Antique shillelaghs or sheleighlys are Irish walking sticks, also used as clubs or cudgels, made of knotty wood.
Background and Description
The Irish word sail éille from which shillelagh is thought to come means a cudgel with a strap, though it may be that these items were synonymous with the Shillelagh forest in Country Wicklow. Originally, shillelaghs were used in order to settle gentlemanly disputes, much like duels. Methods of stick fighting have been practiced and evolved in Ireland over thousands of years. By the 19th century, Irish shillelagh fighting had evolved into a martial art known as bataireacht.
Shillelaghs are associated with Irish folklore, and have come to represent a symbol of Irish identity, the national weapon of rural Ireland.
Shillelaghs consist of a stout knotty stick with a large knob at the top. They are traditionally made from blackthorn (sloe wood) or oak. Traditionally this wood would be smeared with butter and put up a chimney to cure, resulting in a black shiny appearance. They are often hollowed at the heavy hitting end and filled with molten lead to increase their weight; this is known as a ‘loaded’ stick. They are generally the length of a walking stick with a knob for a handle or for hitting people with. Most also have a strap to place around the wrist.
Collectors of shillelaghs may find them so fascinating because no two are ever alike. Each example is rendered from a unique branch of wood, and will have different qualities. Some collect them as part of their interest in the martial art bataireacht. They are popular among Americans claiming Irish ancestry, being such a characteristic symbol of Ireland.
Shillelaghs are still produced, occasionally still using traditional methods, so if an antique example is desired in particular, care must be taken to ensure when exactly it was made. Mid to late 19th century examples are particularly popular and valuable. It is, however, extremely hard to date antique examples, as they rarely have any kind of maker’s mark. It is much more common to see modern examples for sale than antique ones. If they have shamrocks painted onto them they are undoubtedly modern novelty examples manufactured for tourists. Many antique examples are in the hands of antique dealers.
Blackthorn as a material is quite scarce these days. This has increased the value of both contemporary made and antique blackthorn shillelaghs. Apparently many are commonly made from Hawthorn, but these are not good quality.
Antique shillelaghs generally sell for $80-$150 on eBay US, and £50-£75 on eBay UK, although some particularly old and well-preserved examples are offered for up to $350. The more expensive shillelaghs are antique, traditionally cured, and made of blackthorn. Many modern produced examples are offered on eBay for less money.
Examples have sold at auction for $150 for a c.1900 original shillelagh, and £225 for a c.1920 shillelagh with gold plated & painted wood cane.
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