Wrestling in Gaelic Culture
by Cinaet Scothack
Wrestling is man's oldest form of martial art. It has existed in many Cultures, in many incarnations, since the dawn of recorded history. It is well documented that the ancient Greeks had a long history and great passion for the sport. What is relatively unknown is that the Gaelic peoples of Ireland and Scotland have a long history of their own with the grappling arts. The first mention of wrestling in a Gaelic land is the description of the Games of Tailtinn in 632 B.C.E.. These games were held from this early date until 1169 C.E.. There is a relief carved into the Market Cross at Kells that shows two wrestlers gripping each other as if at the start of a bout. This cross is dated from the 8th century, predating any incursions from the Norse, who many credit as being very influential in the spread of the grappling arts in the Gaelic lands. Further evidence that the grappling styles of the Gaelic lands were indigenous can be found in carvings from Scotland that depict, in one instance, loosehold-style wrestling and, in two cases, backhold style. These carvings are dated between the 7th and 9th centuries. Domhnuil Gruamach, Lord of the Isles, built a gymnasium for his strongmen and wrestlers in 1400 C.E.. This building, "Tigh Sunndas" as it was called, was the first building to have been erected in Scotland for the expressed purpose of sport.
Early accounts of grappling in single combat can be found in various manuscripts in Old Irish. In the meeting between Cu Chulain and his son Conla they first wrestled before resorting to deadly combat. The style of wrestling they used required the grapplers to grip each other's belts in the opening stance. Various forms of belt wrestling still exist today in Europe.
Art MacConn, the father of Cormac, was said to have wrestled a giant, as well as Diarmuid of Fenian fame. Diarmuid is also credited to have wrestled the champion Dubh-Chosach. These two combatant, though fully armed, chose to thrown down their weapons and meet empty handed. Ossian and a foreign champion also chose to discard their weapons in an individual combat and take to grappling.
Various styles of wrestling still exist in the Gaelic lands today. Below you will find a short, or sometimes long, description of each of the remaining styles.
Scottish backhold wrestling has a close relative in Cumberland and Westmoreland style wrestling as practiced in the northernmost regions of England. The history of both these styles is relatively unknown, It has been surmised that they were transplanted by Norse invaders but there has been no concrete evidence to support this theory. In both styles, the opponents begin the match in a standing position with the right arm under the opponent's left arm and the left arm over the opponent's right shoulder. The hands are then grasped behind the opponent's back and the chin is rested on the opponent's left shoulder. Victory is gained whenever one of the wrestlers is forced to break his hold or when any part of the body except the feet touches the ground. If both wrestlers fall together it is known as a dog fall and must be re-wrestled. William Shakespeare included a description of this style of wrestling in his play "As You Like It". The wrestler in the play had a habit of falling on his fallen foe and cracking the ribs or even sometimes killing him. A later spin-off style was known as Scots wrestling or Dinnie style. It was created by Donald Dinnie, a Scot who was known for his tremendous strength. He felt that his best asset, his strength, was not as much of a factor in the grappling that he wanted it to be so he created a style in which the grapplers started in the backhold stance but went to the ground fighting for a pin. Scots style died out in the earlier part of this century. Backhold wrestling continues on today as a favorite at Highland games around the world.
A variation of Backhold was practised in Scotland as late as 1985. The grapplers took no initial stance or grip as in Backhold, instead they began the bout separated with the choice of hold up to the individual. The victory was awarded to the grappler who forced his opponent to touch the ground with any body part other than the feet. Some of the rules and techniques resemble the style known as Lancashire or catch-as-catch-can wrestling as found in England.
This is a style that, today, is practiced in the Hebridean Isles of North and South Uist and Benbecula. It is a backhold style with the grip decided by a toss of a coin. The best two of three falls is the winner.
A loosehold style from the Isle of Barra which includes groundwork. The winner is the grappler that forces, throws or carries his opponent outside of a specific wrestling area.
While this style is indigenous to England, it was a staple at Highland gatherings for yearsan is also known as Lancashire wrestling. Matches go to the ground with victory by pin or submission being common. There is a growing interest in the techniques of Catch wrestling within the martial arts community of today. It was, perhaps, the original form of wrestling used as the basis for modern freestyle.
