Faction fighting was a common occurrence at pattern days and fairs especially in contested areas, i.e. bordering parishes, mountain passes etc. Blackthorn sticks shaped into cudgels, known as shillelagh were used, often one in each hand. These sticks were seasoned over long periods of time by being rubbed with poitín or brandy and placed up the chimney. Any man wishing to instigate a fight at a fair would drag his coat behind him calling on anyone brave enough to fight him to stand on the coat tails. Máire MacNeill argues that this was not just a fight for the sake of fighting but instead served a ritualistic/symbolic function. She postulates that the combat could be a re-enactment of the fairy battles of the otherworld on the mortal plane (MacNeill,1982:408) or especially in the case of pattern days, gaining the favour of the local saint, the ‘Deus Loci’ so to speak. This was in aid of bringing the ‘luck’ back to the winners parish. However, recorded data of mass injury and the occasional death(s) shows that many of these events weren’t simply just for the sake of ritual, with some groups having often deadly grudges for one another. Other evidence points to the fact that many of the fights were related to land disputes and renewal of leases and the origin of the faction fights may reside in the agricultural based secret societies such as the “white boys”.
These events did not escape the notice of the outside observers and these provide us with a good example of the profane manifesting among the sacred activities at pattern days. It was noted that “bloody knees from devotion and bloody heads* from fighting” were not uncommon (Croker, in Hall & Hall,1841:284).
*The risk of head injury was severe, with many people suffering long after the fights with fractured skulls and degloved scalps. To avoid this the fighters would wear hats a few sizes too big, which they would subsequently stuff with súgán (plaited straw) to cushion the blows to the head*.
“There was a man killed there once and a flower grows there in the part of the field where he was killed and it is in bloom most of the year”.
The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0345, Page 233: https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4921711/4892898/5170628
Hardy tells us how “parties come to fight and quarrel” (Hardy,1840:57) at Croagh Patrick while Croker, when referring to the pattern at Ardmore, tells us how “a scene of rioting and quarrelling” periodically ensued (Croker,in Hall & Hall,1841:284). He seems to believe that fighting is endemic to the Irish peasantry as he says “without which Paddy cannot live long in good humour” (Croker, in Hall & Hall,1841:284). Of course, if we look at it from the view of MacNeill’s argument of it being symbolic fighting it makes a lot more sense than it would have to eyes of the uninitiated observers to whom we owe these accounts. Symbolic or not, injury was common as well as occasions of people dying.
It must be noted that it was not only men who were involved in these organised brawls. Women often line edges of the field of battle (or in boats if the fight took place at the beach) and either threw rocks or hit those unfortunate enough to be in range of the sock filled with a rock that they often carried.
Many towns and parishes had their own groups of fighters. Each faction had a leader, often called captain, and oaths of fealty were often given to the leader by the members. The “captain” would usually recruit 70-100 people to go to a fair with him, seeking battles from rival parishes. Two famous groups, for example, would be the Shanavests ( mostly farmers with land) and the Caravats (mostly made up of young men with little to no land of their own) . Many of these groups had their own code of behaviour. The Caravats for example had a code of silence when it came to talking to police, no surrender and no sucking up to the wealthy. The Shanavests on the other hand were willing to inform on neighbours and were typically friendly with the landlords and agents. This as you can imagine caused a great rivalry between the 2 groups. The mounting tension and escalation of violence (they had gone from using simply blackthorn/Ash sticks to using slashhooks, knives and even pistols) from these groups meant that the authorities were ever increasingly attempting to stop the bloodshed, which eventually led to these fights coming to an end (the introduction of the GAA also gave parishes a far less violent means of opposition) .
The church also had issues with them as they often took place at “pattern” or “patron” day pilgrimages. After some of the bloodier battles, a bishop called to put a stop to the bloody tradition that was causing so many young people to lose their lives prematurely. It was reputed that the leaders of the factions came to him during a mass, walking 2×2 down the isle and handing over their sticks and pledging to put an end to the faction fights.
“The only people who tried to keep it alive were the old seasoned veterans and at fire side and cross road they recalled the ‘brave deeds’ of the men”
The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0405, Page 301. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4613713/4611483/4651854
In terms of participation numbers, many of the faction fights were certainly not just a few lads meeting in a field to batter each other. For instance, one fight had reportedly played host to 600 fighters. One of the worst recorded was at Ballybunnion in 1834. This fight took place on St John’s Eve annually, but over 2000 people are believed to have taken part in that year on Ballyveigh beach. Boats full of people and loaded with rocks lined the edge of the water and rival factions such as the Cooleens, the Mulvihils and the Lawlors stood against each other. A long standing feud between these groups was at the heart of the reason for this brawl. The day ended with bodies laying at edge of the water, belonging to the people who had drowned when some of the boats had capsized. Many more bodies lined the beach having succumbed to the injuries inflicted in the fight. Hundreds lay maimed and injured and the official death count was 20, but it is believed that the true number is much higher (owing to people dying from their injuries in the subsequent weeks).
We get a great account of the Caravats and Shanavests from the Nation Folklore Schools collection:
West Waterford Factions.
There used to be a lot of faction fighting in West Waterford up to fifty years ago. The ‘Shanavests‘ and the ‘Caravats‘ were the titles given to the most well known factions. The ‘Shanavests‘ came from Modeligo and wore a white waistcoat. The ‘Caravats‘ came from the Touraneema district and wore a kind of cravat. These two factions used meet at the annual fair of Modeligo. The fighting began after the buying and selling was done. Each man was armed with a stout stick and stones were often used. Fine young men were sometimes maimed for life and it was a common sight after the fight to see badly injured people lying on the fair ground. Each faction tried to drive the other across the river Finisk and victory came to the side which succeeded. Each side was led by a recognised captain or leader.
The last encounter between a ‘Shanavest‘ and a ‘Caravat‘ took place in Barrack St. Cappoquin. A ‘Caravat’ named Donovan had come to live in Barrack St. and one night a Shanavest named OMeara was passing the house when he called out to Donovan ‘Caravat‘. Donovan was in bed but upon hearing the shout he jumped out of bed snatched up the cudgel he had used in fights years before and clad only in his shirt ran after OMeara. A fierce fight followed but they were separated by onlookers.
Other well-known factions were the ‘Polleens’and the ‘Gows’. These were connections of the ‘Shanavests and the ‘Caravats‘ and they used to meet at the annual fair of Affane (May 14th)
The police were usually loath to interfere because if they did the two factions would unite and attack the police.
(NFSC: Vol.0637:57) Collected by Carl O leary, Cappoquin, Informant: Owen O’ Keefe (85), Farmer, Shanbally, Co.Waterford.
Croker, T.C (1981), Researches in the South of Ireland, Irish Academic Press, pp.278-281
Hall, S.C (1841), Ireland: Its Scenery,Character etc, How and parsons, London, pp.282-284
Hardy, P.D (1840), The Holy Wells of Ireland, Hardy and Walker, Dublin, pp.59-63
MacNeill, M (1982), The Festival of Lughnasa, Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, University College Dublin, PP.88-408
Duchas.ie, The National Folklore Schools collection
Na Céad Fight Clubs, TG4 documentary. (featuring interviews with: Silvester Ó Muirí, Stiofán Ó Cadhla, Cormac Ó Gráda, Donnacha Ó Duibhir, Jack Philips.
Lecture notes of Dr Ciarán Ó Geallbháin for the Exploring the Otherworld module at the UCC Folklore and Ethnology department,