THE IRISH GRIP
By David McGoldrick
One of the most distinctive features of authentic Irish Stick Fighting is the use of the Irish grip. The length of the Bata is quite standard across many of the worlds stick fighting systems because so many styles use a stick that is approximately the length of a sword or walking cane. However, nearly all other stick fighting systems hold this length stick at or very close to the bottom, in order to maximise the range of the weapon. In ISF we hold the stick with our primary hand, just over a third of the length from the bottom. (In double Irish grip, we also hold it with our secondary hand just over a third of the length from the top). We do this for 3 reasons.
Firstly, a Bata is, by it's nature, quite top heavy. Not only does the Bata have a knob at the top which adds weight, but it is also usually thicker at the knob end. That's just how plants grow, including Blackthorn. If you add to that the desire of some Irish stick fighters to lead load their Blackthorn sticks, this makes the Bata a very unevenly balanced weapon. Now, if you try to wield a top heavy weapon in a standard sword type grip, it becomes very difficult to control, even in your primary hand with extremely strong wrists. You are fighting against physics. As you bring your grip further up from the bottom, you start to gain more control. You now need less wrist strength to change direction or bring the stick back to position after you have thrown it out. I deliberately use the term "thrown it out" because it feels less like a cut or thrust and more like a throw when you wield a top heavy weapon.
This brings us nicely to the second reason; the bounce. If you have enough length of stick below your grip, then the bottom of the stick (which obviously moves in the opposite direction to the top of the stick) will naturally bounce off your forearm. This enables the stick to be retracted very easily, naturally and most importantly; quickly. One of the biggest problems that happen when weapons are heavier or longer, is that if you miss the first time, there is usually a longer time lag where you are exposed to counter strikes before you can recover guard or change direction of your weapon. Not so with the Bata. The bounce makes recovery extremely quick.
The third reason is cover. There should be enough of the stick below your grip to cover your forearm all the way to your elbow. This means that as you turn your hand to do a forehand or backhand strike, the lower part of the stick turns with it and automatically protects the exposed side of the forearm. Hitting anywhere from the hand down to the elbow is one of the easiest ways to disarm your opponent, but if that was to happen to you in a fight, it would obviously be disastrous. If you hold your weapon near the bottom (like a sword), then every time you strike towards your opponent, you expose the target from your hand down to your elbow. Your opponent simply retreats to a safe distance (which is quite a natural thing to do) and strikes the incoming limb. This problem is both recognised and solved in western fencing by the uses of the hand guard and the gauntlet. This takes away this advantage from the counter attacking fighter. In Filipino martial arts such as Eskrima, there are whole strategies and even whole styles based on counter attacking the lead wrist. This is called "direct hitting", "limb destruction" or sometimes "defanging the snake", because of it's disarming results and obviously extends the fighting range of the skirmish somewhat. The problem is taken care of easily with the Irish grip.
The fourth reason is distance. As I mentioned, if you grab a stick at the bottom, you maximise range. The further up the stick you grip it, the closer the range. In a fight like a duel, where you have only one opponent, then extending the range of your weapon gives you a great advantage. After all, you get to hit your opponent before they get to hit you. However, if you are in the middle of a faction fight, with opponents around you, range gets cut down from all directions very quickly indeed, rendering long range fighting far less effective. A fighting style that emphasises being able to engage at closer range, works much better. In my opinion, this leads to a great difficulty in turning authentic Irish stick fighting into a sport. Closer range techniques dominate in a faction fight, whereas longer range techniques dominate in a duel. Trying to keep multiple opponents at bay with longer range strikes only really works if your opponents are gutless (Yeah, I said it!!!).
So, with so many effective advantages of using the Irish grip, it's hard to work out why anyone would use a fencing grip in anything other than a one to one duel. The other style that I know of using a similar grip is the Thai art of Krabi Krabong. Clearly there is no relationship there with ISF other than the ability to work out a sophisticated, simple, effective, refined and easy to learn method of using a weapon in group warfare. It made me laugh when Donald Walker in his book "Defensive Exercises" (1840), said of Irish Stick Fighting: "It is not a very scientific amusement". Many people don't know what they don't know.
This brings me nicely to my next idea about the Irish grip. This may be of interest to those who like maths (for the benefit of the American readers, that's how Irish people say "math"). Throughout the renaissance period, there was a concept taught in maths that went by various names, including the "Golden ratio" or "Phi". The idea was that there was a perfect proportion that just "looked right" because it appeared so much in nature that our minds were just used to it. This proportion was found on the human body, in spirals (such as sea shells), waves, pentagrams, flowers, the Fibonacci sequence, etc. This proportion was considered to be so fundamental to the design of nature, that it was also called " the Divine proportion" and was being studied as a possible scientific explanation of how God created the universe. This is not an article about maths, so I will just say to those who have a more scientific and enquiring mind, to have a look at it. It's absolutely fascinating.
Basically, the proportion is 1:0.618 (or 1:1.618). Those who are quite numerate will easily see that it is a divide just over one third of the way along a line. This is the exact mid point of your fist in the Irish grip. The distance from the knob of the Blackthorn stick to the middle of the grip is in this proportion to the distance from the middle of the grip to the bottom of the stick.
Just to clarify, I have never been taught this by any Irish stick fighting teacher ever and I certainly did not come up with the idea of the Golden ratio. I just noticed that the Irish grip is one of the many things in nature that follow this rule. I believe that we can now claim that it is scientifically provable that the Irish grip is the most natural grip for stick fighting - Just saying!
The final idea that I am going to fascinate (or bore) you with is that the Irish grip is based on axe fighting (For the benefit of the American readers, that's how Irish people spell "Ax").
Ireland was one of the last places in Europe to come out of the Ice age. Because of it's remote position in the top left hand corner of Europe, it was left fairly untouched for a long time. Ireland's earliest inhabitants found a land that was extremely fertile and rich in natural resources. It has been calculated that Ireland was approximately 90% forests. If you live in a country that is so heavily forested, everyone would carry an axe every day, because it is the single most useful tool you could have. This is backed up because some of the earliest evidence of humans populating Ireland was the discovery of axe heads. If you couple this with the fact that the Vikings were early immigrants to Ireland, you now have axes being used as weapons. Obviously, Vikings used many weapons, but swords are less practical than axes when fighting in forested areas. When the Vikings were settled in Ireland, they would often be used as mercenaries by clans to enforce their authority. My own name is an English pronunciation of "Son of Ulric", which is clearly a Viking name and we were part of the O'Rourke clan, helping to establish them as the high Kings of Ireland.
Now, clearly the top heavy nature of an axe (and possibly the optimal length of a fighting axe) makes it share many characteristics with a Blackthorn stick. The most obvious thing to me is that the Irish grip would have come from the way your dominant hand holds an axe. Now, I can't prove whether this is true or false, but it just seems intuitive. This would make the Irish grip as old as Ireland itself.
I have seen a few arguments and articles on the internet about other sources of Irish stick fighting and I am not trying to say that axe fighting is the be all and end all. Clearly, the Doyle ISF system is based on pugilism and there could also be an argument that some ISF tactics and strategies could come from fencing. However, the length and top heavy nature of a Blackthorn stick gives it certain physical characteristics that determine the Irish grip and therefore determine the nature of ISF, irrespective of additional tactics and strategies.
All of my ideas are based on my own knowledge, experience and intuition and I don't expect everyone to agree with me. I always invite people to question me, especially if you think I'm wrong.
Muinteoir of the Wolf Faction