Collar and Elbow (in Irish “Coiléar agus Uille” or “Brollaidheacht”) is the national wrestling style of Ireland. Historically it has also been practiced in regions of the world with large Irish diaspora populations, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It is characterised by the fixed grips that wrestlers are required to take on their opponents’ jackets, and by its focus on leg techniques such as trips, footsweeps, and hip throws.
Early Wrestling in Ireland
Wrestling as a competitive sport has been recorded in Ireland as far back as the second millennium BC, when it featured as one of the many athletic contests held during the annual Tailteann Games. The mythical hero Cúchulainn boasted of his prowess in both hurling and wrestling, and was on one occasion enraged by an undead spectre mockingly suggesting that his skill in the latter area had been highly exaggerated. Carved depictions of two figures in a recognisable wrestling clinch appear on the Market High Cross of Kells and the ruins of a church at Kilteel (both 9th century AD), and wrestling matches were common features of country fairs until at least the 18th century.
“When they wrestled, [the young Cúchulainn] would throw the same thrice fifty boys to the ground beneath him, and a sufficient number of them to hold him could not get to him.”Táin Bó Cúailnge: From the Book of Leinster
These wrestling contests were occasionally violent affairs. Participants could be and were frequently injured, sometimes fatally so, as in the case of a contest between one Thomas Costello (known locally as Tumaus Loidher – “Thomas the Strong”) and an unnamed champion in which Costello ostensibly squeezed on his opponent’s harness so powerfully that it broke the man’s spine. There appear to have been little or no attempts to moderate these violent aspects of wrestling from a legal point of view; as historian Edward MacLysaght noted in his account of the match, as the participant in a sporting contest Costello had little to fear in terms of official retribution.
These accounts of early Irish wrestling matches all describe participants taking a diverse range of grips on their opponents – from clutching at any available limb in the time of Cúchulainn, to a backhold-style clinch on the carvings at Kells and Kilteel, to both hands holding a belt in the match between Thomas Costello and his ill-fated opponent. However, by the 18th century a new form of grip had established itself as the favoured hold: right hand grabbing the opponent’s collar, left hand grabbing the sleeve of their jacket at the elbow. This position, and all its associated techniques and strategies, was to quickly emerge as the dominant framework under which Irish wrestling matches were contested.
“Collar and Elbow,” says Patrick, “or any way you like, my old buck. I’ll bet five thirteens on the first fall!”Connaught Telegraph, May 22nd 1844
The Rise of Collar and Elbow in Ireland
In the 19th century, Collar and Elbow wrestling was one of the most widely practiced sporting activities in the country – “the chief physical sport of the male population from childhood to mature manhood”. Bouts took place between local champions and challengers on a parish level, and those between the most well-known and skilled wrestlers could draw thousands of spectators from across neighbouring counties. Although it was primarily referred to by its English name, Collar and Elbow is known to have had at least two names in Irish: “Coiléar agus Uille” (a literal translation of Collar and Elbow) and “brollaidheacht”. The latter derives from the term for the front of a shirt (“brollach léine”) and thus “brollaidheacht” could be translated as “collaring” – a reference to the grip that wrestlers were required to take on each other’s jackets.
Victory was determined by a “fall”, the definition of which differed from county to county. In Kildare a wrestler was deemed to have won if he made his opponent touch the ground with any single part of his body above the knees, whereas in Dublin he was required to make three points of his opponent’s body touch the ground (usually both shoulders and a hip, or both hips and a shoulder). A significant difference between Collar and Elbow as it was practiced in Ireland and the United States is that, in its Irish incarnation, shin-kicking was routinely permitted. This, coupled with the fact that many participants wore heavy work boots, resulted in a level of injury among Irish wrestlers not usually seen among their US counterparts. Shins were frequently “gored and/or bruised” after a match, and on rare occasions outright broken.
Admirers of the style nonetheless lauded its “eminently scientific and picturesque” virtues. In particular, they claimed that, since the fixed grips prevented the “bull-like charges, flying tackles, or other onrushes” common in other wrestling styles, Collar and Elbow encouraged participants to develop “deftness, balance, and leverage allied with strength, [which permitted] a man to win by means of skill instead of sheer might and weight”.
“A Wexford man of the 38th regiment, writing from the Crimea, thanked his knowledge of Collar and Elbow – or as we in Kerry say, ‘cur cuis é’ – for his expertise in dealing with the Russian.”The Tralee Chronicle, Sep 14th 1855
Collar and Elbow in the United States
As levels of Irish emigration to the United States steadily increased throughout the 17th–19th centuries, so too did the presence of the Irish cultural traditions they brought with them – including their wrestling style. New England in general, and Vermont in particular, emerged as an early stronghold of Collar and Elbow after it had been introduced by immigrants largely from County Kildare. During the US Civil War, Vermont regiments introduced the style to other units in the Army of the Potomac, and in that way it acquired immense popularity among men from other regions of the United States who might otherwise never have encountered it. By the time the Civil War ended, Collar and Elbow had emerged as one of the most common rulesets under which wrestling bouts were contested nationwide.
