Thurles Women – Tipperary Stone Throwers

Tipperary women, in particular, have a lot to answer. The next time the wife throws a plate in the direction of your head, the chances are she has Tipperary connections. This remark is borne out when we trace the true origins of the nickname attributed to natives of County Tipperary “Stone Throwers“.

This nickname came about because of a strange social phenomenon thriving in Ireland at the beginning of the 19th century, the cult of ‘Stick Fighting‘ better known as ‘Faction Fighting‘ or ‘Shillelagh Fighting‘. This sport which began its roots, possibly, in the village of Cappawhite, Co. Tipperary from whence it spread rapidly throughout Munster, Leinster and eventually to most of the rest of Ireland. This sport was at its peak in Tipperary in the second and third decades of the 19th century.

Faction Fights were planned events where men in two lines met face to face and fought for usually no other reason other than the sheer love of fighting. Tenant farmers and their sons dressed for a fight with great care and attention. The ‘game’ of Faction Fighting took place openly, usually towards the end of public gatherings such as fairs and markets, funeral wakes, race meetings, and patterns (parish patron days), between groups whose members had in common, drink and loose bonds of kinship or friendship. Fighters obeyed the rules of their chosen Captains and were bound in duty to ‘never back off if fight was offered’.

They fought with large sticks, some hardened and loaded with lead and manufactured usually from the ready available blackthorn tree or from ash suckers. These sticks were then carefully cut and tested following careful drying beside the domestic turf fire. For these fights, willing participants were trained as meticulously as were military swordsmen in the then British cavalry. Some landlords made wagers on the fighting ability of their tenants “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).

These groups of Factions Fighters had many names such as Caravats and Shanavests, The Three Year Oulds, The Four Year Oulds, Cooleens, Pudding Lane Boys, Black Hens and Magpies, to name but a few. In the flourishing state of Faction Fighting, vendettas were pursued between “Shanavests” and “Caravats” at the fairs of Ballingarry, South Tipperary, between “Rawlins” and “Cusheens” at the green in Cashel, Tipperary, between “Darrigs” and “Cummings” at Roscrea, Tipperary and between “Pallates” and “Bawnies” at the fairs held in Borrisoleigh, Tipperary. The “Reaskawallagh” faction was nearly all Ryan’s and took their name from a towns-land in the parish of Doon, on the Tipperary / Limerick borders, where the Ryan chieftains had lived for generations.

Many a life was lost at these fights and serious injury was to be expected. In some cases both faction groups, which could number between 200 to 1,000, would combine together against a common foe, often turning their attentions to attacking unwanted interfering policemen (Peelers) who attempted to bring about law and order. Quite often, regiments of soldiers had to be called into action to prevent or quell riots between these factions.

In 1836 alone, over 100 faction fights were reported in Co. Tipperary. 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, 20 men were dead.

On the 20th March 1826, in the main square of Thurles, Co Tipperary (today, strangely, this square is called Liberty Square, see picture.) women standing on the sidelines enjoying the spectacle of a local faction fight, somehow got it into their heads, as women will, that their men folk required support. These women began firing large rocks at the opposing faction. The stones it seems had been secreted away in their shopping baskets, in readiness for this event.  According to reports of this event, the stones fired by these interfering women, missed intended targets and broke many of the windows of the local shop keepers. The police who intervened were “desperately attacked” and shots were fired killing 3 men. This serious riot was only quelled by the intervention of the 15th. Royal Foot Regiment, then garrisoned in Thurles, who were prevailed upon to support the local authorities.

Faction fighting declined at the end of the 19th century for many reasons. There was less tolerance of violence by the Authorities and better policing. The existence of a little less poverty also contributed, making for a much more contented and peaceful population. The influence of the Catholic Church, and the rise of militant Irish republicanism (Fenianism) put an end to large-scale Faction Fighting, as more and more of the agrarian faction groups united and were absorbed into the Fenian organization, in the latter half of the 19th century.

The Irish Temperance Movement which began in 1838, led by Tipperary priest Fr Theobald Matthew also had a dramatic effect on Irish life, with 40% of the countries adult population taking an oath of temperance. By 1845 revenues obtained from alcohol manufacture and sales fell from £1.4 million to £0.8 . There was also an appreciable reduction in local acts of crime reported.

However, probable the main reason for this decline was the foundation of the G.A.A. in 1884 at The Haye`s Hotel Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Stick Fighting would now have rules and exchanged blows would for the most part be levelled only at a leather ball.

Should any of our readers now decide to revive this ancient sport of “Stick Fighting”, just remember to leave the wife at home. “Give women an inch and they think they are a ruler“.


2 comments to Thurles Women – Tipperary Stone Throwers

  • John O'Connell

    Janey Mac, and here was me thinking a woman was only a woman and a good cigar was allways a smoke,I shall have to-reconsider my “participation” in this week-ends “World Stonethrowing Championships ” in Corofin, Clare, might be a tad safer in Nolan Park, after all it will be just men tipping a sliotar about the Park.,

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