by Michael Smith (Veshengro)
Walk softly and carry a big stick someone, I believe it was a US President, once said and this is a very valid adage.
Primarily the walking stick is a truly functional thing and well worth having at hand, pardon the pun. A good walking stick provides that extra bit of support we sometimes seek and need when crossing a raging torrent, traversing shale or loose soil on precarious slopes, or staggering homeward, late at night, from the pub. And, as said, a good walking stick is an excellent weapon when needed.
Walking sticks come in a many different styles, and are made from a wide variety of materials, though all the most pleasing and proper are crafted of close-grained woods. And among these many varieties, though, the penultimate walking stick to a great many is the honorable Irish walking stick, the true Shillelagh, usually crafted of Blackthorn wood, and with a fine hard knot of hardened root at the gripping end.
Having said this, however, with walking sticks, as with so many other things, it is often a case of horses for courses and other hardwoods are also great, and one of my favorites is Hazel, cut from well-managed coppice stools.
It does not have to be Blackthorn, not even for a Shillelagh. The fact is that many a Shillelagh in Eire was, in fact, not made from Blackthorn at all in the olden days but from Bog Oak.
Many people believed, falsely, and still do, that a Shillelagh was and is an Irish cudgel, shorter than a walking stick, crafted of blackthorn wood and featuring a knob or head of root wood.
It turns out that, what many have mistakenly called a Shillelagh all these years, and what is a popular tourist item sold in shops in the town of Shillelagh, after which the stick is named, was once a very popular weapon in 19th-century London. Very handy to have – but not something that the Irish would have used at that time, or earlier.
Their weapon of choice would have been a cane made from oak, blackthorn, ash or holly. An English writer who, on seeing an oak cane and knowing where it came from (the Shillelagh Forest in County Wicklow), coined the term Shillelagh. Eventually, it became synonymous for any Irish walking stick.
Blackthorn is looked upon by some as the best wood for the shaft of a cane. It is a very hard, close-grained wood and if growing from the trunk of the tree or bush, is covered with very sharp, vicious spines.
Those spines are also indicated in Blackthorn's Latin name of Prunus spinosa with the spinosa indicating the spines. Those spines are not thorns at all but hard wooden spines and other varieties of prunus also tend to have those spines.
The most notable features of blackthorn wood are the deep reddish-black bark and often numerous knots. The bark is left on for added toughness and often a metal ferrule is secured at the end opposite of the knob.
While at some time the wood was crafted green and thus to keep the wood from splitting during the drying process, sticks were often buried in a manure pile, or smeared with butter and placed in the chimney to cure, I would recommend, although that makes for harder work, to cut the shank long enough and to also leave wood on in other areas and allow the stick to season gently out of the wet but outside.
If you don’t have good walking stick yet and consider getting one, please bear in mind that the quest to find the right one may take some time.
If you can't find one to buy, though there should be enough good makers about, make your own. Keep your eyes peeled, and when the time comes the right stick will call for you and you will have found a lifelong companion.
Aside from being able to be used for defense a walking stick is, as earlier indicated, a walking aid, a third leg, that can and will give support in a variety of situations.
There are many other types of walking sticks than just the knobkerrie, as the Shillelagh one would be called in Southern Africa. There are thumb sticks, there are the ones with the bent handle, caned with antler and bone handles, and then there are the large staffs, akin to a quarterstaff, used by serious walkers and hikers and by wizards, such as Gandolf in Lord of the Rings.
All those sticks have their uses and the thumb stick, for instance, was, with a large(r) fork originally used as a rest for a musket and later a rifle and many a deer hunter still uses such a stick to rest his rifle for a more accurate and steady aim.
As far as a walking stick as aid in walking is concerned I would never ever put my trust in any of those non-wooden contraption called hiking sticks, hiking poles, or whatever their names and titles may be. They break, as I have found out testing a couple. Only a wooden stick can give the needed support. And as a defensive weapon those modern – often telescopic ones – are entirely useless. Again here only a wooden stick will do.
The shank should be chosen from sustainable managed woods, ideally coppice operations, making it thus a very green choice. Aside from Blackthorn, which coppices well and can be grown for the purpose of making stick, Hazel and Ash are also great choices as woods for sticks, whether you buy your stick or make it yourself. Other countries, obviously, have other woods for sticks, such as Osage Orange, Hickory, etc., in the USA, or Red Mopani Wood in Southern Africa, as an example.
My personal favorite wood from which to craft walking sticks, whichever kind, is Hazel and Ash, taken from coppice woods or as saplings when they are in the wrong place, as far as forestry operations are concerned, such as during thinning.