independent

Thursday 13 December 2018

The stick maker

From police officers in the US who use them instead of regular batons to those who like to remove snakes from a distance, Liam Kealy's sticks are proving very useful worldwide.he tells Deborah Coleman about a unique family craft that is alive and thriving

EVERYBODY KNOWS some variation of the old song ' With my Shillelagh under my arm…' but it might come as a surprise that authentic Shillelagh sticks are still being carefully handcrafted in the small South Wicklow village to this day.

Situated on Main Street is the Old Shillelagh Stick Makers, run by local man Liam Kealy, or O Caidhla as he is known in the craft world.

The skill has been in Liam's family since the time of his great-grandfather Denis, who in turn passed it down to Liam's father, also Denis. ' My great- great- grandfather was a general toolmaker and made pikes similar to those used in 1798. He also started making sticks when they became popular amongst the gentry. He has a small holding at Ballynultagh just outside the village. He passed on the skills to my own father who started to work in the industrial units which were formerly the poorhouse when he was about 14. One of the units made wooden toys and because he had much of the skills needed he got work. He also won a trip to The Great Exhibition in London. He loved technology and generally moved towards working with steam. He trained as a mechanic, built a garage and later got into radio and television,' explains Liam.

Just as his father went from stick-making to electronics, Liam's path went the opposite way, and from a background in Electronic Engineering and his own shop he changed career- path towards producing Shillelagh sticks.

The word stick barely does these crafts justice, as they are expertly arranged in his Shillelagh shop and showroom.

Made from wild-growing blackthorn, each individual item takes three years to craft from the cutting stage.

'I source the blackthorn locally for authenticity purposes. It cannot be farmed so at some point it will no longer be available but the local farmers are very good and I have an agreement with them. From the time the blackthorn is cut, it takes three years to complete and there are numerous stages,' says Liam.

So as not to give away his own secret techniques for producing the perfect stick, he simply says that blackthorn is the only appropriate type of wood for its lightweight yet sturdy and hard-wearing qualities.

'It is time-consuming but it is important to produce an authentic stick and we now have to consider the centrally heated homes they are going into. If they are not treated properly they will dry out and crack,' he explains.

At the Olde Shillelagh Stick Makers, an intriguing array of sticks adorn the walls of the newly decorated shop which is often a favourite for tourists.

' This is the first real tourist season for us. The stick-making has gone from a hobby into a full-time job and most of the business comes from America. Much of it is by word of mouth when someone sees a stick and asks where it was made.'

All sorts of sticks are created at Liam's onsite workshop that in their own way tell the history of Ireland, from the 'club' fighting stick which was outlawed in Penal times to the 'Battle Club' which was adapted to perform as a fighting weapon but would pass for a walking stick as a disguise.

The traditional Shillelagh walking sticks are also a big hit which evolved into a black colour from being placed up chimneys in times of old to speed up the production process for the eager gentry, who in turn became very fond of the darker colour rather than the natural wooden finish. It's not just ex-pats and Irish Americans who seek their own little piece of Shillelagh as the sticks made by Liam have garnered much unexpected attention from martial arts experts all over the world.

'Some martial arts groups incorporate the sticks into their own styles and routines. They are also very popular amongst police officers in the US for use in special ceremonies instead of their usual batons.

'One force in Colorado orders one for every new officer and I have also had orders from Arizona where a certain stick is used for removing snakes from a safe distance.'

With such a demand for the sticks it's no wonder that Liam is already passing on his expert skills to the next generation of the Kealy family, son Denis (20).

While wife Liz and daughters Robyn and Shannon are well used to hosting tourist guests and customers, it is the workshop where Denis helps out.

'He is like all before him with an interest in technology and is studying computers but he is working with me for the summer and is taking on more and more jobs. He is fairly handy at it.'

High praise, indeed and from the amount of interest this traditional, local enterprise is attracting it looks like stick-making is set to continue well into the future.

Olde shillelagh stick makers receives tours by appointment at 0539429113. For further information log on to www.misticshillelagh.tripod.com

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