Irish for Americans: Alpeen

Monk McGinn’s cudgel from “Gangs of New York.”

Here is the third word from the poem that started this series, one of the four accomplishments an Irishman should be able to boast by the age 80: To flourish his alpeen. Or, in the Irish orthography, ailpīn.

The word means “cudgel,” which isn’t even a word we use in English much anymore, although we do still have Irish characters in popular culture who carry a cudgel. There was, an an example, Walter “Monk” McGinn in “Gangs of New York,” played by Brendan Gleeson, who put a notch on his cudgel for each he he killed with it. It wasn’t a shillelagh that McGinn carried — the blackthorn walking stick that often doubled as a club — it was a proper alpeen. Look at it — it has a knotted top and a strap at the bottom. Nobody would take it with them on a countryside ramble. Not unless that ramble included busting skulls.

Of course, I am distinguishing between two things that are very much the same. The shillelagh was also an alpeen, or the alpeen was a sort of shillelagh — it’s not entirely clear what referred to what, and the entire history of Irish truncheons is detailed in “Shillelagh: The Irish Fighting Stick” by John W. Hurley. He also details the fighting art associated with these weapons, now called bataireacht, and the culture of recreational violence that grew up around it. This apparently included duels fought with cudgels and competing gangs, called “factions,” who battled at social events.

The word makes frequent appearance in American-published short stories about the Irish dating back to the mid-19th century, and the Irish American Weekly used the term in news stories about Ireland, such as one from July 3, 1869, called “The Murder of Patrick Power,” telling of the death of an Irish farmer, who was a “once celebrated wielder of the ‘alpeen’ in ‘the olden time.'” It’s the favored weapon in a serialized story the publication ran in 1871 called “Crohoore Of The Bill-Hook,” but, at that time, had never appeared as a weapon wielded in America — at least, not under that name. In America, shillelagh seems to be the term most often applied to a cudgel, and the skills used for the knotted alpeen seems to have been transferred to the police truncheon. I will address the use of the word shillelagh in another post, and have already looked at the truncheon. But the alpeen was its own thing, and Monk McGinn wouldn’t have looked nearly as ferocious wielding the b;ackthorn walking stick that is now universally referred to as the shillelagh.

I mean, there is another cinematic image that would benefit from the word: Irish pubs in movies always seem to have a baseball bat stashed behind the bar in case of unruly customer, and, honestly, we can do better. I’d like to see a really terrifying alpeen hung above the bar with an expression of warning written about it, perhaps an Irish phrase such as “Is milis dá ól é ach is searbh dá íoc é,” which means “It is sweet to drink but bitter to pay for.”

Or better still, “Is iomaí slí muc a mharú seachas a thachtadh le h-im,” which means “There are many ways of killing a pig other than by choking it with butter.” That’s a bar that will brook no nonsense.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.