Friday 20 September 2019

Treasures: Auctions stick it to buyers with blackthorn

Fighting sticks: Prince Charles with a traditional shillelagh
Fighting sticks: Prince Charles with a traditional shillelagh

Eleanor Flegg

On July 23 a 19th-century Irish shillelagh or faction fighting stick went under the hammer at Fonsie Mealy's Chatsworth Summer Sale. The stick was 105cm long and mounted with an engraved plaque inscribed: "Retrieved After Fair Day Massacre, Ballinhassig, 30th June '45 (Courtesy Of Mr. R. Day ESQ.)" It carried what seemed like a realistic estimate of €300 to €400. The hammer fell at €5,100.

"We were fairly bang on with the price now, weren't we?" says George Fonsie Mealy, auctioneer. "Sometimes you just need two people who want the same thing to rattle it out between them."

The successful bidder was Ballinhassig Town Council. After 175 years, the fighting stick has gone home.

The Fair Day Massacre took place in the summer of 1845 in Ballinhassig, Co Cork, when the police opened fire on the crowd following an altercation.

It was a horrific event. Accounts of what happened vary widely, depending on who was reporting, and the differences in the way that it was reported are indicative of divisions in Irish society at the time. The Cork Examiner described the initial disagreement as "a slight disturbance created by an unruly, ill-conditioned fellow, who is called SULLIVAN THE RANTER, between whom and a man named NEALE, a long-standing grudge had existed."

The Illustrated London News gives a very different account: "Ranter threw up his hat in the green, and, whirling his stick, gave the faction whoop, when his adherents gathered about him tumultuously."

It goes on to describe a battle between about 200 from the Neill faction and The Ranter's who "appeared, on horseback, and rode furiously down the hill, followed by above 300 men".

In one account, the massacre was triggered by a disagreement between two individuals. In the other, it was a full blown faction fight involving 500 men. Eight people died at the time, two more died later from their wounds, and many more besides were left horrifically wounded after the fray.

Others had fortunate escapes, including "a poor woman whose nose was grazed by a ball, her forehead being also furrowed by another". The Cork Examiner concluded that: "A quiet village has been converted into the scene of blood and carnage - a number of unarmed, defenceless, and innocent people have been shot down like dogs - and all this either from the nervousness or the imbecility of the person in command of the Police force." The inquest returned a verdict of "Justifiable Homicide… which also attached no blame to the Police".

The shillelagh was a powerful symbol of Irish fighting culture. In British media, the stylised Punch Magazine image of a short ball headed stick (real shillelaghs were longer) was used to symbolise ignorance, drunkenness and thuggery.

But John Hurley, author of Shillelagh: The Irish Fighting Stick (2007) describes the tradition as a martial art, a dangerous form of sport that was also used as training for conflict with more genuine enemies.

He also describes the genuine shillelagh as about four feet long. It was held one third of the way up its length and "twirled or flourished in a circular manner".

In The Brontës in Ireland (1893) William Wright describes the care and attention given to the preparation of a fighting stick: "The shillelagh was not a mere stick picked up for a few pence, or cut casually out of the common hedge.

"Like the Arab mare, it grew up to maturity under the fostering care of its owner, and in the hour of conflict it carried him to victory." The blackthorn tree was tended and carefully dug to preserve the bulbous root, seasoned in warm ash, pickled in brine, and rubbed with train oil for hours.

"Then came the final process. He shot a magpie, drained its blood into a cup, and with the lappered blood polished the blackthorn till it became glossy black with a mahogany tint." The shillelagh was then "a beautiful, tough, formidable weapon, and when tipped with an iron ferrule was quite ready for action." More typically, blackthorn sticks (the hardest Irish wood) were smeared with butter and cured in chimneys over time. By the early 20th century, the shillelagh had become a tourist item.

In September 1908, a report in a North Dakota newspaper, the Grand Forks Daily Herald, warned that "anyone who is at all wise will not buy a so-called blackthorn from the pedlars on the dock at Queenstown".

These might well be made from blackthorn grown in Connecticut which was: "shipped over in gunnysacks and on arrival in Queenstown are taken to the shillelagh factory where expert workmen make them into blackthorns that defy detection."

Most Irish sticks sold at auction fetch less than €100 but, in May 2015, a piece dating from 1899 and carved in the form of a mace sold at Whyte's for €500.

It was relief-carved with a shamrock, a harp and a shield, and the motto, "Home Rule For Old Ireland". A large part of the reason that this piece sold at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers fetched such a high price was that it came from the collection of Robert Day (1836-1914). Day was an antiquarian and scholar from Cork. During his life, Day amassed a vast collection of antiquities which was dispersed before and after his death.

"What made it was whose collection it was from," George Fonsie Mealy explains. "Without the provenance, it was just another blackthorn stick."


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