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The Wrestlers

This is an extract from a short story originally published in “The Irishman at Home: Characteristic Sketches of the Irish Peasantry” (Dublin, 1849). It is set in the Bog of Allen, on the border of Kildare and Offaly. Two men, Tom Molloy and Kenny Kilfoy, are working as part of a group of turf cutters when they come to verbal blows over the affections of a local girl, Essy Buckley. As tempers rise, they agree to settle the dispute with a wrestling match at the end of the day.

Although the wrestling style in question is not specifically identified as Collar and Elbow, the description of the match strongly suggests that this was the framework under which the two men competed. Both wore sturdy frieze jackets, attacked primarily with combinations of trips, and victory was determined by the best of three falls.

———

“It’s easy settlin’ that,” said Tom, “I’ll wrastle you this evening, when the dacent girl you have a regard for, (mimicking Kenny’s drawling tone), and that cares little about you, I’m thinkin’, won’t be present, and let the best two out of three show who’s the man that has a right to brag.”

“Aye, that’s the fair way,” interposed some of the men, who saw a quarrel likely to ensue, and wished to prevent it, by what they considered a harmless trial of strength and dexterity.

The men resumed their work with increased good-humour and renovated glee, all except Kenny Kilfoy, who nursed his angry feelings and passions in silence within his own bosom. Their work was soon done, and many a dry or elevated patch in that quarter showed black, being thickly covered with the square sods cut from the deep hole which they left behind them. The sun was not set; it was yet early evening as they left the bog.

“Well, boys,” began Tom Molloy, “many hands makes the work light; we’re done brave and early, and it’s as purty a day’s work as you need look on.”

“We’ll have full time,” said one, “to thry the three falls here above in the meadow, and be home afther afore the supper time.”

“Auch,” said another, sure it’s only jokin’ Kenny was.”

“How’s that?” said another; “Sure not maining that it’s afraid he is you’d be.”

“I never joke ‘ithout laughin’, boys,” said Kilfoy, “an’ I’m not in the grinnin’ humour much at the present minute.”

As soon as they reached the meadow, Tom, who was jogging on before Kenny with another group, tossed off his coat, and addressing Kilfoy, who was crossing the stile —

“Now, Kenny,” said he, “let there never be a boast about the best man after this bout, an’ we needn’t be the worse friends afther. Come Pether, lend us your jacket, and throw my trusty here over your showldhers.”

He was soon arrayed in the frieze jacket, and kicking off his weighty brogues, he stood in his stocking vamps inside the little circle formed by his companions. He was joined by his rival, whose dark and lowering brow still plainly told of ire unquenched, and passion fierce and burning; and as they stood before each other, Tom stretched forth his hand in a frank and manly manner.

“Come, Kenny,” said he, “give us the fist before we begin, to shew there’s neither spite or anger in regard o’ the few words.”

“Let every madman and fool shake his own hand,” said Kilfoy, bitterly, withholding his hand, and looking on the extended one of his rival with a sneer.

“Well, the sorra may care for your good or bad humour,” replied Tom, moving towards his opponent, “come on, an’ let ev’ry man do his best.”

They grappled, and after a few preliminary movements, the contest became interesting to all parties.

Perhaps there is no exercise so animating and healthy as wrestling, as it is practised in most parts of Ireland, and at the same time so beneficial and conducive to health when conducted fairly. All the agility and strength of the frame are put into requisition; every muscle in the body is strung, and the steadiness of foot — the quickness of eye and limb, and the pliancy necessary to excel, give vigour and elasticity in a surprising degree.

Kilfoy was the strongest man, but he evidently did not possess the action or dexterity of Molloy, who exhibited at every turn that wavy motion of the body, so observable in the tiger and leopard kind, and which gives the plainest indication of nerve and agility combined, and which shows the body more like a moving mass of muscle than a composition of flesh and bone. Often did Kenny attempt to toss his opponent, and as often was he foiled by the superior tact and quickness of his adversary, and the spectators, by their looks, gestures, and exclamations, gave vent to their feelings or their admiration.

“By my conscience that was a mighty purty offer of Tom’s to dhraw him off.”

“Faix he was near getting the sleeshoge on him that time.”

“Look at the hump Kenny has on his shouldhers, watching like a badger in a barrel.”

“Faix Tom has as purty a stan’ as ever I saw with a boy; as straight an’ as light as Sharpfoot the dancin’ masther.”

“Bow! — he was near bringing Tom with that strong cross-thrip,” said one amateur, starting from a recumbent posture to one knee, as his favourite stumbled from a sudden forcible manoeuvre of his opponent.

“A hangnashun ugly thrip that cross-thrip is,” remarked another.

“Ha! He’s at it agin — not so well as before though,” said another.

“Look at Tom how he smiles ; watch his eye; he’s throwin’ himself in the way ov that ugly curl agin,” said a young one.

“Never!” said another in a lower voice; “iv he thries that cross’thrip agin, he’s done as sure as his name’s Kenny Kilfoy.”

Kenny did try the cross trip again, and as quick as thought his rival drew back ; his foot missed the object, and, in endeavouring to recover his position, his foot was caught, and Kenny Kilfoy measured his length in the green grass. A loud hurroo declared the triumph of the victor. Kenny rose from the ground more furious than before. He was more enraged than ever, for shame added to his anger. He was certain of victory, and disappointment lent threefold stings to his former rankling. His friends came round him.

“I was thinking,” said one, “that cross-thrip ‘id disappoint you.”

“You should have got in on him,” said another.

“Close him, Kenny,” said a third, “when you go in again; he’s too active for you, and you’ll have a betther chance, for you’re the strongest.”

“Standhers-by are always good wrastlers,” said Kenny churlishly, shaking off his Job-like advisers, and walking forth again to meet his antagonist. They grappled again; Kenny went more incautiously to work than before. He tripped furiously, and swung his lighter antagonist about in rather an awkward way. Molloy went from side to side with him as he pulled, and escaped his efforts to throw him, until his own violent exertions pretty well fatigued him ; he then commenced annoying, and with a well managed feint he drew his comrade off his guard, and tossed up his heels in a most dexterous manner.

“You’re the best man be odds, Tom,” said Jack Buckly, “an’ Kenny must acknowledge that himself for a good thruth ; but he won’t refuse to shake hands I know now, as I won’t be easy ’till I see you friends agin.”

“Never!” muttered Kenny, with furious emphasis, from between his set teeth, and he turned from the group.

“When I offered him my hand,” said Tom, “before we began, I did it like a man; now I would not give him my hand for all he’s worth in the world.”

Kenny stalked away completely crestfallen, yet with a refreshed and a new burning hate in his bosom. He felt that Tom was beloved by Essy ; and he thought that harmless jest which Tom uttered in the bog was with a design to render him ridiculons before his mistress. He retorted in a way in which he imagined himself sure of drawing his rival into disgrace, and in this too he was foiled. Thus jealousy and shame were heaped upon him, and worked within his moody soul. Yet another trial awaited him, in which he suffered more, but which brought on the most tragic results.

The Best Man in Fingall

This an extract from Patrick Archer’s “The Humours of Shanwalla” (1913), a collection of tall tales and far-fetched anecdotes centred around the titular rural hamlet. In this chapter, a circus featuring a world champion wrestler has come to town, and the townspeople hatch a plan to send their own local champion, Ned McCoy, in to the ring to challenge him. Unbeknownst to Ned himself…

Similar to The Gaels of Moondharrig, the wrestling style depicted here is not Collar and Elbow. Rather, it is a form of jacket wrestling known only as “Fingallian style” – described as being like a mix of Cornish and Catch-as-Catch-Can. There is no record of any style with that name ever having existed, so it is quite probably simply a figment of the author’s imagination.

Nonetheless, although they are not competing under a strict Collar and Elbow framework, the two wrestlers find themselves in a typically leg-centric exchange at one point, and the finishing technique of the bout – the Crook – was so frequently used in Collar and Elbow that it could almost be considered the signature technique of the style.

This tall tale thus illustrates the extent to which wrestling was once embedded in Irish storytelling and society as a whole, and suggests that the refined legwork of Collar and Elbow was something that Irish wrestlers often brought with them to contests under other rulesets.
——

The ringmaster of the “Franco-American Unrivalled Mammoth Circus” looked around him with satisfaction. Never had he seen the  great tent so well filled. Almost every inch of space had been availed of, from the top row by the canvas down to the edge of the ring. The Shanwalla boys were there in great force, tier above tier, waiting in anxious expectancy for the wrestling bout which was set down on the programme as item Number Seven.

Joe M’Grath had industriously circulated the report throughout the barony that Ned M’Coy had engaged to try a bout with the world’s champion, and here, as a proof of the engagement, was Ned seated in the front row, and altogether oblivious of the fact that to the majority of those present he was the great attraction of the circus.

The audience puzzled the ringmaster and the performers. The most brilliant feat of equestrianism hardly elicited applause.  The jokes of the clowns passed unheeded, the trapeze turn evidently failed to excite admiration, and up to the conclusion of item Number Six everything seemed to fall flat.