Irish Collar and Elbow Wrestling
The origins of Irish C&E are not known...according to historian Dr. Edward MacLysaght, it was an organized sport as early as the 1600's in which the more prominent of the wrestlers were able to earn a living. Dr. Douglas Hyde tells of a wrestling bout that took place in Connacht in his "Amhrain Cuige Connacht" (Gaelic History of the provence of Connacht). A young wrestler known as Laidir (the strong) took up the challenge issued by the champion of the town of Sligo. This man had been living at the expense of the town, as was the custom of the day, and had killed several man in earlier bouts. He was a greatly feared man and not overly loved by the people of Sligo. Odds were ten to one that the challenger would fall. The two met on the public greens in front of the mass of townspeople. Laidir latched onto his opponent and hurled him to the ground, breaking his neck. The astonished crowd, silent with awe for a moment, cheered their new champion. Of course, the new champion had nothing to fear from the law as this was a legal contest with an unfortunate ending.
It was the smaller man who usually excelled in this style, speed and technique being valued over strength and size. It was often practiced shirtless, so the term collar only refers to the areas grabbed in the contest. Sometimes tight jackets with double sewn seams were worn as well. Footwear was banned from being worn in competition early on due to the kicking and tripping techniques employed. The wrestlers who practiced this style refered to themselves as "scufflers". An impromptu scuffling match was known as a scuffling bee (I guess like a spelling bee or a quilting bee).
While there is no evidence showing that the Irish style of Collar and Elbow wrestling on the old sod was a groundfighting game, it must be noted that the Irish who came to the United States in the late 18th and early 19th century had a style that included a fairly large amount of ground wrestling. Which goes against the mold of other indigenous British Island styles. It works for a throw then a pinning combination (the only other wrestling style of the isles, that I know of, that goes to the ground is Lancashire or Catch as catch can). The begining stance is the foundation of the style as well as the origin of it' name. The wrestlers face each other, grabbing the elbow with the right hand and the collar area with the left hand. This very stance forced the scufflers to use technique rather than a bull rush on their opponent. The beginning of the match was often a test of strategy and balance. The scufflers would try to circle each other clockwise while a series of unbalancing maneuvers, inluding kicking and tripping, would be played-out by both combatants. This stage of the match could last a very long time, indeed, there are accounts where the standing portion of the match had lasted over an hour. Inevitably a take-down would occur . A flying mare or a snap mare was a common takedown. A mare was a throw in which the feet of the thrown opponent actually were higher than his head. Ground wrestling began after one or both of the scufflers hit the ground. Half-nelsons and various grapvines and other ground control techniques were then employed.
A match was originally won only when all four points of the body were pinned to the ground for the count of five. By four points I mean both shoulders and both points of the hips. Not an easy win to accomplish against a well-versed opponent. In the late 19th century, the requirement to win was lessened to a three point touch. Cornish wrestling, another Celtic style, wrestles to what is called a back or Lamm. Points are scored for how many points of the body touch the ground as the result of a fall. If three points touch on the landing the bout is declared over, much like with the Irish style. The winner would be the first to win two of three falls usually.
Although Collar and Elbow was seen as a common man's sport in Ireland, it was considered a gentlemen's pasttime in several areas of the colonies. It was part of the curriculum at the Reverend James Maury's Academy in Fredricksburg Virginia. This was the Academy that helped prepare the First president of the United States for his life in the public eye. George Washington, at the age of eighteen, held a Collar and Elbow championship that was at least county wide and possibly colony wide. Twenty-eight years later, in command of the Continental Armies, he demonstrated his wrestling skill by dealing flying mares to seven volunteers from Massachusetts. George Washington was not the only grappling president of the United States. Zachary Taylor, William Howard Taft, Chester A. Arthur and Calvin Coolidge also practiced at one time or another the style of Collar and Elbow. Abe Lincoln was a champion of Catch-as-catch-can wrestling and once referred to himself as possibly the second best wrestler in southern Illinois.
