The glossy and gnarled walking sticks that adorn John Borter and fiancée Trish Chiovari’s Coxsackie home aren’t just made for hiking.
Known as shillelaghs, they’re used in a martial art called bataireacht, or Irish stick fighting.
Chiovari and Borter are part of a movement to revive and popularize it. The martial artists have spent the last few months bringing it not only to the Capital Region but across New York State, and will soon start offering classes at Modern Self-Defense on Central Ave. in Colonie.
Irish stick fighting uses a blend of fencing, boxing and grappling techniques and has fighters punch and strike with their shillelaghs.
Its roots go back more than 500 years and the fighting style thrived during the 1700s when the British occupied Ireland and outlawed people from carrying most weapons, according to the BBC. The shillelagh, which was often made of blackthorn, oak or hawthorn, looked like a walking stick but could be used as a weapon.
It was also used in faction fighting in the 1700s and 1800s. Factions, made up of families or various social groups, would fight sometimes to the death in illegal melees, held at festivals and funerals. Stick fighting styles were passed down from father to son for generations before the martial art form declined in popularity, in part because of the Irish potato famine. According to the BBC, it had nearly disappeared in the country by the turn of the 20th century.
It was kept going mainly by Glen Doyle, a Canadian martial artist of Irish descent whose family has a long history of Irish stick fighting. For years, Doyle has taught his family’s style, including to people like Irishman Bernard Leddy who became a coach and went on to Borter and Chiovari.
Borter has been practicing and teaching a variety of martial arts for three decades, including at Modern Self-Defense. He also created the ABC Women’s Self-Defense program. Chiovari has been practicing martial arts for the last decade. They have experience with a range of styles but Irish stick fighting is a whole new ball game.
“Irish stick is just a totally separate thing,” Borter said, adding, “It’s so much fun. I’ve been in martial arts for over 30 years and this is the first time I’ve been really excited about something in a long time.”
They trained with Leddy, sometimes over Zoom, for about a year before they became coaches. According to Borter, Chiovari is the first woman to become a coach in what’s known as the Doyle style of Irish stick fighting.
One of the things that attracted Chiovari to it was its practicality.
“It’s a really practical style. There are martial arts out there that take a really long time to pick up. The learning curve is very steep because it’s just a little more esoteric, or it’s maybe a little bit more complicated. Irish stick is meant to be learned quickly and easily,” Chiovari said.
“It’s something that doesn’t require a ton of time to really start to feel competent and that’s great because there are so many things out there where you just spent so much time on them and you feel like an idiot for so long. But with Irish stick, you pick it up and within a matter of a few hours and you feel like [you] can actually use this if [you] had to,” Chiovari said.
Beyond self-defense techniques, it also provides a good, if not overly taxing, workout.
“It’s not a heavy workout. You’re not lifting truck tires and swinging ropes, but you’re active. You’re moving, your blood is pumping,” Borter said.
They started teaching about six months ago, hosting what they call an Irish stick study group in the Coxsackie area. At first, only a few people regularly attended the weekly sessions but it has steadily grown. They usually have about 22 people in the group, some who come from as far away as New York City, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and range in age from 8 to their 80s.
In a typical session, they’ll start with a warm-up and move into teaching strikes and blocks, along with critiquing stances and footwork.
“There’s not a bottomless number of techniques that they have to learn,” Borter said. But there’s a lot that can be done with the system.
Students practice with a training stick, which Chiovari and Borter can supply or students can bring their own. (In addition to teaching Irish stick fighting, Borter makes training sticks out of a variety of different wood types.)
To train, practitioners don’t often use actual shillelaghs because of their cost, antique value, or historical significance. Borter and Chiovari are avid shillelagh collectors and have approximately 100 that they’ve gathered during their time training and working to popularize Irish stick fighting.
They’re part of a small group of Doyle-style coaches in the U.S. and they’ve taught Irish stick seminars around the Northeast and started a Facebook group called The Irish Stick that’s become popular.
“Right now we have 4,500 people on the Facebook page we built about 10 months ago. We put so much time and effort into helping the system grow and getting it out there just because we love what we do,” Borter said.
They plan to start teaching Irish stick at Modern Self-Defense in December and they’re also working to start other study groups.
“I would love to see this as a class at every YMCA, community center [and] social group in the area,” Borter said.
Modern Self-Defense Academy is located at 1237 Central Ave. Suite 210, Albany. For more information visit theirishstick.com.
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