With the introduction of the large, thick for item Number Seven a change was apparent. Necks were craned and eyes strained to catch a first glimpse of the great men who were soon to follow. And when eventually the wrestlers strode into the ring, what a rousing cheer they received.

Then the ringmaster understood. These people had come to see what wrestling was like. Well, they would have value for their money.

Capriano and Pepini, smiling, muscular, and bedecked with medals, came forward gracefully to the centre of the carpet, bowed like princes to the assemblage, and at once commenced giving an exhibition of their skill. And such an exhibition as it was. Now Cornish style, then catch-as-catch-can, again Cumberland. Such strength, such activity, such feinting and posturing, such gripping and breaking away, the men of Shanwalla had never seen before, and instinctively their thoughts turned to Ned M’Coy, and they felt themselves wondering how he could have the hardihood to dare attempt a trial of strength and skill with either of these wonderful wrestlers.

Pepini was, of course, vanquished in each bout. That was part of the programme as previously arranged. The world’s champion had never been known to receive a fall. The turn finished amid deafening applause, and, while the champion rested, the ringmaster came forward, holding a ten-pound note in his hand, and announced in stentorian tones that Signor Capriano “was ready to meet all comers, according to advertisement.”

A dead silence fell upon the audience. No one stirred.

A thousand eyes sought the form of Ned M’Coy, and Ned, having had his attention directed to the fact bv Rose Mulhall, who was seated by his side, looked around, and, finding himself thus observed, blushed furiously. The champion, following the glances of the audience, smiled encouragingly in Ned’s direction. Ned, not understanding, blushed  still more furiously, while Rose, becoming nervous, edged away a bit from him.

Still a solemn silence. Not a whisper was heard. The Shanwalla boys scarcely breathed. Had Ned M’Coy become cowed? Would the challenge pass unheeded ? Not so. Joe M’Grath felt the time for action had come, and rising from his seat he jumped into the ring with the shout, ” Shanwalla takes up the challenge, an’ Ned M’Coy’ll rastle the wurruld’s champyin.”

A thunderous burst of applause greeted the bold announcement. Joe M’Grath’s stroke told, and Ned M’Coy, ere he could well realise what had. happened, found himself in the ring opposite the redoubtable Capriano.

“What style, please, zare?” asked the polite champion, as he bowed to Ned and smiled benignly.

Joe M’Grath whispered something in Ned’s ear. “Fingallian style,” answered Ned, hesitatingly, with a puzzled look at Joe.

“What was ze gentleman’s please to say?” asked Capriano, as he smiled and bowed again, looking at Joe M’Grath.

“Fingallian style,” shouted that individual, with a knowing shake of the head. “Fingallian style, mind you ! No furrin rastlin’ for the lads of Fingall.”

“Fingallian style,” reiterated a hundred Shanwalla throats with a forceful eloquence that brought the circus manager from some hidden recess where he had been counting the receipts, and caused the Royal African Man- Eating Tiger to cower trembling in his cage.

The manager, being a man of perspicacity, quickly took in the situation, and the announcement was immediately made that Capriano would wrestle Ned M’Coy in the Fingallian style. He was an agreeable chap this Capriano, and had no objection to become a champion in the Fingallian style in addition to the honours he had already obtained in the more generally known systems of wrestling. Capriano learned from Joe M’Grath that the Fingallian Style was simply a combination of Cornish and Catch-as-catch-can, the only difference being that no holds were allowed to be taken on the belt or below it.

The preliminaries were soon arranged, and five minutes later the wrestlers stood facing each other in the centre of the ring, Capriano wearing a Cornish wrestling jacket, while Ned, who had been divested of his ordinary coat and vest, stood arrayed in Brian Boylan’s frieze jacket, looking quite a strippling in the presence of his gigantic opponent. There was, however, a light in Ned’s eyes and a dilating of his nostrils which spoke of spirit and determination. Once fairly in the ring his usual shyness evaporated, and he stood before his formidable antagonist with the easy grace of a born athlete, his heart high-beating and every sinew and muscle braced for a struggle upon which he felt depended the reputation of the village which had (through the medium of Joe M’Grath) declared him its champion.

Joe’s heart almost failed him at the last moment, as the disparity between Ned and Capriano was fully borne in upon him. Larry Dempsey, noticing Joe’s look of discomfort, whispered to him, “It’s no match. Poor Ned’ll be kilt. God help him, the innocent crathur, to let himself be inveigled into such a place. But, mind ye, if he’s hurted you’d better look out for yourself.”

Before Joe could offer a remark the contest had commmenced, and both wrestlers, in crouching attitude, were playing for a hold. Suddenly Ned was gripped unfavourably by the sleeve, but with a rapid twist and plunge he was free, and in the fraction of a second was seen to have a favourable hold on his opponent’s coat collar. Capriano seemed to take things quietly, and stretching forth his hands with a smile of conscious superiority took the outside holds on Ned’s coat, and then commenced a wonderful exposition of the “collar-and-elbow” style of wrestling.

Capriano began the footplay, and marvellous indeed was the agility and address he displayed. Ned, on his part, seemed equal to the occasion, and slipping one of Capriano’s ornamental trips, caught him smartly on the heel, staggered the champion, and following up his advantage with lightning-like rapidity darted underneath his powerful antagonist to “cross-buttock” him. Capriano, however, aware of Ned’s intention, by the exercise of his great strength freed himself from M ‘Coy’s grip, and, jumping clear, gave the Shanwalla man a wrench so terrific that he went staggering to the further edge of the carpet, where, ere he had quite recovered, Capriano pounced upon him as the hawk pounces upon the sparrow, and gripping Ned around the body lifted him back over his bent knee as easily as if M’Coy had been a child.

This, however, was an old Fingallian trick, and Ned, being conversant with it, counter played by bringing his foot to bear lever-like on the inside of Capriano’s further leg, again fairly staggering the champion. Then it was that Ned M’Coy made his effort. His opportunity had come.

With all the strength of his muscular right arm he gripped his opponent around the neck, while swiftly and dexterously his right leg entwined itself around Capriano’s left. A chorus of voices, hoarse with excitement, came from the onlookers.

“The inside crook! The inside crook!”

“M’Coy has th’ inside crook on him!”

“Hurrah, Ned, yer sowl you!”

“He’ll take him!”

“No, he won’t.”

“By th’ tare o’ war he will, though!”

“More power M’Coy!”

“Bully man, Ned!”

“Stick to him for your life!”

“Hurrah for Shanwalla!”

Capriano made prodigious exertions, shook himself like a captive lion, strained, twisted, pulled and pushed — all in vain. Ned M’Coy’s inside crook had never been known to fail, and it was evident that Capriano was unable to free himself. Like grim death Ned stuck to his crook, feeling he had the advantage, and using every ounce of his strength in the endeavour to lever the champion backwards to the floor — and defeat.

But Capriano was a man in a million. At Ned’s first application of the hitherto invincible “inside crook” the champion had been pulled backwards several inches out of the perpendicular, where for a moment or two he remained swaying, but gathering himself for an effort, as only a man of his physique and training could under such circumstances, he not only refused to yield further despite his opponent’s most strenuous efforts, but straining forward had actually regained his balance, when, like a flash, Ned unwound his leg from the “inside crook,” and suddenly pulling the champion forward — in the direction in which he was straining — M’Coy put all his power, energy, and dexterity into as glorious an “outside crook” as ever was seen on the plains of Fingall.

Heavens! What a roar shook the earth as, like a falling tower, Capriano came down upon the carpet underneath M’Coy.

As the rush of an avalanche was the rush of the Shanwalla boys over seats, benches, and barriers, right into the ring, where for several minutes they remained undisturbed, cheering the while almost loud enough to split the canvas of the tent.

When the uproar subsided the manager made a neat complimentary speech in handing the prize to Ned.

“You must make a speech, too,” whispered Joe M’Grath to the victor.

“I’d rather give back the money,” said Ned.

“Well, never mind,” said Joe as he jumped upon a table. “I’ll make one for you.”

“Ladies an’ gentlemen, an’ fellow counthrymen o’ Shanwalla, ay, an’ Skerries an’ other places as well,” said Joe in his best style, “I think we showed everywan here tonight that there is good men in Ireland yit. Capriano is a bully man, an’ a thremenjis good rastler. He may be the champion o’ th’ wurruld for all I know, but there’s wan thing I’m thunderin’ sure ov, he’s not the best man in Fingall.”

For Shanwalla the circus had ended. Hours afterwards, on the homeward road, manly voices could be heard from out the darkness proclaiming aloud the invincibility of Shanwalla, and announcing the willingness of that village to oppose the remainder of the universe in the wrestling arena whenever the representatives of that portion of creation should feel so inclined.

