19th Century Faction Fighting

The 18th and 19th century Irish phenomenon known as the faction fight was essentially a mass brawl that involved hundreds and sometimes thousands of antagonists...

knuckle duster and blacksmith-made pocket pistol

Fig. 1: 19th century knuckle duster and blacksmith-made pocket pistol from 1810 confiscated by police during faction fights.

The 18th and 19th century Irish phenomenon known as the faction fight was essentially a mass brawl that involved hundreds and sometimes thousands of antagonists organised into groups and meeting at designated venues and dates such as fairs, markets, funerals, race meetings, patterns (parish patron days) or any other large gathering. The result was often the deaths of one or more of the participants, and always maiming and injury.

Factions were almost exclusively based around clans, parishes or geographical area. The tradition of fighting was enthusiastically instilled in the next generation so that rivalries festered and grew. The phenomenon was most prevalent in the province of Munster and more especially in County Tipperary and always remained a rural practise.

The illegal and uncontrollable nature of the mass brawls meant all kinds of weapons were used. The rural landscape provided an ample supply of stones for throwing. Women carried stones in their aprons for the men to hurl. Guns of all descriptions were also used when available (Fig.1). Loaded butts and wattles were simple sticks weighted at one end to cause maximum injury. By the 18th century, the Irish had developed their own art of stick fighting known in the Irish language as bataireach. Bataireach and stick fighting in general became increasingly associated with faction fights.

Despite heightened religious tension at the turn of the nineteenth century, religion was not seen as a major factor in encouraging faction fighting. Reasons for fighting ranged from a want to display a family’s strength to the more sinister agenda-driven involvement of illegal secret societies. Most of the faction quarrels had their origins in trivial beginnings perhaps going back several generations, which has led some commentators to conclude that the fights were basically recreational. Long hostilities between the Bootashees (O’Briens) and Tubbers (Hogans) are said to have resulted from a fight over a game of marbles between two small boys, an O’Brien and a Hogan, in 1794 while two armed factions spoiling for a fight in Killeavy, County Down in 1835 clashed over an attempt by one faction to extinguish a bonfire started by the other. In fact, so slight were the reasons behind some grudges that it was not unusual for members of hostile factions to live and work together in peace and harmony all the year round except for the days when the factions mustered to fight.

The response of the local authorities to faction fights was to observe rather than intervene unless “the better class elements of the neighbourhood” were threatened. Faction fights were rarely disciplined affairs and initial taunting could quickly escalate to all out murder. A fight between the Lalors and the Coleens at the racecourse of Ballyeagh strand, County Kerry in 1834 resulted in the deaths by stoning and drowning of 35 people. The Lalor faction had numbered 1,200 strong to the Coleens’ 600. Police did make arrests when the fighting had run its course. By 1839, it was reported that faction fighting had virtually ceased.

Fig. 2: An Officer of the County Constabulary, c.1822. The County Constabulary had the unenviable job of containing the almost primeval faction fights.