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- Ruadhán MacFadden
Old Irish wrestling style, Collar and Elbow was the single most popular sport in the country throughout the 17th-19th centuries. Ultimately, however, Collar and Elbow suffered a significant decline both abroad and at home to the extent that nowadays almost no one in Ireland has ever heard of it. I spent several months attempting to reconstruct the rules and techniques of the style; a process that, on 3rd August 2019, culminated in holding a seminar and a series of bouts in Germany - the first competitive Collar and Elbow matches in over 100 years. Shortclips of the seminar and bouts are avaialble online.
Collar and Elbow ("Coilear agus Uille") was an old Irish wrestling style that, by all accounts, was the single most popular sport in the country throughout the 17th-19th centuries. Historian John Ennis, writing in the Leinster Leader newspaper in 1907, noted that it was "the chief physical sport of the male population from childhood to mature manhood, and every parish had its champion who was kept busy defending his title against would-be usurpers". Characterised by lightning-fast and intricate legwork - including hooks, trips, blocks, and throws - Collar and Elbow spread abroad with successive waves of Irish emigration, and found particularly widespread popularity in the United States. George Washington himself was reputedly a highly proficient Collar and Elbow wrestler, being able to deal out powerful "flying mare" throws from his schooldays right up until the time he was serving as the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Armies.
Ultimately, however, Collar and Elbow suffered a significant decline both abroad and at home (due to a succession of factors including the demographic and cultural devastation of the Great Famine in the 1840s, and the Coercion Acts that made it illegal to hold any sizeable gatherings in public space), to the extent that nowadays almost no one in Ireland has ever heard of it. In his 1907 article, Ennis looked back with longing at the lost heydays of the then-forgotten grappling style, ending with a wistful "it is hoped that this eminently scientific and picturesque style of wrestling will be again revived and popularised".
In November 2018, I released a podcast episode on the history, characteristics, and eventual decline of Collar and Elbow. I subsequently spent several months attempting to actually reconstruct the rules and techniques of the style; a process that, on 3rd August 2019, culminated in me holding a seminar and a series of bouts in Heidelberg, Germany - the first competitive Collar and Elbow matches in over 100 years. You can see a video of that seminar here and the bouts here.
It was a highly international event, with participants from Estonia, Belgium, Germany, the US, UK, and Poland. All the competitors were already experienced in various other grappling arts such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Japanese Jujutsu, and Luta Livre, and it was intriguing to observe how they chose to apply their preexisting skillset to the framework of Collar and Elbow. That framework being: take the eponymous grips on the collar and elbow of your opponent’s jacket, they do the same to you, and then you both try to take each other to the ground. Victory is achieved by pinning your opponent’s shoulders for a count of 3 seconds.
All in all, I’m extremely happy with how the event went, and overawed by the enthusiastic response it drew from both participants on the day, and people who subsequently watched the footage of the seminar and the bouts online. The level of interest I’ve received from the Irish grappling community, in particular, has encouraged me to start looking into holding a similar event in Ireland sometime in the near future. Only time will tell if we can actually bring Collar and Elbow back home again, but I am determined to try.