The Gaels of Moondharrig

This is an extract from “The Gaels of Moondharrig; or, the Modern Fianna”, a collection of short stories by Rev. James B. Dollard published in 1907. This particular chapter depicts a wrestling match that takes place between a local hurling captain and an English soldier. Although the wrestling framework portrayed here is not Collar and Elbow (rather, it is a “catch-hold” bout in which participants are free to take any grip they like), the story nonetheless serves as a vivid testament to wrestling’s deeply ingrained presence in Irish culture at the time.
——

The broad, well-kept public road running from Waterford City to Clonmel, through the counties of Killkenny and Tipperary, traverses as fine a pastoral country as can be seen anywhere in the world. Like a great white ribbon the road winds across the rich, green fields of the Suir Valley and the Golden Vale, keeping the river a companion the whole length of its course. Clusters of villages, and the large, stone-built, slate-roofed houses of “strong-farmers” stand along its border.

On the day of which we speak, the dust of this fine highway was stirred by the passing of a British Cavalry Regiment from Waterford to the Military Barracks at Clonmel. The Tenth Lincolnshire Hussars, for such was the name of the regiment, though English in title, had, as is almost always the case, very many Irish and Scotsmen in its make-up. The Hussars made a fine and spirited spectacle with their showy uniform and well-caparisoned horses, though, the day, being warm, they were dusty and perspiring from the march.

The Tenth was a veteran regiment, having seen much service in Egypt and Northern Hindustan; in fact, it had but lately landed from these foreign shores.

Two officers at the head of the regiment were conversing earnestly. One was the commander, Colonel Dinsmore, an Englishman born. He was of short, stocky build, and his hair and moustache were grizzled with long service. His companion was an Irishman, a Lieutenant by the name of Burke. This officer was still quite a young man, tall and lithe of body, and of the type that fights for the sake of fighting in no matter what cause.

“That is really a fine country, Lieutenant,” the Colonel was saying, “a veritable paradise after the red sands of the Sudan. Many a hot day, on the trail of the Mahdi, I longed for these things: the green fields, trees bending with leaves, cool, clear streams and rivers.”

“It is indeed a fine country,” answered Burke, with some show of pride, “they raise the right kind of men around here, too; too bad we can’t get them for the army,” he added.

“We don’t recruit many men here then?” queried the Colonel.

“Hardly a baker’s dozen,” rejoined his companion. “We get a few of the day labourer’s sons, but never one of the young farmers – the strong, active fellows who make up the hurling teams. Those latter have a hatred for the army, and if they cannot live at home, contrive to get to America somehow. After all, Colonel, we get but the riff-raff of Ireland in the army, and yet how splendidly these fellows fight. By thunder, if we could get together a regiment of the hurlers, they’d go through the enemy like fire through dry gorse! We had a few hurlers in the Royal Rifles, and when we came to close quarters, I noticed them club muskets, left hand underneath in hurling fashion, and they bored through the tribesmen as cheerfully as ducks through the rain.”

“You don’t say so,” said the Colonel, smiling at his companion’s impetuosity. “I have heard it spoken of as a game that makes men and fighters, and I believe you’re right. We’ll never have the proper training in the army until we adopt some many game like that, and keep our men from becoming the pipeclay duds they so often turn out to be. By the way,” added the Colonel, “do those hurlers of yours practice wrestling?”

“They have no superiors at it,” asserted Burke with earnestness. “When a game is over the crowds form a ring, and the champion wrestlers of the home team, ready stripped, stand inside and challenge their opponents. They usually don’t have long to wait, and I’ve seen four pairs struggling in the ring at once.”

“Are they really skilful at it, though? You know we have Akenside, a sergeant here in the regiment, who was the best professional wrestler in England a few years ago, and I believe he’s just as good today.”

“I warrant you, Colonel,” replied the Lieutenant, “that the pick of these Gaelic athletes is a match for any professional – fair and square rules being observed.”

“You surprise me, and I can hardly believe it. By the way, we should be near that spring of water we were informed of. I believe this is it, and a glorious spring well it is too. Order a halt, we shall feel and water the horses here.”

The regiment halted with a great clash of hoofs and sword-sheaths, and the men, dismounting, proceeded to attend to the wants of their horses.

While the latter were feeding, the hussars gathered in groups, and proceed to have some fun on their own account. A red-headed, jolly-faced “Corkonian” named Billy Hannigan seemed to be the centre of attraction, and around him the largest crowd gathered; Englishmen for the most part.

“Come, Billy, old boy, give us a Come-all-ye – we ‘aven’t heard your voice for an age.”

But Billy modestly declined on account of an alleged hoarseness. “Besides, boys, the day is so dry and hot, me poor throat is like a lime-burner’s hut.”

“I bet you a pint o’ Guinness you cawn’t sing that song you composed down at Waly ‘Alfa – that blimed song you called ‘I don’t care for the English.’”

You’ll lose your bet, Cockney Joe,” retorted the Corkman. “I’ll be glad to sing the song any time before an English audience, so here goes: –

“Oh! The first I saw o’ the Army
They came with the Death Brigade;
They flung my parents upon the road,
With ne’er a roof to shade.
My mother died in the workhouse,
My father died in jail:
For he stole through the door that was his before,
And they wouldn’t give him bail.

Chorus:
So I don’t care for the English,
An’ they don’t care for me:
Brannigan, Flannigan, Heffernan, Hannigan,
What great big fools we are!
Thiggin Thu,
What great big fools we are!"

All the troopers joined in the chorus, and indeed, to give them credit, the “Sassenach” seemed to enjoy the joke on themselves even better than the rest. The tone of disaffection in Bill’s production seemed only to add zest to the fun. There was a great clapping of hands, and cries of “Bravo, Billy”, “Rise it, man.”

“‘Ere’s the Colonel ‘imself a-comin’ to ‘ear you, me lad.” Thus encouraged, Hannigans’s mellow brogue rang out again with a great swing: –

“I went to the Fair o’ Limerick.
An’ took a drop too much:
I broke the word to me mother.
An’ punishment comes for such.
I met with a gay recruiter,
He shoved me the shilling there;
An’ next thing I knew the worst was true,
I was stuck in the British square.”

Chorus
But I don’t love the English,
An’ they don’t care for me:
Brannigan, Flannigan, Heffernan, Hannigan,
Big Amaddawns are we!

I’m through with the fun of the army,
My six-year term is out;
They’ll pay me away with a tenner a day,
An’ give me the ‘right about’

My brothers an’ sisters hate me
We shook the swamps o’ Burham,
We baked where Nile goes red;
A big brown Fuzzy let fly his spear,
An’ shaved the hair from my head.
The bullets rip-zipped around us,
An’ I had to club the gun,
For the swarmin’ blacks climbed in at our backs,
An’ I was never built to run!

Chorus:
Though I don’t care for the English,
An’ they don’t care for me:
Brannigan, Flannigan, Heffernan, Hannigan,
Great Amaddawns are we!
For I’m their worst disgrace
An’ I’ll starve a’ die, with no friend nigh,
Away from my native place!

Chorus:
The love I bear for the English
Is sick as their love for me;
Brannigan, Flannigan, Heffernan, Hannigan,
Nice Amadawns are we!"

Wild applause broke forth at the end of Billy’s song. He was evidently, in spite of his rebellious spirit, a great favourite with the troopers, and had doubtless helped to brighten many a tedious hour ‘ere this.

“Let us have the bloomin’ ditty over again, Billy,” cried Cockney Joe enthusiastically.

Nae bog atha she agath! (isn’t it soft you have it) you sprissaun o’ the world, an’ it such a dry day, too,” retorted the singer, dropping for a moment into his native Gaelic.

The Colonel and Lieutenant Burke were standing a short distance away, enjoying the whole proceedings.

“I can’t understand the Irish troops,” remarked the Colonel, “they fight so well in battle, and out of battle talk utter treason, like our friend Billy here. Wasn’t this man mentioned for bravery on some occasion?”

“He got a medal for saving his officer at Tel-el-Kebir, and received two spear wounds at Tinaan-i-beh. He is one of the bravest fellows I ever knew. We can’t blame our Irish soldiers for their poor sense of loyalty. Many of them have seen their parents turned out of their homes by the same British army during eviction raids.”

“That’s a poor state of affairs, I must admit,” said the Colonel, “with the army so badly in need of such men just now. For my own part, I have always favoured a Home Rule Scheme, and I still believe old Gladstone should have been given a free hand. He knew more than all of puny statesmen together. By the way, I have set my mind on putting Akenside against some of your hurlers here. I see a tall fellow ploughing in that field close by – suppose you inquire if there are any good wrestlers around.”

It happened that the regiment had halted at Gurtharda, and Dermot Roche pulled up his horses as he saw the young officer approaching.

“God bless the work,” said the Lieutenant, saluting in the Irish manner, and the young farmer answered courteously, “God save you, sir.”

The Lieutenant came to the point at once. “We have a professional English wrestler in the troop, and I wish you could get some of the hurlers to try him. Is the Captain of them anywhere around?”

“Yes, sir, he is,” said Dermot Roche, a little proudly. “He is right here before you.”

“This is a great pleasure, I am sure,” said the soldier. “You’re just the man I want. You weren’t made Captain without deserving it – what do you say to trying the Englishman yourself?”

