Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Irish Blackthorn Walking Stick

If you regularly walk on uneven terrain, a stick can be very helpful.

Introduction

It has been increasingly difficult to find authentic Irish blackthorn walking sticks.  The sticks that so many stores carry are seldom real, and as such are thin, light, too straight, and unsubstantial.

For those looking for authentic - albeit highly limited - Irish blackthorn walking sticks, this is an ideal source:


Skillfully Handcrafted in Ireland for Six Generations,

Stick making in the words of the stick maker:

Uses and History 

I am a 6th generation stick maker. (And perhaps more.  I was only able to trace back 6 generations as many records were destroyed or didn't exist for my family past then).

In times gone by, everyone would had have some sort of blackthorn stick in Ireland. They were used for a walking aid, a pointing tool, poking, disciplining children, and even for herding cows from one field to another. Kids and woman as well as men would have their own sticks. Cudgels or shorter shillelaghs, anything from 12 - 24 inches, would also be popular to carry.

President Kennedy was given a blackthorn walking stick by his cousin Jimmy Kennedy when he visited the family homestead in Dunganstown.

Despite their many uses, however, in the oldest tradition, they were considered weapons for protection.  The way to get around legislation about having a weapon was to call it a walking stick. As a result, traditional sticks are actually thicker than one would think.

It’s really near impossible to find examples of really old sticks today, as they would get quite damaged through wear and tear the just burnt and replaced when a new one was needed.

Making Blackthorns

Real blackthorns are usually made by families, not factories.

They are time-consuming to make.  The time put into it doesn't make it a business!  For example, there is only a several week window in winter for them to be harvested, and they must season for two years.

It is my hobby making authentic blackthorn sticks the traditional way.  It's a tradition in our family. It's actually very relaxing working with wood when you are stuck behind a computer all week.

I produce about 40 a year and my dad makes about 100.

Blackthorn Hedges

Blackthorn was used in hedges to give borders on family fields and along the side of roads. It grows in really poor land and soil found in mountainous and hilly regions. It doesn't grow in forests in Ireland.

Finding the Right Raw Stick – Trunk or Branch

The hardest part is just finding a suitable stick.

The best sticks are the ones taken from the trunk when they are about 5-8 years old, and come with decent rootball.   Sticks made from the trunk are far stronger and were the stick of choice of yester year. Others are taken from a branch of an older tree.

For business reasons, most makers never use the trunk as they can get several sticks from the branches over the years. What is sold online as a rootball is usually a branch than have be turned in to a knob shape.

Blackthorn Starting to Bloom ((This and the following five photographs were provided by the stick maker.)

"I remember my granddad giving me the tweezers to pull out the thorns from his hands thinking it was a game."  


If the stick is made from the trunk and root then is doesn't have an awful lot of barbs/spikes. If it was from a branch then it had more spikes.

Stick from older branches are not great for fighting. The sticks that the Irish used as fighting sticks come from the trunks only, as they were hard and more flexible.  Branch sticks can break, I am told, but have never been in a stick fight.





It’s rare, but if you can get a purple/red heart in the center of the blackthorn too, this looks great on a handle. This comes from the really older blackthorns.

Production

The old way was just to throw the stick in the dung pile to dry out.

Straightening sticks is the one part of the process that can be quite time consuming and tedious; it really is a skill to get some of the bends out. Stream is used to make stick flexible.  Hold the stick between the knees to the straighten it.  (These are straightened, but never  completely straight.)   But try to straighten the sticks too soon and the bark peels off and it just bends back. Or the stick can be well seasoned, but if the wood isn't warm enough when bending, it snaps.

Then use grease and shoe polish on the stick.

Finding The Right Height, and the Tip

For most people under six feet, 36 inches is fine.   If someone is over six feet, just divide your height by two.  For a man of 6'4 about a 38 inch stick should be fine, and the diameter of the stick should be at least an inch thick.

If the stick is to be used as a mobility aid, a person would need to check with their physical therapist about what the optimal height is.

You call always cut it if you are very short.. Use a bit of sandpaper to shape the bottom. If you do cut it just put some wood water sealant on the base where you cut.

But don't add a brass ferrule to the bottom. Adding a brass ferrule to a thick blackthorn stick looks terrible and it is not how it was ever done. This is a new concept to give it a more premium look to sell as a gentleman's cane in shop.

An authentic Irish blackhthorn never has shamrocks or irish coins added either!

Sticks look best when just shaped at the bottom, or you can add a black rubber ferrule if you want.

Imitations

It can be a bit of work to find a real blackthorn stick; you have to be careful.

I just had a walk in Killarney last weekend and can confirm there was not one real blackthorn in any of the shops, only imitations.  There are plenty of knock-offs on the Internet as well.

Most of what is sold as blackthorns are really whitethorn or other woods. Some tip offs:
  • Whitethorn: If it is has a lot of barbs, many knuckles, is very straight and light in weight it's more than likely a whitethorn. With whitethorn, if you cut it in half, the center is very white, more so than blackthorn. Whitethorn cracks like crazy when you are drying out, with plenty of places to split
  • Hazel is another people sell and call blackthorn. It is very straight with no knuckles.
  • Rowntree Mountain Ash has knuckles.  It is perfectly straight and light. (Actually mountain ash sticks are not too bad and were used a lot as well.)
  • A breed of plum tree too are painted and passed as blackthorn.
It can be hard to really tell until l you hold it. The weight is a big tell. Blackthorn is heavy. if your stick is  to 1½ inch diameter and 36 inches long, then it should be close to 2 pounds in weight.

About the Stick Maker

Francis McCaffrey graduated with a business degree and started out as an investment banker with Chase Manhattan, as it was known at the time. Then he become a headhunter for a recruitment firm and after that lived for five years in Asia as a Management Consultant, before returning to Ireland - and settling down in rural Ireland - to raise a family.  He worked as a marketing consultant for years before joining Aran Sweater Market.

Here he is on a reality business TV show in Ireland - http://youtu.be/0X3wBHv26_w.

McCaffrey has 3 children now. Fáinne who is 8 yr old (pronounce fawn yaa, the Irish language work for ring), Francis who is 6 yrs old and the youngest son Aran is 2 yrs.

The temptation is to hang these beautiful sticks on the wall.


Put one leaning in a room, and guests almost invariably pick it up and handle it.


A description of these two sticks from the source:
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