Sticks and Stones: What is Faction Fighting?


The Party Fight and Funeral (Carleton’s Irish Peasantry by William Carleton, George Routledge & Co, 1854)

Faction fights were mass brawls at Irish fairs, markets, funerals, race meetings, and patterns (parish patron saints days) between hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people – usually families or parishes or estate tenants – whose weapons were usually sticks and stones. The fights often resulted in the deaths of one or more of the participants, and always resulted in maiming and injury. The tradition descended from one generation to the next as did the leadership of each faction.

Reasons for fighting ranged from a desire to display a family’s strength, conflicts over non-payment of dowries, fights over succession to land, and long-standing grudges often going back several generations. In many cases, the reasons behind some grudges were so trivial that it was not unusual for members of hostile factions to live and work peacefully together except for the days when the factions gathered together to fight.

The sticks used in faction fights were of holly, oak, whitethorn, and blackthorn. The blackthorn stick was popular because it was thought that a cut or a wound from a blackthorn would heal more quickly than those from a whitethorn. Sticks were also weighted at one end to cause maximum injury.

Reports in 1839 that faction fighting had all but come to an end were proved false as on 30 June 1845, fair day in the village of Ballinhassig, Co Cork, the Ballygarvan and Ballinhassig factions met to fight. When the leaders of each faction began fighting, the police attempted to stop the fight by arresting ‘Ranter’ Sullivan, the leader of the Ballinhassig faction and imprisoning him in the village Dispensary. When both factions joined forces to release Sullivan, the police opened fire and eleven people were killed, including a woman, Julia O’Callaghan. A plaque in the village commemorates those who lost their lives.

The Ballinhassig faction fight and aftermath appear to have been the final significant incidents of its kind. There were some isolated faction fights following the Famine and the last recorded faction fight took place at Cappawhite, County Tipperary in 1887.

Many thanks to Mixed Messages on Twitter for bringing the Ballinhassig Faction Fight to my attention.

Documentary on Faction Fighting from TG4 – Ireland’s Irish language TV channel – in English and Irish with English subtitles

© Lorna Peel


Ireland, 1835. Faction fighting has left the parish of Doon divided between the followers of the Bradys and the Donnellans. Caitriona Brady is the widow of John, the Brady champion, killed two years ago. Matched with John aged eighteen, Caitriona didn’t love him and can’t mourn him. Now John’s mother is dead, too, and Caitriona is free to marry again.

Michael Warner is handsome, loves her, and he hasn’t allied himself with either faction. But what secret is he keeping from her? Is he too good to be true?

!A Discovered Diamond

Read an excerpt…

At the edge of the wood they stopped and stared.      

Liam, his hands on his hips, was watching in clear despair as the two factions lined up against each other. Malachy Donnellan, waving a blackthorn stick which must have been over two yards long, was wheeling – walking up and down between the factions, taunting and challenging Tommy Gilleen of the Bradys to fight.      

“It didn’t take her long to forget him, did it?” Malachy was shouting. “John Brady – the supposed best fighter ever. He didn’t seem the best fighter ever to me when I last saw him.”      

Michael saw Caitriona bite her bottom lip. Why couldn’t they let John Brady rest in peace? He gripped her hand tightly as Tommy Gilleen was at last provoked.      

“Caitriona Brady has betrayed her husband,” Tommy screamed back. “She doesn’t deserve to have the name Brady. Her husband was the best fighter ever in this parish. She may not love him anymore, she may have forgotten him, but we never will. Why do you think we’re still called the Bradys?”      

“None of you have the imagination to think of anything else?” Malachy replied innocently. “You’re just not good enough to lend your name to your lot.”      

“Aragh, you bastard.” Tommy rushed forward with his stick, swinging it around his head. He struck out but Malachy met the stick with his own. This was the signal for general ructions to begin and within seconds the entire congregation who, only minutes before had been knelt together in prayer, were beating the living daylights out of each other. 

Explore my blog for more excerpts, character profiles, and background information



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