“I haven’t any objection in the world,” answered the Captain readily; “it will be a welcome change after the ploughin’.”

Lieutenant Burke looked at the bronzed face of the young farmer, then noted his broad, herculean span of shoulders, and his powerful symmetrical limbs. As he went back to the road he muttered – “This is about the luckiest thing in the world. I expect I’ll surprise the old man a little.” Climbing over the fence he saluted and announced – “The young lad in the field, sir, said he would like to try Akenside himself.”

“What!” exclaimed the Colonel; “he did, did he? Have you told him that our man is a famous professional?”

“He didn’t seem to be at all bothered by that fact, sir.”

“Well, well, well,” ejaculated the old soldier, “this is a surprising country indeed – a most surprising country!”

The young ploughman in the meantime and brought his horses to the headland and turned them loose to graze.

Akenside was called, and the officers and soldiers entered Gurtharda. Roche had divested himself of his flannel waistcoat, and in his white shirt made a splendid and spirited figure as he stood awaiting them – a typical representative of “the finest peasantry in the world,” thought Lieutenant Burke. Akenside now stripped for the bout. He was not so tall as the young peasant by about three inches, but seemed stockier and of heavier build – in fact, he seemed to the Lieutenant to be too fleshy for the work in hand. His skin-tight riding suit showed off his well-developed limbs to great advantage, and made him look a most formidable adversary.

The halting of the military had been observed from afar, and from all sides the people hastened to view the proceedings. They watched the preparations for the contest with breathless interest.

Dermot Roche knew without looking in their faces that their hearts and souls were with him, and if he failed it would be looked at almost in the light of a national calamity. It was the old story over again of the Saxon and the Gael, and this time there was a fair field and no favour.

The two wrestlers shook hands and took hold.

“God strengthen your arm, Dermot.” said one of the crowd fervently.

“Akenside, me lad, ‘eave into the bloomin’ Irishman,” said Cockney Joe.

From the first the professional wrestler seemed to think he had an easy proposition on hand. He rushed things at once, but gradually and with amazement had to acknowledge that his opponent was practised and skilful. His rapid succession of feints and tricks were met and frustrated with apparent ease, though at the same time he got no measure of the real strength and force of the Captain of the hurlers.

As the time went by, and the wrestlers wheeled round and round in their struggle, it was evident to the onlookers that the Englishman was becoming puffed and played out, while Roche, so well used to hard work and swift running, seemed almost as fresh as when he started. It had been declared beforehand that whoever took the first two falls out of three bouts would be the winner, and the people began to have hopes that their champion would be able to take the first.

“Keep at him boy! The Sassenach is weaking.” cried Malachy Gilmartin, one of the Glen boys, who happened to be passing. “Did you try the Kilmockler trascairt on him yet?”

This term must be explained. There was a district a half-dozen miles to the north of Moondharrig called Kilmockler, noted for its famous wrestlers. The Captain had spent many a day there getting initiated into the mysteries of the manly exercise.

The trascairt, or “overthrow”, was a trick, quick and irresistable, of putting down an adversary, the secret of which they revealed only to their most brilliant pupils.

The Captain had been altogether passive and on the defensive up to this, but now he changed his tactics. In a moment the solder found himself violently whirled, and shaken up; the great, long arms of the hurler gradually contacting and drawing him close. A tremendous pressure was employed to force him a certain direction, then, in a flash, he was endangered from the other side. At least the knee of the young ploughman was locked into that of Akenside like a steel bar. It was a case of dislocated bones, or of falling, and the Englishman fell very unwillingly. It was the first fall for the Captain, and while the people shouted, the soldiers looked at one another in wonder.

“I’ll look out for that the next time,” said Akenside with an ugly smile, as they took hold a second time.

This bout was not long in progress when there occurred a great commotion among the horses on the roadway, and the crowd turned from the contest to see what the matter was.

Young Roche also, very foolishly, suffered himself to be distracted from his work, and relaxed his guard. The trained professional profited by this on the instant. Going low, he rushed in and overthrew his opponent, falling heavily on him.

It was rather comical to notice the consternation on the faces of the crowd when, as they turned about, they saw their champion on the ground.

The English soldiers cheered lustily, and things looked rather dark for the Captain. Many an anxious prayer went up from the people that he ought not fail in the deciding trial, and his cheerful and confident face, as he stood up again, went far as to reassure their dropping hearts. He shook hands manfully with the soldier. “You did that nicely, sir.” he said, “and I deserved all I got.”

Then the men settled down to the deciding tussle. The stillness that fell on the spectators was now intense – so acute was their interest in the struggle. A jaunting car drove up, unobserved, and a very tall- elderly man entered the field and began to look on with the others. This deciding contest was longer than the previous ones. Each of the men endeavoured to exhaust his opponent before attempting a decisive venture. It was evident, however, that the Englishman would once more become played out before young Roche showed any signs of fatigue. The face of the former was flushed and perspiring, and his breathing became laboured as time went by, while the Captain’s face kept its cool, determined look, his teeth being shut like a vice, and his breathing scarcely audible. Among his most ardent backers were the Irish soldiers, headed by Trooper Hannigan.

“It’s all up with Akenside,” whispered the latter to his comrades. “In a minute he’ll try one of his foul turns – the trick he nearly always plays – see if he don’t.”

Then Trooper Hannigan’s voice broke the utter silence. He spoke in low, mellow, rapid Gaelic, and the Captain started perceptibly as he heard. When the gyration of the struggle brought them in line, his eyes caught Hannigan’s for a fraction of a second.

“Ar m’anam go bhfuil an cearth agath a mhic” (on my soul, you’re right, my son), he answered.

The words were scarcely spoken when the professional’s hand was seen moving in the direction of the Captain’s throat.

An angry flash came into the eyes of the latter. The hand was struck down in an instant. Then the Captain shifted the grip of both his hands, the force of half a dozen men seemed to come into his arms, and the body of the Englishman crumpled up in that terrible hug. With a superb exhibition of strength the young Gael drew his opponent in and up over his shoulder. Here he appeared to hold him for a breathless moment; then he leaped from his feet and down they came with a sickening thud, the soldier underneath. It was the winning fall!

The thing looked easy and simple – as a matter of fact, it was a complex enough feat, and irresistible to the uninitiated. It was, in truth, the famous Kilmockler trascairt that Dermot had employed to the complete discomfiture of Akenside.

The joy of the people knew no bounds at seeing the triumph of their hero. Tears of pride stood on the cheeks of several. The men rushed in and caught his hands, almost hugging him in their delight and affection, and foremost among them was trooper Hannigan. “My dear boy,” said the trooper, “you did us the best turn you ever did, to stop that fellow’s boasting. He was forever shouting what he could do to an Irishman at the wrestling.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re pleased,” answered the Captain. “You gave me a good warning in the ring. You’re too much of a fine fellow to be wearing the red jacket, an’ I’m sorry to see it on you – Now be aisy, boys,” he said, addressing the crowd, “sure it’s not such a great thing I did. I mightn’t do so well if he had me over in England. Every dog is bold in his own doorway, an’ I’m afraid the poor fellow is hurt.”

The Colonel and the Lieutenant were examining Akenside’s arm and shoulder as the Captain went towards him. “I’m sorry, sir,” he declared simply, “that you got hurt. I’d never ask to meet a better man. Come here, Denis Maher, it’s lucky you’re around. He won’t do you the least harm, sir, an’ he’ll set your arm in a jiffy.”

Denis Maher was the Moondharrig “bone-setter”. The Gaels declared him “better than the best o’ doctors,” and have him frequent opportunity to keep his hand in practice.

He felt the injured shoulder an instant with his deft fingers, then with a dextrous jerk snapped the dislocated bone into position.  With a couple of handkerchiefs he improvised an arm sling. “You’re as right as a fiddle now, sir,” said he, “we’re used to these little things among the hurlers.”

The grizzled shook hands warmly with Captain Dermot Roche. “I only wish I commanded a regiment of your stamp,” he said. Then he gave a sharp order, and the soldiers left the field. Dermot Roche put on his flannel waistcoat, and leaving the people walked quietly towards his horses, but the tall man who had come on his jaunting-car rushed to him and caught his hand. With a start of surprise, the Captain recognised O’Dwyer, the farmer, who lived in his white-gabled house on the hillside, and who had driven him away so ignominiously on a former occasion.

“I saw it all, my boy,” cried the old man, his eyes flashing. “I saw you put down the Sassenach, and I’ll never again say you didn’t do anything for Old Ireland’s glory. Come up to the house and see us tomorrow, boy. I know someone that’ll be delighted to see you.”

Dermot Roche’s face was radiant. “Glory be to God,” he said, “but this is the great day.”

The uncovering his head, and looking to the far away hills, he prayed as fervently as if he were before the Holy Altar:

“Graan Dhe chughainn a’us bas in Eirinn.”
“The grace of God to us, and death in Ireland!”

