Friday, March 14, 2008

Walking Tall With An Irish Shillelagh

My Daughter, the Irish Princess, Models my Mother's Shillelagh (click to enlarge).
Photographs by Elizabeth O'Neal, March 13, 2008.

Before my mother died, she frequently had to use a cane to get around. She hated canes, as I'm sure most people who have to use them do.

So her full-blooded Irish mother - my grandmother, Mary Margaret McGraw - bought her a shillelagh: a handmade Irish walking stick.

My mother never used her shillelagh because it wasn't sized properly for her, and canes that are used for medical purposes need to be the right size in order to be functional.

This lovely shillelagh has been sitting in the corner behind the door of my office since we moved to this house a few years ago. I had never really given it a thought... until my daughter found it - and started beating on things with it - the other day.

The shillelagh is typically made of blackthorn wood or oak, and is named for the Shillelagh Forest in County Wicklow, Ireland, once known for its massive oaks. The wood would be smeared with butter and cured in a chimney, giving the stick its shiny, black appearance.

A shillelagh may also be used as a club or weapon, and the knob was often made from a heavy blackthorn root for weight. Sometimes the stick would be hollowed out and filled with molten lead, increasing the weight. This "loaded stick" would pack quite a wallop, I'm sure!

While examining Mom's shillelagh, I found that it is indeed shiny, although I'm not convinced that this is caused by cured butter. It weighs slightly less than a pound, so it's obviously not filled with molten lead (thank goodness!).

There is a rough-hewn band of copper around the bottom tip, although the wood remains exposed where the stick meets the floor.

In the handle is what appears to be an Irish penny, dated 1996 (see inset).

The tag reads: "This 'Blackthorn' is identical to what I handcrafted for President Kennedy, President Ronald Reagan, and Tip O'Neill on their Historical Visit to Ireland. Made in Ireland."

I have no idea who crafted this item or where my grandmother bought it; however, I did find this link to the National Geographic Online Store, where they state that "The craftsman who makes this blackthorn and hazelwood walking stick has made ones as Ireland's official gift on state visits by U.S. dignitaries including Presidents John F. Kennedy, Ronald Regan, and Bill Clinton."

Until recently, I was unaware that such a special piece of Irish culture was right under my own roof. I'll be looking for a more prominent place to display Mom's shillelagh, but one that is safe from curious little fingers!

Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth O'Neal

Print this post


Colleen Johnson said...

Loved reading this blog posting. My grandfather had a blackthorn. I don't remember it having a coin at the handle. My mother has it right now and I hope it will be passed down to me. It's very special. Enjoy!

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the kind words, Colleen. I thought the coin was an unusual addition, but it seems kind of special.

Do get your hands on that family shillelagh, if you can!

First said...

Elizabeth, i have one of those too! I inherited it from an aunt who is Irish, not sure where she got it from but it has the same tag and also the 1996 Irish penny on the handle. The only difference on mine is that the handle is more of an "L" shape opposed to the traditional curved handle of a cane.....have you found any more information about these on the web? Let me know if you do, you can reach me at

Anonymous said...

i have one and the date on the penny is 1988

Anonymous said...

We have one with the same tag and a 1995 penny, would like to know more about it, Maker, Age, Price, Type of wood.
Gary in TN