Bouts drew large and enthusiastic crowds across the country, and purses of several hundred dollars were routinely offered for championship contests. Vermont continued to remain a significant force in the Collar and Elbow world throughout, with two of the style’s most notable 19th-century practitioners, Henry Moses Dufur and John McMahon, hailing from Franklin County. Practitioners of wrestling in general at this point were colloquially known as “scufflers”, with practitioners of Collar and Elbow specifically sometimes additionally referred to as “trippers” due to the leg-centric strategies they employed.
Initially, Collar and Elbow bouts in both Ireland and the United States were governed by unwritten, often improvised codes of conduct rather than any kind of codified rules. An early attempt to standardise the competitive rules of the style was made in advance of a tournament that was scheduled to be held in St. Albans, Vermont in 1856. The tournament was ultimately cancelled due to “an epidemic of disease” in the region, however, and no record of the proposed ruleset exists. It was almost two decades later before the first widely accepted set of rules was published.
In his 1959 book The Magnificent Scufflers, author Charles Morrow Wilson claims that a set of rules were published in the 1870s by legendary Collar and Elbow champion Henry Moses Dufur. Wilson refers to these as the “Dufur Rules”. It should be noted, however, that, much like the earlier ruleset from St. Albans, no actual record of the Dufur Rules exists. As such, the first definitively historical written rules for Collar and Elbow were the Ed James rules, published as part of a general manual of sporting rules and regulations in 1873. Among other things, they stated that wrestlers had to compete while wearing a suitably sturdy jacket, banned the wearing of heavy footwear, and specified the clear conditions for victory – a wrestler had to throw his opponent flat on his back, similar to the concept of “ippon” in judo. The Ed James rules were to act as the agreed-upon standard for the majority of Collar and Elbow bouts held in the United States during its 19th-century heyday.
Although there are rare accounts of bouts being held in which the combatants were shirtless – usually in rural areas during the summer months- in its standardised competitive form Collar and Elbow required both participants to wear jackets or heavy shirts that could be gripped and used to set up throwing techniques. A similar requirement exists in other Celtic styles like Cornish wrestling and Breton Gouren. At wrestling events in Dublin, a common method of issuing a challenge was to place a jacket in the centre of the ring and wait for a contender to step in and put it on.
Even in so-called “mixed wrestling” bouts where men would compete against each other in consecutive rounds under different rulesets (e.g. Catch-as-Catch-Can, Greco-Roman, and Collar and Elbow), they would specifically be required to don jackets for the Collar and Elbow rounds.
“Meanwhile, Keating’s backers were not yet disheartened, as his strong point had not yet been tested in his favourite style of wrestling [Collar and Elbow]. The result showed that they were justified in their confidence, for which the men set to again, this time with jackets. The Dublin Boy gained an easy victory the first bout, and in the second he ran his man down after some pretty heavy play.”Daily Telegraph (Sydney, New South Wales), March 9th 1885, describing a mixed-rules contest in the Cumberland, Collar and Elbow, and Catch-as-Catch-Can styles
In Ireland – and in the early days in the United States – there were no standardised requirements for the durability or the length of the jacket. This occasionally led to disputes between prospective opponents when one party believed that the other’s attire provided him with an unfair advantage, such as the pre-bout disagreement that occurred between Patrick Cullen and Paddy Dunne in 1862, in which Dunne alleged that Cullen’s long cavalry officer’s coat would prevent him from seeing and defending against his leg techniques. Contests were occasionally even called off mid-bout when a jacket ripped or was otherwise unable to bear the rigours of a prolonged wrestling match. The Ed James rules of the 19th century were the first to specifically state in writing that any jacket used for a Collar and Elbow bout had to be suitably tight-fitting and resilient, and elaborated that it should not reach below the wrestler’s hips so that their leg attacks would be freely visible.
Subsequently, a dedicated leather harness was developed to act as a potential substitute for the jacket. The invention of the harness is attributed to Homer Lane, a three-time national Collar and Elbow champion of the United States. It saw somewhat frequent use in both the US and Canada, but in general the majority of Collar and Elbow bouts continued to be held using the requisite durable jackets.
Since both combatants’ hands were fixed in place on each other’s jackets, Collar and Elbow came to be distinguished by its volume and variety of leg techniques. Combatants would circle each other throwing rapid-fire combinations of trips, taps, kicks, and sweeps in an attempt to off-balance their opponent and send him crashing to the ground – an extended exchange of attack and defense that one historian described as “footsparring”. Observers of Collar and Elbow bouts frequently remarked upon this aspect of the style, with one journalist proposing that a Collar and Elbow match between two skilled participants was really “a fist fight with the feet”.
“[The General of Kabul] then desired the interpreter to ask [the Irish soldier] what spell it was that had enabled him to throw the gigantic Afghans. The soldier put his mouth close to the interpreter’s ear and whispered, confidently, ‘Tell him it’s a crook I learned from my mother’.”Freeman’s Journal, Sep 27th 1845
Although wrestlers’ grips were fixed in place, they were nonetheless free to push, pull, and twist their opponent using their arms, and ultimately any form of takedown was permitted as long as the person executing it maintained his collar-and-elbow grips while doing so. One of the more dramatic takedowns was the flying mare – described as an explosive, high-impact hip throw that would send the victim’s feet flying up over his head.