Dardis the Wrestler

Originally published in the Dundalk Democrat, 18 Nov. 1905

Many a time in my boyhood days have I eagerly listened to the tale of Dardis the wrestler, which I purpose telling now to readers of the “Democrat”. Dardis was over 6 feet and remarkable for strength of body, also his wonderful feats of agility. He had no compare on the hurling field, in weight-throwing he could beat his rivals by feet, in a long jump cover the same distance, and in wrestling he was always victorious until one night he was coming home late through Rocksavage and espied in a field before him about 30 little chaps all dressed in greenish jersey and red caps playing football. One red-haired chap cried out, “Dardis on my side.” This was unanimous, and Dardis being a lover of the game readily consented.

However, he was not long playing when this little fellow sent him twice to the ground very heavily. This nettled Dardis, who seized the little fellow by the collar and elbow to wrestle. The ball was called up and a ring was made, when Dardis was grassed twice in quick succession. “Well,” said Dardis, “I must confess you are the first that ever had the honour of tossing me.”

“Yes,” replied the red-haired fellow, “and I will be the last. For your pluck and courage tonight I’ll give you a gift – no human person shall ever toss you.”

Dardis thanked him and went home not much the worse after his game. The following harvest he went up County Louth and, hearing of the champion Cassidy, challenged him, who better known by “Broguey Cassidy”, of Mullacrew. He vanquished Cassidy easy, the latter remarking, “You must be the devil else Dardis the wrestler,” a name which clung to Dardis ever after.

The fame of Dardis spread all over Ireland, and good men came far and near to try conclusions with Dardis, but all met the same fate. A good piece is told of Dardis where a butler sought the fair hand of a colleen who secretly hated the butler. She told the butler (who was a Sourface) if he was able to go up to the football field on Sunday she would marry him. “If not, I will give my heart to Dardis,” said she. This was concocted by Dardis and his fiancee, as all the young fellows said he wanted to get a good kicking at Saxon that he spoke like a goose. It is too true Dardis gave him an unmerciful kicking.

The butler was not to be denied, and watched his chance to swear poor Dardis’ life away, which he almost done. A man was accidentally killed in Inisheen; this man swore he witnessed Dardis hit him, hence Dardis was transported for life to Van Diemen’s Land.

In them days it was the laws of those southern spheres if a pugilist visited the town and a man not therein found to box him a certain number of rounds the town was obliged to give him so much, the same if a champion wrestler came. One wrestler came to town on the occasion of poor Dardis being chained there. He was built like a giant, and Dardis said he would undertake to toss him if he got his liberty and free passage to Ireland. The proper authorities were consulted, and that day week was appointed for the contest, but the odds were 100 to one against the Irishman. A warder made a sneer at Dardis the eve before the contest in regard to his liberty.

“Well,” said Dardis, “if I had my liberty for only two minutes now I’d make you eat your words, and were I possessed of means I’d take your 100 to one.”

However, when Dardis the next day met his opponent he seemed to have been carefully trained; his muscles were like whip cord. Two falls out of three were to give Dardis his liberty. Dardis knew his gift from the red-haired lad in Ireland would stand him in good stead now.

The two got into holds. Both parried for an opening (or, as the old fellows say, a sweet let round). Dardis let his antagonist’s foot round, and like a flash hit him with his other foot and put him head first to the ground. This he repeated, when a tremendous cheer was given for Dardis, who got his liberty and set sail for ould Ireland.

Dwyer the Wrestler; Or, an Account of a 19th-Century Collar and Elbow Bout in Phoenix Park

Originally published in “Carlow Past and Present: A Brochure Containing Short Historical Notes and Miscellaneous Gleanings of the Town and County of Carlow” by Michael Brophy (1888)

It was in that by-gone time when all sorts of manly exercises and pastimes enjoyed their most flourishing palmy days; when Lord Byron donned the gloves as well as the Prince Regent; when poets and litterateurs did not deem it vulgar to have a bout at Tom Cribbs’, that Dwyer the wrestler was in his youthful prime. In those days collar-and-elbow wrestling arrived at a pitch that was never known before nor since. Wrestling was all the vogue throughout Ireland; but the Phoenix Park was its headquarters. The Marquis of —— was a great lover of this manly sport – far more manly than the so-called “manly art of self-defence” – and he organised national matches on a large scale, open to competitors from all counties, and giving valuable prizes to winners. On one occasion his lordship announced a great match in which the championship of Ireland would be decided and a silver cup awarded to the victor.

This great match in prospective was bruited throughout Ireland fairly well considering the times, and wrestlers from all counties put in an appearance to compete, and, if possible, each to return with the bays and take the position of a demigod among the peasantry of his native district. The Marquis himself was sanguine of the success of his own champion, a County Dublin man, and had him backed to win a large stake. This wrestler was not only of herculean build, but also of enormous strength and dexterity, and much money was staked on him, his success being a foregone conclusion.

The day arrived and the match commenced, and true to the forecast the redoubtable champion of the Marquis threw man after man until the long list of competitors for wrestling fame was exhausted. There stood the champion in the ring with arms folded on his broad and burly chest, waiting for each challenger only to quickly dispose of him by laying him quietly with his mother earth. At length he had given the coup de grace to the last man on the list, and the Marquis called out if there was any other challenger who would contest for the championship? There was a pause while the Marquis held up the cup for a long time as if in invitation to ambitious aspirants after fame. It was also evident that his lordship wanted more sport, and felt a triumph in witnessing the masterly manner that his wrestler disposed of all comers.

At length a gentleman on horseback at the outskirts of the ring said, as the Marquis was about closing the match :—

“Hold, Marquis; stay yet; there’s one more who will try a fall with your man.”

“I’m glad to hear it, sir,” responded the Marquis, “send him in.”

An open was made in the ring, and there strode carelessly in a tall, lathy, wiry-looking, squarely-built young man.

It was Dwyer the wrestler, and the gentleman on horseback was his landlord. There was a laugh at the marked contrast in physique this last challenger presented to his burly opponent, standing grim and triumphant in the ring and grinning a grin of terrible import at the new challenger. But, alas, for human vanity; he grinned with the wrong side of his mouth ‘ere he had done with the new-comer.

“I’d wish to back my man, Marquis,” said Dwyer’s landlord to his lordship.

“I shall accommodate you, sir, responded the Marquis, and a large stake was credited to Captain W on the success of Dwyer.

“Come along, young man!” exclaimed the champion to Dwyer, who was taking it very easy, having on, still, his cotamore,“let’s have done with it.”

“Maybe soon enough, mee hearty,” said Dwyer in an undertone, as he observed his landlord completing his bets, and then whipping off his cotamore and other superfluous clothing, Dwyer confronted his burly antagonist. Dwyer seemed guarded and cautious at first as if to measure himself with the champion, who, on his part, seemed to be only playing with Dwyer ‘ere he would give him the fate of all who went their earthy way before. Having sufficiently felt his antagonist’s calibre, Dwyer, like lightning, “made a demonstration in force,” – to use a military phrase – and the champion was whipped off his legs, and before he could realise what had happened him, lay with his mother earth, the first fall he received during the progress of the match.

There was a great shout, and alarm pervaded the champion’s backers, and the Marquis looked less triumphant.

“I was taken unawares,” said the champion rising, “I was off my guard.”

“Well, be on your guard now,” remarked Dwyer, as they commenced again, the champion more cautious, manifestly feeling he had caught a tartar in the last challenger. Putting forth all his strength and tripping tactics the champion made a determined effort to throw his opponent, but it only gave Dwyer an open to give his formidable adversary a heavier fall than the first. There was another great shout, and the Marquis seemed disposed to close the match, but his wrestler refused to desist, as disgrace awaited him if he was defeated. Again they wrestled, Dwyer each time throwing his man easily, who, seeing himself defeated, lost his temper and kicked Dwyer in the shins viciously.

“Kickin’ is not wrestling,” Dwyer remonstrated, “Don’t kick. I never do it; but I’ll tell ye what I’ll do; I’ll brake[sic] any man’s leg that’ll kick me.”

“Oh, it’ll only rise your dandher, man,” said the now defeated champion as he gave Dwyer a severe kick in the shin.

“Ye may talk of risin’ dandher in others; but, id’s not dandher but the divil ye‘ll rise in me, and there he is as you’ve ruz ’im,” said Dwyer, as he suddenly put on what was called his “break-leg crook,” when snap ! there was heard a sound like a pistol shot, and the champion lay unable to rise.

There were scowling looks given at Dwyer, and mutterings of sinister import, and curses “not loud but deep” from foiled backers of the favourite —“ We’ll make a corpse of him;” “never lave[sic] the park alive;” “knock the legs from under ’im,” etc., etc.

Captain W, now seeing danger to Dwyer ahead, hurried him out of the ring, and forcing him up on the horse said—

“Ride for your life, Dwyer; take the Knockmaroon gate and wait for me in Lucan.”

The foiled backers of the champion having now ascertained the nature of the disaster that fell on him, a rush was made for Dwyer just to catch sight of him as he galloped off, when they gave chase, but gave it up seeing its futility, and Dwyer escaped unscathed, got safely to Lucan, where he was joined shortly afterwards by his landlord, and, so ended this episode in his life.

