Why People Club Each Other

Some Irish history, and a word of advice to the government

By Dave Kopel, director of the Independence Institute

8/31/00 10:40 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on Ireland.

Why do teenagers join gangs? Drugs, TV violence, divorce, cuts in social spending, problems with the government schools — everyone's got a theory about what's to blame. While all these factors do play a role, the root problem may rest in human nature — not in government policy.

Back in 1805, County Tipperary in Ireland witnessed the outbreak of a craze called "faction fighting." The faction fighting rage quickly caught on in Munster and Leinster, and then in most of the rest of Ireland.

Here's how it worked. Folks in a given area would divide themselves into factions with names like the Pudding Lane Boys, the Bogboys, or the Black Hens and Magpies. All the different factions lived together peacefully — and without regard to their factional identity — until a day when a fair was held. As the fair and feast wore into the evening, the revelers grew inebriated and ugly.

After a while, two factions would line up in rows facing each other. The faction fighters were usually armed with stout oaken sticks — although sometimes they carried stockings full of rocks, or other weapons. Faction leaders would goad each other by ritual call and response. "Here's tobacco and who dar's smoke it," one man would cry. "I'll cut it," would come the reply. "Let who likes smoke it." Soon the faction leaders would be fencing with their oak cudgels, and soon after that, the two factions would rush at each other in a general melee. By the unwritten rules, everyone usually paired off for man-to-man combat.

Eventually, two factions would get tired and go home, unless the police had come to arrest them first.  Deaths from faction-fighting were the exception, but serious injuries were the rule. The next day, life would be back to normal, with everyone living together peacefully.

Historian Patrick O'Donnell suggests that while there were sociological explanations for faction fighting, the root cause was something more basic: the sheer love of fighting.

Human nature isn't always rational or good. Sometimes when people injure themselves or each other, there's no good reason. And there's nothing the government can do about it. 

Of course, the government should do everything it can to combat the growth of violent gangs. But to keep expectations realistic, it would be wise to remember that our most serious problems stem not from social conditions, but from human nature.

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