Irish shillelagh

Amy Vach

La Crosse has been home to Irish immigrants since its early days of white settlement.

In 1854, 16 of the 745 residents of La Crosse were born in Ireland. Today roughly 300,000 residents of Wisconsin claim Irish ancestry. Although the percentage of individuals declaring Irish ancestry has decreased, the presence of Irish heritage in the community has not diminished.

The Shamrock Club of Wisconsin was created in 1960 by people who desired to promote and keep Irish heritage alive. A local chapter — the Greater La Crosse Area Shamrock Club Inc. — was formed in 1973. Since the 1960s, this club has become one of the largest ethnic organizations in Wisconsin.

In La Crosse the organization is responsible for many Irish events, especially the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Irishfest. The club describes itself as an organization stressing the cultural, social and charitable aspects of Irish heritage, and its members encourage everyone to join — you don’t have to be of Irish descent to be a member.

A shillelagh (pronounced shuh-ley-lee) is is a wooden walking stick and club or cudgel, typically made from a stout knotty stick with a large knob at the top. Shillelaghs are typically made of blackthorn. According to legend, King Richard II is credited for referring to the stick as a shillelagh. The name actually referred to the people living in the village of Shillelagh and Shillelagh Forest in Ireland during the 14th century who used the sticks as weapons.

Although shillelaghs have a violent history, today they are used as walking sticks and are seen as a symbol of Irishness.

This shillelagh has been in the La Crosse County Historical Society’s collection for more than 100 years. It was donated in 1915 by Mary H. Parks. This stick is made of knobby wood and has a clover relief carving at the top. Below the clover, a ribbon design is carved into the head of the stick and says “ERIN,” the Gaelic word for Ireland.