Blackthorn Walking Stick or Weapon

These two walking sticks from our last Estate Sale are an elegant example of how artisans refine their work or not; one has been sanded, polished and topped with a hand-carved handle set in an embossed sterling band, the other is essentially just as it was cut from the plant. Both are made of the same wood and are equally useful but give different aesthetic impressions.

The distinctive nubs along their sides identify these walking sticks as Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) a sprawling shrub or tree in the plum family which is native to Europe, western Asia, and northwest Africa. Blackthorn has also been naturalized in the U.S. and now grows wild in New England and here in the Pacific Northwest. The fruit of the blackthorn, sloe berries, (actually a small, dark purple plum) are used to flavor the sweet liqueur Sloe Gin.

Blackthorn walking sticks are expensive because the perfect, naturally straight-growing thorny branches can only be harvested once a year, but connoisseurs are willing to pay the price because of blackthorn’s great strength in comparison to its thickness, rendering a sturdy stick that is easy to carry. And, easy to crack heads with.

Blackthorn walking sticks have a distinct cultural heritage in Ireland, where they are just as often referred to as shillelaghs, a Irish-English language word compounded from the Irish (Gaelic) words “sail” and “éille”. “Sail” means “willow” or “cudgel” and “iall” means “thong”, “strap”, or “string”, so, a springy, flexible club. There is a forest called the Shillelagh Forest in County Wicklow where the plum grows plentifully. And, a whole form of martial art grew up around the shillelagh, a native Irish combination of stick-fencing, boxing and wrestling. 

Like other forms of martial arts stick-fighting such as those practiced by Robin Hood or an infinite number of period heroes in Hong Kong action movies, historically a wooden ‘staff’ was a poor person’s self-defense weapon. Specifically, it was the weapon of choice for poor people living under the rule of an occupying enemy force. Most poor Irish men could neither afford nor credibly justify a weapon such as a gun if they were stopped by occupying English authorities, but a simple walking stick could be presented as innocent until put into action. If you’d like to learn more about the art of Irish Stick-Fighting, New Jersey-born author John W. Hurley is the world’s foremost authority and has written a number of books on the subject. 

Eventually however, shillelaghs became such popular weapons that many versions were just made as straight-up, heavy-duty clubs with no pretense of being anything else. They became an integral part of the cliche of “The Fightin’ Irish” as seen in this derogatory 1914 English political cartoon. Note, this was published only 7 short years before the Irish fought for and won their independence from British rule, with only 6 counties staying British to become Northern Ireland. And, due to the high number of Irish immigrants employed as police officers in 1900s America, the word ‘shillelagh’ is still sometimes used to refer to a police baton, nightstick or Billy club. Here a turn of the century Detroit police officer carries a real blackthorn shillelagh.

So, if you’re the lucky buyer of these elegant plum branches and you celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day next week, promenade stylishly about town on your pub crawl but please don’t crack any heads, we’d like to think that’s frowned upon these days. Sláinte! (good health) from all at QBO.