was carried by Irishmen just about everywhere they went, it was at the fair, wake or pattern (Saint's feast day), that it was most needed. Various groups or factions were always present at most social gatherings and faction fighting was very common until the famines of the 1840s. Most often the factions were members of certain families or of political groups. Sometimes the fights would consist of hundreds of men - and yes, the womenfolk joined in too. They didn't use a bata, but they could make a good account of themselves by wielding a stocking filled with stones.

Some fighters specialized in the use of two sticks. This was called the Troid de bata or two-stick fight. The stick held in the off hand was used as a shield. After the 1840's the factions fights became fewer and farther between; the last recorded one was held at a fair in Co.Tipperary, in 1887.

Fights with the bata were not always of the faction variety; some were sporting events, while while others were provoked just for fun. One tradition at a fair was for a man to drag his coat on the ground behind him and throw down the challenge, "Who'll tread on the tail of my coat?", or to ask a crowd, "Who'll say black is the white of my eye?" Often these were friendly, if somewhat rough contests.

The bata was held somewhat towards the lower middle of the stick and was snapped out with the wrist rather than swung like a cudgel. A simple art in terms of technique, it still took years of practice to master.

The member of the Paddy's Day Luncheon Society that is chosen to host the lunch is given the name "The Big Shillelagh".  The following people are known through out the industry as Big Shillelaghs.

54/55 Paul O'Reilly

1956  Frank Cummins

1957  Bob Harman

1958  Wallie O'Brien

1959  Bill Crossey

1960  Bill Hogan

1961  Ray Meeham

1962  Con Butler

1963  Jack Collins

1964  Jim Glenn

1965  Tom Murray

1966  Hank Bean

1967  Jim Ryan

1968  John Burke

1969  Phil Sweeney

1970  John Quinlan

1971  Ray Green

1972  Frank Santschi

1973  Joe Duffy

1974  Par Carroll

1975  Jack Murphy

1976  Tom Connors

1977  Tom Cullerton

1978  Bob Brooks

1979  Larry R. Dolan


1980  Joe Keenan Jr.

1981  Lee Farney

1982  Jim Foley

1983  Tim Bresnahan

1984  Bob Walsh

1985  Bill Simons

1986  Bill O'Shea

1987  Bob H. Rathmann

1988  Jim Maloney

1989  Tom Hallissey

1990  Alan Fink

1991  Bill Divane

1992  Tom Maloney

1993  Ed Pierce

1994  Peter Dolan

1995  Tim Cullerton

1996  Jack O'Brien

1997  Larry P. Dolan

1998  Mike Walsh

1999  Mike Fitzgerald

2000  Mike Mulcrone

2001  Kevin O'Shea

2002  Tim Foley

2003  Tom Halperin

2004  Mark Rudolph

2005  Jim McGlynn

2006  Jim Kingsley

2007  Patt Gallagher

2008  Jim McNamara

2009  John Donahue

2010  Mark Nemshick

2011  Dennis P. McDonald

2012  Dan Divane

2013  Susie Cassidy

2014  Dan Allen

2015  Tom Maloney

2016  Lorie Rozewski

2017  Dan Fitzgibbons

2018  Don Finn

2019  Stef Lopata

2020  Michael Mahoney

2021  COVID

2022  COVID

2023  Ken Gallagher

2024  Colleen Kramer