When learning how to make a shillelagh, be aware that the limbs of the hawthorn tree providing the wood might have as many as five spikes!
PHOTO: DANIEL R. BURKE
You don't have to be Irish to know how to make a shillelagh (pronounced shih-LAY-lee or shih-LAY-lah). In fact, the sturdy, gnarled hardwood wallopers (which the Celts have carried—as canes or weapons—since the days of the legendary Irish giant, Finn MacCool) are really pretty easy to craft.
The traditional walking stick's name comes from an old Gaelic word meaning "oak club." Centuries ago these weapons were made of oak, cut from a great forest near the village of Shillelagh in County Wicklow.
Before the eighth century, the sturdy bludgeons were used to settle old family feuds at village fairs ... (or at least to solve the problem until the next fair was held). On such occasions the shillelagh was seldom swung with just one hand, but grasped in the middle with both fists and brought down with head-splitting force. Sometimes, however, an extremely strong man would use two shillelaghs: one to fend off attacks, and the other to bash his opponent.
When the British invaded the Emerald Isle, they not only chopped down the great oak forests (which had been considered sacred by the Druids) and shipped off the timber to England, but also imposed strict laws ... one of which was a ban on weapons.
After that, shillelaghs—far from disappearing along with the oak—simply began to be made from the wood of the Irish blackthorn (a species of hawthorn), and the innocent-appearing "canes" became the Irish resisters' main weapon in their continuing struggle against the conquerors. In later years, as more peaceful pursuits prevailed, the traditional club was used primarily as a walking staff, or as a stick to herd cattle.
Today the shillelagh is a symbolic souvenir of the Irish spirit, and—according to New York City's largest cane shop—the Gaelic cudgel is one of the best-selling (at prices from $30.00 to $37.50 each! ) types of walking stick.
Wild Raw Material
You'll have to be mighty careful, however, when you start to gather your raw shillelagh material, because all of the 100-plus species of North American hawthorn are armed with thorns that grow anywhere from one to five inches long. You'll have no trouble recognizing members of the genus Crataegus —whether they're the knee-high or tree-high variety—because their straight (or moderately curved) single spikes are not shared by any of North America's other native shrubs or trees.
American hawthorns were originally found only as undergrowth in dense forests, but later—as homes and shopping centers whittled the woodlands away—the small trees were able to hybridize. Today they grow abundantly in thickets along woodlands, in deserted fields, in moist ground on the banks of ponds and streams ... and even at altitudes up to 8,.500 feet!
Classed as members of the rose family and kin to the apple, hawthorns go by any number of aliases, including blackthorn, whitethorn, cockspur, littlehip, thorn-plum, hagthorn, and Mayhaw. And all of the species produce clusters of tiny, alluring fruit called haws, which are usually dullish to scarlet red but can also be yellow, black, or bluish. The miniature "apples" are edible, though some have large stones and little pulp, and their texture (often mealy) and taste (you'll have to try them) vary considerably. The best are sugary when raw and—when transformed into jelly—require very little sweetener. (If not overly ripe, haws—like apples—produce natural pectin, too.)
A Formidable Foe
For our purposes, of course, the hawthorn's wood is of more interest than its fruit ... and now, when the trees are leafless and the thorns are highly visible, is the best time to gather the sturdy branches.
Naturally, since this tree is so heavily armored against you, you must be prepared to defend yourself. My battle accouterments (coutherments, if you want to use the authentic Irish term) include safety glasses, a canvas hunting jacket, tough field pants, heavy shoes (sneakers invite wounds), leather work gloves, and some sort of head protection.
The "weapons" of the trade include a pruning saw, a hacksaw, and a folding knife that's big and sharp enough to do some heavy whittling. Add some patience, and you're ready to take on the fiercest hawthorn the countryside can produce.
Once you're face to face with the thorn-covered tree of your choice (and, of course, after you've obtained permission to cut if you're on any land but your own!), look it over with a wood-carver's eye until you spot a branch which virtually cries out "Shillelagh me!"
Remember, you seek something that is gnarled, yet straight ... something which—when shorn of its bark and limbs—will be knobby, hefty, and pleasing to the eye. Its top, when trimmed, should fit comfortably in the palm of your hand (or you can choose, if you like, a limb with a T-shaped handle made from a portion of an adjoining branch). Since a shillelagh should measure about 36 inches when finished, make certain that the rough stick you've set your sights on is somewhat longer.
To get at the cane-to-be, eye your way through the thorny latticework and plan your maneuvers carefully. Next, take up your pruning saw and remove any piercing limbs that are between you and your objective. This step, however, is easier planned than done, because cutting a branch doesn't mean it will fall from the tree. Instead, expect it to snag securely within the briary tangles. so that you'll have to drop your saw ... get a firm, between-the-thorns grip on the reluctant limb ... and tug—with caution—until it's loose.
One tree may yield three or four workable canes, and you'll probably be able to gather a good number of shillelaghs-in-the-raw within a couple of hours. (But make haste slowly: Remember that he who rides a hawthorn cannot dismount!)
Phase two is a lot easier. Hold the tapered stick down firmly on hard ground or a rock and—using the hacksaw—trim off all the small branches to give the club that traditional knobby look and feel. Then wedge your cudgel between two close-growing saplings, hold it tightly, and cut it to the desired length. Finally, whittle away the bark (use particular care not to slice off the stumps left by your earlier sawing), gather your handiwork, and go home to nurse your battle scars.
The End of a Quest
In the relative comfort of your house or yard, use a small, sharp knife to round off the edges of each club's head and the nubs along its length. When you've finished this chore, it's time to put your creations away to dry for a week or two. Then medium and fine sandpaper, used in that order, will put smooth surfaces on the rugged-looking canes.
When the sticks are sanded to your satisfaction, wipe away the dust and stain them in your choice of wood tones. (I like fruitwood, which imparts a rich, natural color to the truncheons. I've also found that the paste type is less messy to work with than liquid stain.)
For a perfect product, apply a coat of clear polyurethane after the stain has dried, or—if you want a super-cosmetic touch—wrap the top six inches or so of the cane with masking tape and paint the remaining length with a hard, glossy, black enamel. Once that's done, remove the tape, and you'll have a shillelagh fit for the lord mayor himself.
Now, off to market ... where you'll probably find that—in the days preceding March 17th—you can peddle the traditional walking sticks, by the score, to latter-day Hibernians preparing for St. Patrick's Day.
You also may find that the blood, sweat, tears, and time involved in producing these handsome, hand-hewn models will tempt you to overprice them. (Try it ... you can always come down!) In my experience, however, they sell best at about $10 each.
On the other hand, you may not want to peddle your beautiful shillelaghs at all, because they make such unusual (and cherished) gifts!