The wrestler is not many years dead. His great physical frame was in keeping with his tenacity of life, for he lived ten years beyond the allotted four-score, and he passed away in the house that sprung up in one night, “ beating hollow,” as he said himself, “the blessed turf.”

Reflecting on this man’s great physical frame, it must be remarked how in racial descent it often happens that a repetition of the great physical attributes of a remote ancestor will be manifested in some one of his descendants. The Irish genealogists tell us that the O‘Dwyers (Hibernice, O’Dhubdhaire) deduce their descent from Cormac Cas, second son of Oliol Ollum, King of Munster, by his wife Sabh or Sabina, daughter of Con of the Hundred Battles. This Cormac Cas is set down by Irish historians as “remarkable for strength of body, dexterity, and courage.”

Building the Modern Ruleset for Irish Collar and Elbow Wrestling

On 31st August 2019, the first Collar and Elbow bouts of the 21st century took place in Heidelberg, Germany. The rules for those bouts were fairly rough-and-ready, cobbled together in the weeks beforehand and communicated to the competitors verbally in a short workshop directly before the event. There was, at that point, nothing resembling an actual rulebook to refer to.

Subsequently, with the growing recognition that there was significant international interest in holding further bouts, the decision was made to properly codify a modern ruleset. That ruleset, which you can find online here, is intended to act as a guide for anyone wishing to organise competitive Collar and Elbow bouts of their own – or simply casual practice bouts among their friends and training partners.

When compiling the modern rules, the question naturally arose as to which aspects of the historical ruleset(s) should be preserved, and which aspects should be adjusted – or indeed, outright removed – in order to better fit the standards of competitive grappling in the present day. For instance, the lack of a time limit was a perfectly acceptable element of 19th-century wrestling contests, but the titanic three-hour struggles that often resulted would not be tenable in a modern tournament setting. Nor would vague, unwritten “gentlemen’s agreements” that differed from village to village, and frequently resulted in confusion for wrestlers, spectators, and officials alike.

In his foreword to my upcoming book on Collar and Elbow, Guy Jaouen (founding president of the International Federation of Celtic Wrestling) noted that the revivalist movements for Breton and Cornish wrestling similarly acknowledged that certain aspects of their respective sports required a touch of modernisation.

“The revivalists of these different regions recognised the need to restructure their old sports in order to render them compatible with modern society. Initially, none of the traditional styles were codified, and featured few if any rules to guide competitors or referees alike. There were no time limits, so matches could last well over an hour. There was sometimes no clear method of victory, so actual wrestling could be interspersed with prolonged passages of stalling and passivity that proved extremely boring for spectators.”

Some of the tenets of 19th century sport simply do not transfer to the 21st century, and the modern ruleset for Collar and Elbow needs to be crafted accordingly. Before we dive into the reasoning behind the modern ruleset, however, let’s have a quick look at the most common historical rules for Collar and Elbow as it was practiced at its height.

The Historical Rules

In Ireland, regardless of where the bout took place, the overall framework for Collar and Elbow wrestling in the 19th century was invariably the same – both competitors took the eponymous grips on each other’s jackets, and then worked primarily with their legs to trip/throw each other to the ground and score a “fall”.

There were certain regional variations in what was considered a fall. Most notably, in Dublin a wrestler was required to throw his opponent so that both shoulders hit the ground simultaneously,1 whereas in Kildare (by all accounts the strongest wrestling county in Ireland) it was sufficient to simply make one’s opponent touch the ground with any part of the body above his knees.2 Additionally, certain authors maintained that wrestling contests in Ireland were declared over if any part of a competitor’s body other than the soles of his feet touched the ground.3 And while it is highly unlikely that this was as universal as they suggest (especially given the accounts to the contrary from first-hand observers such as Ennis and Stoker), it nonetheless suggests that the “any point down” approach was applied in some parts of the country.

What is quite clear from historical accounts is that wrestlers from Kildare, Dublin, and other neighbouring counties like Meath and Laois regularly competed against each other, so skilled wrestlers were clearly quite capable of adapting to the different regional conditions for victory as necessary.

“The Hollow” in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, where wrestling contests took place every Sunday throughout the 19th century

One common feature of all these regional Irish rulesets is that they were passed on in word only – they were never written down in any kind of official rulebook or manual. This is, of course, quite typical of traditional sports and games around the world. When the knowledge of how to play the sport exists and is widely understood within the community, there is no need (and in the times before widespread literacy, no ability) to commit a ruleset to paper. In Ireland, Collar and Elbow was practiced at village fairs, football games, and inter-parish gatherings the length and breadth of the country, and was never governed by anything more than unspoken rules that appear to have been widely agreed upon. Indeed, even at the prestigious weekly wrestling contests that took place in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, during which a significant amount of regional pride would have been at stake, observers noted the remarkably sporting and gentlemanly atmosphere that persisted despite the lack of any written rules or regulatory body.4

However, when reading accounts of 19th century bouts we can see the cracks appear in this approach. We see arguments over grips,5 over the type of jackets that were allowed,6 over how much kicking was permitted7 – arguments that could have been quite easily resolved if the officials had had a set-in-stone list of written rules to point to.

It was exactly this line of thinking that led to the publication of the first written rules for Collar and Elbow in the United States in 1873.

James, Ed. “Manual of Sporting Rules: Comprising the Latest and Best Authenticated Revised Rules.” Ed James (self-pub.), 1873.

The “Ed James rules”, as they would come to be colloquially referred, nailed down all the things that had already been key features of the style, and enshrined them in word so that there could be no pre- or mid-bout attempts to game the system. The grip would be right hand on collar, left hand on sleeve, and had to be held for the entire bout. The jacket would be strong and short. There would be no heavy footwear allowed, and attempting to win via damaging kicks was forbidden. Victory would be determined by a back fall, defined as three points hitting the ground simultaneously (both shoulders and a hip, or both hips and a shoulder). This was the ruleset under which the vast majority of championship-level Collar and Elbow matches were decided in the latter decades of the 19th century, both in the US and abroad. Notable champions often specifically issued challenges under the Ed James rules.8 At one contest in 1876, every single spectator was provided a copy of the Ed James rules, so that everyone present could effectively act as an official and ensure that the proceedings unfolded in an atmosphere of fairness.9

Subsequently, other written rulesets were published for Collar and Elbow, such as the Police Gazette rules (sometimes also known as the “Richard K. Fox rules”, after the name of the magazine’s publisher) or Spalding’s Sporting rules, but in essence these were simply repackaged versions of the Ed James rules. The wording may have been slightly different, but the framework was one and the same: fixed grips on the jacket, fair back falls to win.

“Spalding’s Official Sporting Rules.” American Sports Publishing, 1894.
“The Official Book of Rules for All Sports.” Richard K. Fox Publishing Company, 1913.

So when the time came to compile a modern ruleset, we were fortunate enough to have a significant amount of published material to draw upon. However, while seeking to adhere as closely as possible to those old 19th-century rulesets, we nonetheless acknowledged that certain things needed to be changed. Let’s go through the main points of the modern rules and see how we have attempted to strike a balance between the old and the new.

The Grips and the Jacket

This was an easy choice. Whether at home in Ireland or as far away as New Zealand, the collar-and-elbow grip on a sturdy jacket was always a fundamental aspect of the style. The historical written rulesets clearly specify the standard grip configuration (right hand on collar, left on sleeve) and confirm that it was a fixed hold, meaning you could not release it at any point throughout the bout. It was precisely this fixed hold requirement that led to the development of Collar and Elbow’s renowned arsenal of trips and other leg attacks. The modern ruleset would thus be perfectly recognisable to any 19th-century wrestler who competed under the Ed James rules – you take your grips, and you keep them until your opponent hits the ground.

How To Win

This is where we start to deviate slightly from the Ed James rules in the interest of incorporating more features from the Irish rulesets of the time.

The James rules specified that the accepted means of winning a Collar and Elbow bout was with a square back fall. That is, tripping or throwing your opponent so that they hit the ground with three points at the same time – either both shoulders and a hip, or both hips and a shoulder. A fall would also be counted against a wrestler who released his collar-and-elbow grip at any point. There are records of individual falls being lost this way (for example, if one man purposely released his grip in order to catch his balance),10 but never entire bouts. So although it was conceivably possible to win if your opponent repeatedly lost his hold on your jacket for some reason, the lost-grip rule was never the primary path to victory. A clean back fall after a skillful trip or throw was the goal of any self-respecting wrestler.

Given its central role in the 19th-century world of Collar and Elbow, the square back fall naturally had to be included in the modern ruleset. However, the three-points-down definition of the fall has one notable drawback. Namely, it can be remarkably difficult to achieve, particularly against a skilled opponent who can artfully twist in mid air and land slightly on their side (or even on both feet) instead. The great Vermont champion Henry Moses Dufur was famously proficient at such mid-air manoeuvring, meaning that his opponents often had to throw him many times before scoring a definitive fall. Even less prodigiously athletic competitors could often manage to turn themselves just enough to deny their opponent the necessary three points of contact, resulting in prolonged disputes between them, their backers in the crowd, and the unfortunate official caught in the middle. These post-throw disputes could be extremely prolonged, dragging the momentum of a bout to a halt, and in some cases leading to it being called off entirely.

