"They fought for the sheer love of fighting"

"Off go the hats and the coats, the fight begins, Some strike the heads, while others strike the shins. The winching codgels around their fore heads play They need no leaders to begin the fray Where e'ere the brave O'Donoghues engage".


Organised fights between opposing factions was a general feature of early 19th century Ireland. These fights usually took place at fairs or other meeting places when drink was in abundance and the main topics of conversation were the price of cattle, the weather and the fight that was about to commence. This tradition of fighting is reputed to have began in Tipperary in 1805 and quickly spread all over the country. One of the most famous of all factions was in the Doon area. The establishment of the day tended to ignore faction fighting - even to encourage it, believing it to be a good thing to see the Irish fighting among themselves and not against the system of government.
The factions had colourful names - "The Cravats and the Shanavests".The three year olds and the four year olds, The Black Hens and the Magpies. The local Doon faction was made up of the Ryan Clan (who else) and were known as the Reaskawallahs, after a townsland in the parish. They were involved in many a skirmish against the Coffeys of Newport.
The weapons used were long sticks of oak, ash, holly or blackthorn. These sticks were carefully prepared and after a fight were greased and polished ready for the next encounter. It was believed that a wound from a blackthorn stick would heal quickly - the whitethorn was a much more dangerous weapon as a blow from this could result in blood poisoning. A particularly vicious weapon was the "loaden butt" in which the stump at the end was hollowed out and filled with lead. The ash "sucker" (an offshoot) was regarded as much tougher and more durable than the ash plant.
In close combat a short stick was used "the alpeen" or "kippen". These were tempered in dung heaps, rubbed with butter and placed up the chimney, where they were left to season. The intentions of the fighters can be guaged by the names given to their sticks, common ones being "bas gan sagart" (death without the priest) or "leagadh gan Eiri" (down with no hope of rising).
As the fair day came to close members of two opposing factions began to gather. The cause of quarrel between the two was unimportant, maybe an insult passed fifty years before, or as was the case in one region, a row between two small boys over a game of marbles. As the factions squared up to each other the opposing captains advanced. Then followed a ritual of insulting, mocking, teasing - one captain would "wheel" his stick over his head as he challenged his oponent -"Here is a Coffey abu against a Reaskawallagh, here is a Coffey abu - who dare strike a Coffey?"
The answer "I dare" followed fast from a Ryan and was accompanied by a murderous blow to Coffey's head. This was a signal for a free for all, as fighters from both sides rushed into the fray and numerous heads were opened and some people killed before the fighting ceased. Many colourful battle cries of the factions could still be heard at fairs up to recent times.
"Doon, Toom, Carnahalla - Cappawhite and Gurtavalla" or "Here's a Doon garsoon - who'll bate him?"
Some famous local leaders were Ryan Bawn and Allis, Maurice Fitzgerald, Pat Leddan and The Russian Buckley, so called because he was "as big as a Russian". He had the dubious distinction of being the last man killed in a faction fight. This final fight took place in Cappawhite in 1887.
W.R. Le Fanu, rector in Abington in his book "70 Years of Irish Life" describes one fight at Annagh Bog near Murroe when the Reaskawallahs led by John Ryan (Luke) (Shawn Lucas) marched from Doon to engage the Coffeys. "In an instant hundreds of sticks were up - hundreds of heads were broken. In vain the parish priest and his curate rode through the crowd, striking right and left with their whips, in vain a few policemen tried to quell the riot...." In this particular battle the Coffeys were the victors. A few were killed and many seriously wounded.
Daniel O'Connell's campaign to win Catholic Emancipation, in which he held monster meetings throughout the country, helped to bring the faction fighters to their senses. His message to the people he addressed was to unite as one in the face of a common enemy. It was in this spirit of peace that the Reaskawallahs marched to meet the Coffeys at Newport to patch up their differences in 1829. Le Fanu describes the procession thus: "They marched six deep in military order with music and banners, each man carrying as an emblem of peace, a green bough, the procession nearly two miles long. On its arrival in Newport in the presence of much joy and whiskey and in the presence of the priests a perpetual peace was established and never from that day did those factions meet again in battle".
However, even though the faction fights declined considerably from 1830, the following years often saw old scores flaring up and faction fighting continued right up to that last recorded fight at Cappawhite in 1887. It may be that the G.A.A. from here on provided a platform to vent parish rivalry and filled a void created by the demise of the faction fights.

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