Sunday, June 01, 2014

Interview with an Irish Stickfighter

Nathan Featherstone: Teacher of Irish Stickfighting

Among the many interesting and dedicated martial artists I met on my recent visit to The Emerald Isle (that’s the great country of Ireland, for you homebodies) is a young man who is certainly no stranger to the ‘Fine Art of Combat with Impact Weapons’. Mr. Nathan Featherstone was an enthusiastic participant in the historic SEA of Fusion Martial Arts Festival hosted by one of Ireland’s leading Silat teachers, Guru Besar (Master) Liam MacDonald in May of this year.  

During the weekend, Nathan kindly gave Kuya Doug Marcaida and me a brief introduction to the history and practice of Irish Stickfighting –of which he is a teacher.  He also graced us with a display of some of the fine pieces from his own personal collection of fighting sticks.

In the spirit of all true Warriors, I found him to be humble, quiet, and extremely knowledgeable in his area of specialty.  He has graciously allowed me to ask some questions for the benefit of my blog readers.  

Nathan, please tell us a bit about your Martial Arts background:

I like many others began my journey into martial arts at a very young age but I fell out of love with the art I studied, not with martial arts themselves. I remember asking my instructor “what if some grabs you?” and never being given an answer. This instilled in me the search for what Matt Thornton of SBG calls aliveness, in short to see the art work in real time.

How did you come to focus on the fighting traditions of Europe?:

Many years later and with the internet becoming more available I began to research the martial arts of Europe - something I was totally unaware of. Then I found out that my home country of Ireland had its own martial arts.

This led me down a rabbit hole of history, politics, fakes, research and bullshit but eventually I found my path. Due to the complex history of war in Ireland, “fighting” is something often frowned upon and these arts were viewed as something to be forgotten and almost were, but not for the immigrant families who left the country.

Is there a particular ‘style’ of Irish stickfighting you practice?

I was led to the Doyle style preserved by the Doyle family who immigrated to Canada and after many years I came to be the instructor for Ireland. This was one of the proudest achievements of my life. The style is very unique and is one that revolves around the heavy blackthorn stick. This is the traditional fighting stick of Ireland the shillelagh and has a rich and interesting history.

Does this style have an empty-hand component, or is it purely based on the stick?

Like some Filipino martial arts this style was designed to work with the empty hands but much more similar to European pugilism in nature and has some very unique traits including stance, grip and a series of blocks and strikes.

When I spoke with you in Ireland, you made several references to “full-contact” matches that you’ve fought in.  Why/how did you take the traditional form you studied into the practical arena?

As always this led me to wanting to see this art alive and this in turn brought me to the Dog Brothers. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made as it not only introduced me to full contact stick fighting but also the martial arts of south east Asia and some of the nicest people I know. It also allowed me to bring DBMA to Ireland and to be the first Irish person to take part in a gathering.

You seem to have developed a taste for Silat as well:

Over the years I have been blessed to meet some amazing martial artists and was properly introduced to Silat for the first time this year. An art I have always had huge respect for as to me it bridges the areas in between striking and grappling, combining them and it really does work.

Have you studied with Guru Besar Liam MacDonald in the past?

No, but I had heard of his guys and had meant to come train and saw the event on facebook and said “I better go to this!”

What are your thoughts on the SEA of Fusion seminar?

For me this was one of the best martial arts events I have attended the main reason being so many styles, schools and instructors came together and put any differences aside to simply enjoy themselves and learn. With silat being as rare as it is to have so many people in one place never mind a small country like Ireland was a blessing.

So, what are your thoughts on training and teaching now and into the future?

I feel blessed to have accomplished so much so young and I know I have a long road ahead of me. I now train in many styles including mma, bjj, boxing and many others and run a small martial arts group in Dublin called blackthorn fight school named after the stick used in the art I am working to preserve.

Can people contact you directly to learn more?

Yes, there is our group facebook page if people want to get in touch, which is this


Colin said...

Well done on the SEA of fusion seminar. Can Mr. Featherstone recommend a good teacher of Irish stickfighting in North America?


Anonymous said...

Hi Colin,

Nathan here there are not many that i know of but of the style i teach all the information for the USA can be found here