In Walter Armstrong’s classic 1889 work Wrestling, he noted similar arguments that frequently arose at events for Cornish and Devonshire wrestling – two English styles that also required a three-point fall.

“The two shoulders on the ground and one hip, or two hips and one shoulder, generally described as ‘three points’, which is the Devon and Cornwall definition of a fall is somewhat more reasonable [than Lancashire’s ground wrestling]; yet the dissatisfaction these conditions frequently give rise to when a decision has to be given in a close fall is sometimes vexatious in the extreme, the result in many cases culminating in a wrangle.”

Armstrong, Walter. “Wrestling.” Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1890, pg. xi.

When the three-point fall is the only method of winning a Collar and Elbow bouts, the accompanying disputes are invariably not far behind. As such, when building the modern ruleset we decided to incorporate more diverse paths to victory.

  • The Kildare strategy: Score a fall by tripping or throwing your opponent so that they touch the ground with any part of their body above the knees. Best two of three falls wins. (Note: a fall will also be scored against anyone who releases their collar-and-elbow grip at any point)
  • The Phoenix Park strategy: Win the bout instantly by tripping or throwing your opponent so that they land cleanly on their back. “Cleanly” in this case means that both of their shoulders hit the ground at the same time – i.e. the two-point definition of a fall used at the great weekly wrestling matches in Dublin.

A very similar framework can be found in Gouren (one of Collar and Elbow’s Celtic cousins), in which competitors accrue points via successful takedowns, but alternatively can win the bout at any point by landing a clean back fall, called a lamm.11 Modern Collar and Elbow wrestlers are likewise free to choose how they want to approach a bout: win via the “best of three” method by scoring smaller trips and throws, or attempt to win outright with a clear, decisive back fall.

Time Limit and Weight Classes

These are two concepts that were entirely absent from any of the historical rulesets. Collar and Elbow matches in the 19th century could take place between opponents of any size, and would last precisely as long as it took the winner to achieve the specified number of falls. The lack of any time limit, coupled with the demands of landing a satisfactory three-point fall, meant that, in practice, bouts were often very prolonged affairs, particularly when two evenly matched opponents stepped into the ring.

In their 1884 match in Detroit, it took Henry Moses Dufur 7 minutes to score the first fall against his towering opponent, J.H. McLaughlin. It took McLaughlin 13 minutes to return the favour, and then a further 42 minutes to score the third and decisive fall of the night.12 The match, which had commenced at 8:12pm, ended just before 10:00pm – an entirely typical length for a 19th-century wrestling event. Three-hour bouts were far from rare, and there are references to at least one that lasted all through the night.13 (Which, incidentally, still manages to pale in comparison to the longest wrestling match ever recorded – the gruelling, 11-hour war of attrition between Martin Klein and Alfred Asikainen in the Greco-Roman semi-finals at the 1912 Olympics).

As viscerally impressive as these combative feats are, they are simply not feasible in a modern tournament setting, when dozens of other competitors are waiting to take to the mats. If the first bout of the morning lasts for three hours, then the schedule for the entire day is thrown into disarray. For this reason  – and in the interest of encouraging a brisk, decisive pace to bouts – we have implemented a time limit in the modern ruleset: 5-minutes for normal bouts, with a recommended longer length of 10 minutes for championship bouts.

Likewise, we have added suggested weight classes in order to make it easier to match up competitors at a tournament. 

In Summary

The modern ruleset for Irish Collar and Elbow wrestling preserves the most characteristic aspects of the historical style, such as the fixed grips on the jacket and the focus on leg attacks. To this, it adds a framework (time limit, weight classes) that encourages a lively pace in bouts, and enables competitive events to be organised in a safe and professional way. In addition, by including both the “Kildare” and “Phoenix Park” paths to victory, it pays homage to the diversity of wrestling traditions that were once common all over Ireland. 

These rules are a living document, and will surely evolve as additional feedback is gathered from competitive bouts. In the meantime, they are available here. Please feel free to check them out and use them as the basis for holding some practice bouts or tournaments of your own.

And if you have any questions or feedback, you can contact me at macfadden[at]collarandelbow.ie.

The Three Most Effective Techniques in Historical Collar and Elbow Bouts

Collar and Elbow in general was known for its arsenal of rapid-fire leg attacks. “Footsparring”, as one journalist referred to it.1 “A fist fight with the feet”, proposed another.2 A style of “inside crooks, outside slaps, back heels, and other side swipes”.3 Accounts of bouts frequently describe how wrestlers would begin by testing each other’s balance and reactions with light combinations of toe-taps, much in the same way that boxers test each other with jabs and feints.

Here’s one such exchange from an 1879 championship bout between James E. Owens and John McMahon, both from the hotbed of American Collar and Elbow talent that was Vermont.

The wrestlers seized each other anew and repeated the delicate taps up and down each other’s legs with the tips of their shoes. Owens began to try little trips as though to test his adversary’s skill.

The Sun (New York), 7 Aug. 1879

As the opening minutes of the bout passed, and the competitors started to get a feel for each other, the footsparring would often increase in tempo and intensity.

Their rubber-clad feet were pointed hither and tither like lightning to find a striking place. The slaps and counter-slaps of the rubbers on the men’s legs sounded like the explosions of torpedoes.

The Sun (New York), 7 Aug. 1879

The ultimate goal, of course, was not to spar endlessly but to land the grappling equivalent of a “KO punch” that would send their opponent crashing to the mat for a fair back fall. Based on data I’ve gathered from historical accounts of Collar and Elbow bouts, these appear to have been the three most successful methods of attaining that fall.

1. The Foot Block (aka. the Ankle Trip, the Toe Block, or the Cross-Toe)

Wrestler A uses his upper body grips to pull/twist wrestler B forwards. As wrestler B extends his leg in order to catch his balance, wrestler A uses his foot to block B’s foot, and continues pulling/twisting with the upper body to send B toppling over.

Here’s James E. Owens getting caught with that move against another notable champion of the day, Henry Moses Dufur.

In a breath both again stood upright, but scarcely had Owens regained his feet, and was evidently not expecting another attack, when Dufur’s right foot shot out, pinning Owens’ left foot down, and bringing the full force of his massive shoulders to bear. Owens was laid out with as handsome a ‘cross-toe’ as ever was seen.

The Boston Globe, 12 June 1879

Owens obviously learned his lesson well, as he used that same move against McMahon two months later.

The men resumed their original positions, when, quicker than lightning, Owens thrust his left foot out and caught McMahon on the right ankle, at the same time twitching the other’s shoulders to the left. McMahon feel flat on both shoulders and hips, while the spectators cheered. The time of the first fall was 20 minutes.

The Sun (New York), 7 Aug. 1879
The same foot block mechanic in other wrestling styles. Top row, L to R: La Zancadilla (Lucha Canaria), Taol Biz Troad (Gouren), Fußstich (Schwingen). Bottom row, L to R: Sasae Tsurikomi Ashi (Judo), Trippett (Norfolk Wrestling), Leggjarbragð (Glíma)

The Hip Lock (aka. the Buttock or the Fore-Hip)

Wrestler A pulls wrestler B forward, turns and loads B on his hip (usually the right hip), and continues rotating with his upper body to throw B to the ground. Wrestler A would often set up the hip lock by first feinting a trip in order to distract his opponent.

Dufur with a turn, a stoop, and a lift combined in a movement as quick as a flash, had McLaughlin on his hip and then on the floor for a fall in much less time than it takes to read about it. ‘First fall for Mr. Dufur! Time, seven minutes.’, shouted referee Gillman.

Detroit Free Press, 20 Jan. 1884.

For one hour and a half they continued the struggle, giving a splendid exhibition of footsparring, tripping and blocking. Then Larkin feinted with his right foot, and, quick as a flash, threw in his left, and getting Carey on his hip, threw him with great force, winning the fall and the match.

The Leinster Leader (Kildare), 16 Mar. 1907

Artful trips and blocks brought down many a man, but against opponents who could nimbly twist in mid-air to keep their feet (Henry Moses Dufur being the classic example), it often took something sudden and forceful like a hip lock to decisively slam them to the mat for the fall.

3. The Grapevine (aka. the Crook, the Hank, or the Inside Lock)

Wrestler A turns slightly sidewards and weaves his leg (usually the right) snake-like around wrestler B’s leg (usually the left). With his leg locked tightly in place, A would then attempt to wrench B off balance either forwards or backwards. The grapevine acquired a reputation for injuring or outright breaking legs, but it nonetheless remained by far one of the most commonly used techniques in bouts, for a simple reason – it worked.

According to Collar and Elbow rules, each contestant took hold of his opponent’s collar with his right hand, the left hand clutching the elbow. Tripping with the feet was the chief method of attack and the inside grapevine was the deadliest hold known.

