How to Make a Shillelagh

Take up a saw, a knife, and your Irish spirit and learn how to make a shillelagh.

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by Adobestock/tinyakov

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.

  • Updated on Jan 29, 2022
  • Originally Published on Jan 1, 1981
Tagged with: shillelagh, truncheon, walking stick
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