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Polaris Fellowship of Weapons Study offers shillelagh training

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When one thinks of martial practice, thoughts typically run to Asian styles such as karate, kung fu, tai chi, aikido, and others. If the practitioner is more modern and engrossed in personal protection intent martial practice, jujutsu, Krav Maga, Systema and others like it come to mind. In the case of the Asian styles, they have had their techniques handed down fairly continuously and are generally well preserved. In the cases of the newer styles, they borrow from older ones and are new enough that their roots are still understood.

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But, there are volumes of historic texts out there on weapon study, and not just from Asian styles. Medieval Europe had centuries of warfare and strife. And where there is warfare, there is martial knowledge. The Polaris Fellowship of Weapons Study and Self Defense is devoted to exploring these historic texts from an academic standpoint, then putting the lessons learned into practice. The group offered a Shillelagh workshop at the end of March, and training in this ancient Irish weapon was not to be missed. The workshop was informal, and well suited to learning about the subject at hand. At first, the Head of School Heather Gutterman, went over some of the history of the Shillelagh.

Historically, there are no real standardized lengths or other dimensions for the weapon. This would be expected since it is essentially a stick, and not a regulated or mass crafted item. Because of this, there are many variants and many sources on the Shillelagh and its use. Some were treated by coating in butter then cured by heat to give it the recognized black appearance. Some were shod in iron or steel tips, and some were weighted in the handles with lead for better balance. The traditional wood is Irish Blackthorn, which gives the Shillelagh its gnarled and knobbed appearance. Other hardwoods are also common.

After the brief history lesson, the workshop moved to the area set up with ‘pells’. These are the targets the trainees would be using to practice hitting. Heather demonstrated several different weapon strikes, and gave the trainees ample time to practice them. With the larger, and possibly weighted, head of the stick, it was clear a great deal of the weapon’s effectiveness came from using that weight in various twirling strikes. In this case some of the strikes included a short, quick strike, a strike utilizing a weapon twirl, and some basic hits. There were also various guard positions demonstrated, with the strikes being performed from the guard positions where applicable.

After the strikes were well understood, the group did partner work consisting of various strikes and their respective blocks. Some of these are common blocks using a stick roughly a yard long, but of interesting note was the Shillelagh was commonly gripped about ⅓ way down from the head, and this upper ⅓ area was used for many blocks. This was somewhat disconcerting for hand safety, and definitely required proficiency to get right. But, the effects of blocking with this area of the weapon allowed the attacker’s energy to be used against him. When the top ⅓ of the Shillelagh was hit, it would force rotation around the hand/wrist holding it. The tail end of the Shillelagh incurred a lot of momentum as a result of the strike, which could then be easily directed into the arm and elbow of the attacker. Using weapons with higher offset centers of mass such as the Shillelagh are interesting for the various effects, such as these, which may not be as readily apparent in a more homogeneously weighted stick.

The session ended with another history lesson on the Shillelagh, and a post-workout stretch and cooldown. There was some more information about different schools of thought on Shillelagh use and technique, which is apparently still contested to this day. With various families and political sides vying for power through their history, it stands to reason that there would be various factions of Shillelagh styles in play, so it is not surprising that the ‘Art of the Shillelagh’ is not a unified study.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Polaris Fellowship of Weapons Study and Self Defense, visit their website at

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