Faction Fighting
County Kerry
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Faction Fighting

OK, they had it tough. But at least they had family, right? Well, yes and no. You know that shillelagh, the Irish blackthorn walking stick which jolly leprechauns used when strolling down country lanes - - - well it actually was a murderous weapon used in highly structured, regularly scheduled fights between families, gangs, communities, septs, tribes , or whatever, in which fights to the death were extremely common occurrences and were participated in by both men and women

"A study of text-book Irish history will reveal little evidence of clans in Ireland in modern times. Like many of our traditions, the clans' idea was kept alive among the ordinary people and was of little interest to academics who ignored it or failed to recognize its existence. The glamour of the clans survived in the folk memory, focusing on faction fighters like Sean Mor Hartnett who is reputed to have squeezed water out of the head of a blackthorn that had been seasoning for seven years --- a boast worthy of Fionn or Queen Maeve

"As the factions faced one another in lines of battle, some distance apart, the captains advanced into the narrow strip of no-man's -land between them, brandishing their [weapons] and otherwise taunting and insulting their enemies . . . The captains might advance almost to the enemy lines, then wheel left or right, prancing up and down the lines and generally behaving in a most provocative manner. This ritual . . . might last for a quarter hour or longer, to the accom-paniment of the most extraordinary exchange of language by the captains. . . ." (Irish Roots, 1993 Number 3)

"In a party fight, a prophetic sense of danger hangs, as it were, over the crowd - - - the very air is loaded with apprehension; and the vengeance burst is preceded by a close, thick darkness, almost sulphury, that is more terrifical than the conflict itself, through clearly less dangerous and fatal. The scowl of the opposing par-ties, the blanched cheeks, the knit brows, and the grinding teeth, not pretermitting the deadly gleams that shoot from their kindled eyes, are ornaments which a plain battle between factions cannot boast. . . .

A faction fight has none of this tragic and somber element. The atmosphere is light and comic: Paddy's at home here, all song, dance, good-humor and affection . . . he tosses his hat in the air, in the height of mirth . . . He is in fact, while under the influence of this heavily afflatus, in love with every one, man, woman, and child. If he meets his sweetheart, he will give here a kiss and a hug, and that with double kindness, because he is on his way to thrash her father or brother. . To be sure, skulls and bones are broken, and lives lost; but they are lost in pleasant fighting - they are the consequences of the sport, the beauty of which consists in breaking as many heads as you can." (Daniel J. Casey & Robert E. Rhodes, Views of Irish Peasantry, p. 137).

"Faction fighting was a phenomenon unique to nineteenth century Ireland. Factions were armies of country people, numbering hundreds or even thou-sands, armed with sticks and stones, and, occasionally, with swords and guns. Their battle grounds were fair greens, market places, race courses and frequently streets of towns and villages. Many people were killed and scores wounded in the most famous encounters. The fighting was first reported in 1805 in Tipperary and quickly spread to all parts of the country except the North-East. No fair, market, pattern-day or any public gathering was complete without its faction fight. In 1836 alone, over 100 faction fights were reported in a single county -- Tipperary.

In 1825 a faction fight took place at Shanagolden, County Limerick -- the O'Briens and the MacMahons on one side, the Griffins and Sheehans on the other. The encounter involved an estimated 500 combatants. After the preliminary taunts and insults the factions charged. The leaders, wielding heavy blackthorn sticks, fought in single combat until both lay dead. The cause of the fight was a jostling of one another by the leaders, Kennedy O'Brien and John Sheehan, at a fair earlier in the year.

The granddaddy of all faction fights took place on June 24, 1834, the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist, a Holy Day which traditionally served to commemorate the occurrence of the longest day of the year, when 3,000 participants, the Coolens on one side, with Lawlors, Blacks and Mulvihills on the other, went up against each other at Ballyveigh Strand in County Kerry. When the bleeding stopped, 200 were dead. Sure and you bet that they talked about that one for a long time.

Other reasons for faction fights might be conflicts over non-payment of dowries, fights over succession to property, long-standing grudges or just plain orneriness.

Fights took place between parishes, baronies and gangs, but more significantly, between families. The Keeraghs, Graces, Gows, Hickeys, Hogans, Bawns, Mulvihills, Collinses, Macks, Hartnetts, and McInirys were all well-known factions. The Reaskawallagh faction was nearly all Ryans and took their name from a townland in the parish of Doon where the Ryan chieftains had lived for generations.

The last recorded faction fight was in Cappawhite, County Tipperary in 1887". (Irish Roots, 1993 Number 3)

Thanks to Ray Marshall for this contribution.


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