How to Make a Shillelagh

Take up a saw, a knife, and your Irish spirit and learn how to make a shillelagh. You can easily sell them come St. Patrick's Day.

| January/February 1981

  • 067 how to make a shillelagh - hawthorne branch
    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!
  • 067 how to make a shillelagh - removing bark
    Whittling off the bark.
  • 067 how to make a shillelagh - trimming a branch
    Adorned in battle vestments (safety glasses, hat, and work gloves), this forager trims the staff to the desired length.
  • 067 how to make a shillelagh - sanding and staining
    The truncheon is sanded and stained.

  • 067 how to make a shillelagh - hawthorne branch
  • 067 how to make a shillelagh - removing bark
  • 067 how to make a shillelagh - trimming a branch
  • 067 how to make a shillelagh - sanding and staining

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.

John Condatore
3/11/2011 1:34:56 PM

I was looking for a shilellagh and discovered Moth earth News. I would like to make a shilellagh. I have hunted and hiked and fished and gathered wood for a log cabin in New Hampshire and New jersey amongst other locales. I do not remember ever seeing a tree (Hawthorn) as described in the article. Where in the U.S. are they likely to be found. Cordially John Condatore

3/17/2010 3:39:38 PM

To cut a twig of hawthorn or other tree species that is no bigger than 3/4" in diameter and pass it off as something that historically was used as a cudgel is somewhat insulting. Think of it's origin and select limbs that reflect that heritage.

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