The following techniques were listed in a 1900 dictionary of sporting terms published by the Irish Department of Education (An Roinn Oideachais). See the Techniques page for more info.
- Caitheamh thar gualainn, flying mare
- Cor ailt, cor mughdhoirn (múrnáin), ankle throw
- Cor coise, tripping throw
- Cor cromáin, hip throw
- Cor glúine, knee throw
- Cor ioscaide, back-knee trip
- Cor sála, back-heel
- Cros-chor ailt (múrnáin), cross-ankle trip
- Cros-más, cross-buttock throw
- Glac-coise, leg-lock
- Glas coise, hank
- Lúbaim, hook
- Más, buttock throw
- Snaidim, click
- Tuisleadh, trip
By the early 20th century, Collar and Elbow had all but disappeared from Ireland. Writing in the Leinster Leader newspaper in 1907, local historian John Ennis directly attributed this to two significant factors – the Great Famine that resulted in the deaths of over 1 million people and the “unnatural exodus” of 1 million more seeking a better way of life, and the colonial-era Coercion Acts that limited any kind of gatherings in public space. The demographic and cultural devastation of the former coupled with the oppressive restrictions of the latter resulted in an environment in which Ireland’s native wrestling style simply could not be practiced, ultimately leading to it fading from everyday life entirely.
An additional significant factor was the lack of any independent, centralised sporting organisation to promote the style. A book published in 1908 by An Chomhairle Náisiúnta (The National Council), referring to both wrestling and handball, noted that “although both these pastimes have been on the Gaelic programme since its first appearance, neither has ever received any official encouragement. Yet both are games in which Gaels have excelled[…] That such a wide area and so popular and meritorious a branch of athletics should have received only nominal recognition is only another instance of how partial and halting has been the management of Gaelic athletic affairs.” Individual efforts were made to promote Collar and Elbow bouts in Dublin in 1906, but these were “spontaneous and isolated”, and the sport was entirely omitted from the largest government-organised athletics event of the period – the short-lived modern revival of the Tailteann Games held after the Irish Civil War. No records exist of any Collar and Elbow bouts being held in Ireland for the remainder of the 20th century.
In the United States, the growing popularity of other grappling styles like catch wrestling and Greco-Roman resulted in Collar and Elbow being practiced less and less. The final contest for the Collar and Elbow championship of America – held between James H. McLoughlin and John McMahon – took place in 1878, with McMahon winning with two falls out of three. By 1890, Collar and Elbow was already being referred to as an “old time” sport, and by the early 20th century newspaper accounts of wrestling matches were referring to “the ancient days when collar-and-elbow was the rule”.
“It has always struck me as passing strange that the Celtic method of wrestling, i.e. Collar and Elbow, has not been revived in Ireland, particularly at the time when wrestling in Dublin and outlying districts was so popular.”Sunday Independent, March 19th 1911
In August 2019, a series of Collar and Elbow bouts were held in Heidelberg, Germany. The ruleset for these bouts included several modifications to ensure compatibility with a modern tournament format – such as fixed bout lengths of 5 minutes – but were otherwise directly based on the historical rules that governed Collar and Elbow matches everywhere from Meath to Montana. Subsequently, matches based on the same modern ruleset have been held in the United States.
In 2020, a Collar and Elbow society was established at Dublin City University (DCU) – the first club dedicated to the wrestling style in Ireland in roughly 100 years. Further competitions are planned to be held in 2021 in the United Kingdom, Estonia, and Germany.
- An Chomhairle Náisiúnta. Leabhar na hÉireann (The Irish Yearbook). Dublin, 1908.
- An Roinn Oideachais. Téarmaí Cluichidheachta. Irish Dept. of Education, 1900.
- Co. Kildare Online Electronic History Journal. 2006. Famous Kildare Wrestling, Ancient Gaelic Style of Collar and Elbow: How Kildare Exiles Carried the Game Abroad. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.kildare.ie/ehistory/2006/05/collar_and_elbow_wrestling.asp. [Accessed 15 November 2018].
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- Gunning, Paul Ignatius. “Hardy Fingallians, Kildare Trippers, and ‘The Divil Ye’ll Rise’ Scufflers: Wrestling in Modern Ireland.” A Social and Cultural History of Sport in Ireland, pp. 110-121, 2016
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- MacLysaght, Edward. Irish Life in the Seventeenth Century. Irish Academic Press, 1979.
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- Morrow, Charles W. The Magnificent Scufflers: Revealing the Great Days When America Wrestled the World. The Stephen Green Press, 1959
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- O’Rahilly, Cecile (ed.). Táin Bó Cúailnge from the Book of Leinster. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1970.
- Sayers, William. “The Motif of Wrestling in Early Irish and Mongolian Epic.” Mongolian Studies, vol. 13, 1990, pp. 153–168.
- The Evening World (New York, New York), 20 June 1916, p. 14.
- The Northern Pacific Farmer (Wadena, Minnesota), 27 January 1881, p. 3.