The Pittsburgh Press, 6 Jan. 1918

The fourth fall was in the Collar and Elbow style, in which Hudson was laid clean on to his back with a clever hank.

Australasian (Melbourne), 4 July 1885

After a desperate struggle, Cox fastened a grapevine on Dufur and threw him on his head.

The Cincinatti Enquirer, 1 June 1878
The grapevine in Cornish and Devonshire wrestling, where it was called the “inside lock”. In Collar and Elbow, wrestlers would be required to keep the collar-and-elbow grips on the upper body while performing the technique.

For an overview of the other techniques that were used in Collar and Elbow, see here.

Disputes Over Jackets

One of the things that distinguished Collar and Elbow from the other popular wrestling styles of the 19th century was that both competitors were required to wear jackets, on which the necessary hold would be taken. In the early days in Ireland there were no written specifications for the jacket. You were just reasonably expected to show up in something suitably sturdy.

Predictably, this sometimes led to pre- or mid-match disputes when one wrestler felt his opponent’s jacket provided him with an unfair advantage due to it being, for example, too long or too flimsy to take a suitable hold on. John Ennis, writing in 1907, recorded two such disputes that took place in bouts several decades previously.

When the men entered the ring, quite a wrangle ensued between their backers over the coat worn by Cullen. It was of the fashion known in those days as the “set-to” (a corruption of surtout). Dunne claimed its long skirts would prevent his seeing Cullen’s legs but Cullen refused to use any other, and finally Dunne acquiesced and the contest began.

After a short rest the men came together again and it was evident Cahill was in ugly humour. He tried to use rough tactics, but the referee cautioned him; he then crouched, spread his feet and acted entirely on the defensive. In trying to pull his man towards him Brennan ripped Cahill’s coat up the back, rendering it useless for a hold. Brennan refused to go on unless Cahill got another coat, and this Cahill refused to do.

The Leinster Leader (Kildare), Mar. 16 1907

Once the first written rules emerged in the US, they sought to eliminate this kind of gamesmanship by specifying that jackets needed to be short, so as not to hinder the range of leg attacks the style was known for, and strong enough that they wouldn’t tear mid-bout.

James, Ed. “Manual of Sporting Rules: Comprising the Latest and Best Authenticated Revised Rules“. Ed James (self-pub.), 1873.
Two American Collar and Elbow wrestlers in 1880, after the Ed James rules had become the standard international framework under which bouts would be contested. Note the short jackets not extending below the hips.

But gamesmanship will always find a way, especially in those big national championship bouts where significant cash prizes were at stake. A common tactic – or at least a common complaint – involved jackets that were too loose for an opponent to take a useful hold on.

A brief breathing spell followed, when time was called and holds again taken. This bout was ever fiercer than the first, and the men resorted to numerous inner and outer grapevines, hip-locks, and other movements. Then some little disagreement arose in regards to the looseness of their respective jackets, each claiming that the other had the best of it. It ended in their going at each other savagely, jerking and flinging each other around at a great rate.

Buffalo Morning Express (New York), Oct. 20 1880

For two hours this sort of boy’s play was continued, and it was evident that Owens had met his match in Dufur and his backers, who were determined that under no consideration should the Marlboro unknown go to the ground on his back. The audience at last became angry, and demanded fair play or their money. The claim was then made by Owens that Dufur’s jacket was too large, as it prevented his retaining his hold when once made. Dufur refused to put on his coat, and a disorderly scene ensued from 10:30 until 1 ‘o clock, during which time the wrestlers once dressed themselves and started to leave the hall, but the audience insisted the match should go on and they returned to the platform again.

St. Albans Daily Messenger (Vermont), Mar. 3 1877

In the recent struggle between these rival champions, McMahon’s jacket was not fair, and McLaughlin objected to it, but as McMahon had no other McLaughlin waived his objections rather than break up the match. The jacket was so loose that it pulled over the wearer’s head whenever McLaughlin had him in a tight place. As the articles of agreement specify that each shall wear the same style of jacket, the next struggle may result differently from the last.

The Boston Globe, Dec. 1 1878

This is one of the reasons we are currently working on developing dedicated jackets for future Collar and Elbow bouts. One, to ensure the modern sport has its own visual identity, but also to that everyone is on the same sartorial page. Every wrestler that steps into the ring will have the same grips, cut, and strength of material to work with.

Breaking the Hold

A key aspect of many traditional wrestling styles is the concept of the fixed hold. In contrast to modern styles like BJJ, Judo, and Sambo, in which you’re (mostly) free to take any grip you like, traditionally it was much more common for a style to centre around one set-in-stone grip (or “hold”) that both competitors were required to keep throughout the entire bout. It is quite typical to read accounts of old wrestling challenges in which the challengees’ response amounted to “Sure, what hold will we use?”.

The Northern Pacific Farmer, Jan. 27 1881

An over-under “hug” clinch is still a common hold (Scottish Backhold, Cumberland and Westmorland, Sardinian S’istrumpa), as is a belt grip (Icelandic Glima, Central Asian Alysh) or a trouser grip (Lucha Leonesa). Collar and Elbow’s was exactly as it the style’s name suggests – right hand on the collar of the jacket, left hand on the sleeve just above the elbow. And once you had it, you could not let go. You could use your arms to push, pull, twist, and generally off-balance your opponent while you worked to trip or throw them, but if you released your grips either by design or by accident you conceded a fall. So wrestlers couldn’t “accidentally” catch their balance mid throw, then just say “Whoops, let’s start again”. You had to work within the rules of the game.

James, Ed. “Manual of Sporting Rules: Comprising the Latest and Best Authenticated Revised Rules“. Ed James (self-pub.), 1873.

Here are some examples of that particular rule in action:

At Indianapolis, December 16, the Turkish wrestler Hali Adali nearly met with a reverse. Duncan C. Ross, who was in Australia some years ago, pulled the Eastern champion over in the Collar and Elbow bout, and, not understanding the style, Adali broke holds. Ross got the fall.

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), Feb. 11 1899

The wrestling up to this point had been in the Cumberland style, but the remaining two falls were in the Collar and Elbow style, sack jackets being put on by the competitors. The excitement now became intense, each effort of the wrestlers being heartily applauded. The Maori was very determined throughout, and after five minutes’ play threw his opponent very cleverly. The remaining fall lasted more than an hour. The Maori got a fall, but he let go his hold, and the fall was given against him.

Marlborough Daily Times (New Zealand), Mar. 19 1886

After the men had wrestled for two hours and thirty-five minutes, the tall man caught a right inside lock on the Vermonter, which the latter neatly broke, and in a twinkling twitched his adversary so nearly on to his back that he broke his hold to save himself and lost the fall as a consequence.

Boston Post, June 28 1878

Modern Collar and Elbow bouts include this crucial rule too. Take your grips, work your trips and throws, but your hands have to stay in place!

19th-Century Anti-Stalling Rules for Collar and Elbow Bouts

Modern combat sports like Judo and Sambo have fairly strict rules in place to prevent stalling in matches. Rules that forbid, for example, overly defensive grips or taking an excessive number of steps backwards without engaging. Collar and Elbow was no different. The grips were set in stone (right hand on collar, left on elbow), and the first written rules for the style specifically included a point intended to tackle the two most common methods of stalling – namely, stiff-arming an opponent away, and bending forwards with your upper body in order to keep your legs away from his attacks.

James, Ed. “Manual of Sporting Rules: Comprising the Latest and Best Authenticated Revised Rules“. Ed James (self-pub.), 1873.

Predictably, competitors still attempted to pull the odd bit of gamesmanship when things weren’t going their way, but all in all the rules and the referees enforcing them seemed to do the trick.

Cox clung to defensive tactics throughout, and it [wasn’t] long before Dufur became very aggressive. The sagging back of the former was very much complained of by the partisans of the Marlboro man, but it was not clear that he had transgressed any rule of the sport; still the referee frequently reminded him to ‘straighten up’.

Boston Post, June 28 1878

Another short breathing time was taken, during which McLaughlin called the referee’s attention to the fact that Martin persisted in keeping his arms stiff, when the rules expressly provide that in Collar and Elbow wrestling the men shall stand breast to breast and give their arms free play. The referee acknowledged the justice of the complaint, and instructed Martin to keep within the rule.

St. Louis Globe, Mar. 27 1876

Canvas jackets were again worn, each man taking hold at his opponent’s collar and elbow. Dinnie at once went on the defensive, standing well out, and lowering his head so to watch the other’s legs that he lost inches of his height. In a little while Cannon complained of this. ‘Stand up to your work, man,’ said he, but without avail. He then appealed to the referee, who, in reply, remarked, ‘Stand up, Donald, and let us see some wrestling.’ Dinnie quietly smiled and obeyed orders.

Sportsman (Melbourne), Mar. 9 1887

Essentially, as tempting as it might have been for a wrestler in a tight spot to stiff-arm and run down the clock, anyone attempting such a strategy (as the gentleman on the left here appears to be doing) would ultimately do nothing more than put themselves at risk of a caution or outright disqualification.