What is a Shillelagh?

Assorted Shillelaghs

A shillelagh (pronounced shil-AY-lee) is a wooden walking stick and club or cudgel, typically made from a stout knotty blackthorn stick with a large knob at the top. It is associated with Ireland and Irish folklore.

The name shillelagh comes from the Irish (Gaelic) sail éille, where sail means “willow” or “cudgel” and éille is the genitive form of iall meaning “thong”, “strap”, “leash”, and “string”, among others.

Shillelaghs are traditionally made from blackthorn wood or oak.

Typically, the chosen wood would be placed up a chimney to cure for a duration of several months to several years; the accumulated layer of soot gave the shillelagh its typical black shiny appearance.

Shillelaghs are commonly the length of a walking stick (distance from the floor to one’s wrist with elbow slightly bent), or rather longer, about 4 or 5 feet, as opposed to the walking stick measuring about 3 feet.

Shillelaghs typically have a heavy knob for a handle which can be used for striking. They may be hollowed at the heavy “hitting” end and filled with molten lead to increase the weight beyond the typical two pounds; this sort of shillelagh is known as a ‘loaded stick’. 

The shillelagh was originally used for settling disputes in a gentlemanly manner — like a duel with pistols or swords.

Shillelaghs are sometimes referred to in a similar context in folk songs. In the ballad “Finnegan’s Wake” occurs the phrase “Shillelagh law did all engage,” signifying that a brawl has broken out; “shillelagh law” itself has been explained as meaning the accepted rule governing the usage of the weapon.

Today, the shillelagh has come to be regarded as a stereotypical symbol of Irishness in popular culture, particularly in an Irish-American context.

In sports, the Boston Celtics logo has a leprechaun leaning on his shillelagh, and it also features with the leprechaun on some logos of Brothers Rugby league teams in Australia. In San Diego, Padres broadcaster Mark Grant popularized the shillelagh as a rallying call, by using terms like “Shillelagh Power” to describe late-game heroics by the Padres. The success of the phrase led the San Diego Padres store to carry inflatable shillelaghs. Similarly, in the college games of American football, a Jeweled Shillelagh (shown below) is the trophy given to the winner of the rivalry game between the USC Trojans and Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

The Jeweled Shillelagh

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