In the late 1700's the style came to Vermont with some of the Irish settlers and had a home in the church - if you can believe that. It flourished in the Vermont area for over 100 years and, during that time, spread across the globe as it mixed with other styles....it is said that the combination of Catch and C&E was the basis for modern freestyle wrestling. Although some authorities say that modern freestyle is the product of Catch as catch can wrestling. In the mid 1800's rules were loosely created to ban the use of kicking, biting, butting and scratching. I would imagine that, before these prohibitions, it was very similar to the wrasslin' used by the Scottish and English Border immigrants in the Cumberland gap.
There is a growing interest in this style of grappling in the United States and Australia today and William Baxter, President of the International Federation of Celtic Wrestling, reports that there is somewhat of a revival of the style taking place in Ireland, but the sport's chance of survival is fragile.
Coraiocht is a backhold style of wrestling that is practised in the western areas of Ireland, Connemara, Galway and Donegal. Traditionally at the begining of a match, the referee would yell out "Lamh an iochdair, lamh an uachdar"(one hand up, one hand down). The rules are very similar to the other backhold styles of wrestling. An organization known as "Cuman Coraicht Cheilteach na h'Eireann" is working to revive this vanishing style.
In conclusion, the evidence shows that the martial sport of wrestling could be found not only throughout the Gaelic world, but throughout the Celtic world as well. The question remains, "Are the modern forms of indigenous wrestling the survivors of a distant age?" There is little doubt that the Cornish Close-Hugg and the Irish Collar and Elbow are in some way related and that the Breton Gouren and Welsh style are most likely pieces of the same equation. A strong argument for the relationship between Cornish wrestling and Breton gouren is the fact that the 5th century Celtic settlers of Brittany came from the area considered to be the home of Cornish wrestling . Cornish Style and Gouren are practically the same style with only slight variations. A link between Irish style wrestling and Cornish can be found in the Rennaisance when troops of Irish Wrestlers traveled to Cornwall to compete against their Cornish cousins. Obviously the styles were similar if they were able to compete under the same rules. The problem with definitely saying that these are pure celtic styles passed down through the ages is due to the fact that many of these celtic regions have been invaded by cultures that also have a native style of wrestling, which may or may not have the same origins as the Celtic styles. Perhaps it is best to just accept these styles as they exist today and yesterday as pieces of Gaelic and Celtic sportive culture to be studied and practiced so they can be passed onto future generations.
The Magnificent Scufflers by Charles Morrow Wilson, The Stephan Greene Press Brattleboro, Vermont 1959
Albion's Seed; Four British Folkways in America. by David Hackett Fischer, New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
Hooker: An Authentic Wrestler's Adventures Inside the Bizarre World of Pro Wrestling. by Lou Thesz and Kit Bauman, Norfolk, Va.: Lou Thesz, 1995. ISBN 0-111-1111-1
Wrestling by E.C. Gallagher A S Barnes and Company New York 1925
Fighting Sports by Graeme Kent, Treasure Press London 1990 ISBN 1 85051 444 5
A Pictorial History of Wrestling by Graeme Kent, Spring Books, Middlesex 1968
Correspondence from William Baxter the President of International Federation of Celtic Wrestling, the FILC (Federation International des Luttes Celtique) as well as his excellent article on European wrestling styles published in a French book....unfortunately I only had a photocopy of the chapter he contributed to the book and it was sent to me without title or publisher name.
Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Augusta Gregory, John Murray Publishers, London 1904
Cu Chullain of Muirthemne by Lady Augusta Gregory, John Murray Publishers, London 1902
Ancient Irish Tales by Cross and Slover, Henry Holt and Company Inc., 1936
Notes on Early English and American Wrestling History by Tom Conroy in Hoplos Vol 3 Number 4 1981
Irish Collar and Elbow Wrestling by Ken Pfrenger, No 6 year End 1998 issue of Hop-Lite
The Inn-Play or Cornish Hugg Wrestler by Sir Thomas Parkyns London 1727
The Story of the Irish Race by Seumas MacManus original 1921 reprint by Barnes & Noble Books 1999
The Socio-Genesis of Cornish Wrestling by Michael Tripp, A dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of MSc in the sociology of sport and sports management, University of Leicester 1995
prepared by Cinaet Scothack