While bataireacht is a relatively safe activity when performed in gymnasiums under expert supervision, in the 1700s and 1800s it was wild and deadly. At the time, this martial art was at the heart of a deadly form of chaos called faction fighting, said John W Hurley, author of the book Shillelagh: The Irish Fighting Stick.
These massive organized brawls between rival factions linked by blood, parish or geography could involve hundreds or even thousands of Irish people. During these illegal melee, staged at festivals and funerals, men threw rocks, fired shots and swung shillelagh. “The spirit of ‘Shillelagh Law’ was to always be ready to go out and fight, and die if necessary, to maintain personal, family or factional reputation,” Hurley said.
Ironically, this blood-soaked rowdiness was often recreational, according to Carolyn Conley, professor emeritus of history at the University of Alabama and an expert on Irish crime in the 1800s, with staged scrums filling a void in options for entertainment in rural Ireland. In fact, between 1866 and 1892, over 40% of murders in Ireland were linked to recreational brawling. “My research indicates [arranged violence] was not only common, but often viewed with the approval of judges and landowners, some of whom participated,” she said.
A County Kerry brawl in 1834 left 35 dead. A plaque marks this site in the serene seaside town of Ballyheigue, which, thanks to its 2km-long pristine beach, is now a popular stop on the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,600km route along the west coast of Ireland.