"Recreational fighting" (RF) designates group battles fought with fists, stones, or sticks, and prohibiting more lethal weapons. As with organized sports, RF has rules of "fairness." Here men fight for "fun" or for "honor" rather than for material gain; this article compares instances of RF in Ireland, the American frontier, and two other societies. Although it is not known why RF arose in these societies and not in others, one notices a similarity of motivation in these groups of fighters. It is left to sociologists to determine how much RF contributes to battles that continue to rage between rival street gangs.
Faction Fights in Rural Ireland in the Nineteenth Century
These public fights were common in Ireland from 1800 to 1880, despite strong disapproval of civil and religious authorities. Unlike contemporary gang fights, older men joined in these contests with the same enthusiasm as their sons. The group battles reflected rivalries between extended families, towns, or parishes. Yet the only reasons for these men to fight were that it was traditional and they enjoyed it. The emphasis on "fighting for fun" is clear in accounts of witnesses recorded in court records, where fighting had led to charges of homicide. In reviewing records of 800 rural homicide trials, Carolyn Conley noted that while judges urged juries to prosecute those who killed a neighbor (usually with a stout oak club called a shillelagh ), the juries argued that because combatants had entered freely into the battles, none should be punished for the unfortunate accidents.
Fights began at public events—parties, weddings, wakes—but most often at seasonal fairs. At the notorious "Donnybrook Fair" faction fights were expected events. After preliminary combat with shillelaghs by captains of two factions, all-out battles between dozens or even hundreds of combatants would last all afternoon. As drinking induced a convivial mood within one faction, the bonding among friends enhanced their readiness to battle with the other faction. Yet their mood was not one of anger. The fight is seen as a kind of play, with rules of restraint: a larger group does not attack a much smaller group; weapons are meant to be sticks and stones; knives and scythes are expressly forbidden. The problem was that when a family member was injured before one's eyes, the urge to retaliate created a new and angry mood. It is likely that preparation for fighting by drinking whiskey dissolved the fear of such injuries.
The American Frontier: More Recreational Fighting
RF was also prominent among loggers on the northern frontier during the nineteenth century. Drinking and fighting by loggers was associated with end-of-season sprees in towns whose sleazy entertainment was geared up for the sudden invasion of men with pent-up emotions and money to spend. One writer recalls:
The jacks swaggered along the wooden sidewalks, marching, singing and shouting from one saloon to the next. When one brigade confronted another there was a moment's hesitation, after which there might be either a joyous reunion or a pitched battle. Even the reunions quickly degenerated into the all-too-common "free fights" in which twenty or more shanty boys would have at it in a so-called "friendly" battle. After the dust had settled, they all became buddies. (Kilar)
J. C. Frolicher tells of a battle at a party between two groups of loggers who respond to intervention in the same manner described of faction fighters: when local farmers try to break up the brawl, both groups turn on them, heaving them through windows. Afterwards, they escort their dates home like perfect gentlemen.
Football Hooliganism as Recreational Fighting
While there was no faction fighting in England or Ireland, what we have to compare in the twentieth century is football-related gang violence. In the early 2000s, it was English (rather than Irish) footfall fans that had a reputation for fighting for fun. An "anthropological" study by Armstrong (1998) that reported on a working-class gang in Sheffield called "the Blades." From his account, the rivalry between the Blades and their city rivals, the Owls, didn't involve issues of race, class difference, money, or drugs (as do many U.S. gang rivalries). As with faction fighting, these confrontations were "for fun." In addition, Armstrong noted that women expected and rewarded this violence—they were prominent among the onlookers for whom the fighting "dramas" were staged.
Like faction fights, these gang battles were meant to be "fair:" the use of knives and guns was prohibited, as was having many combatants gang up on just one (or a few) opponents. While posturing with verbal insults and gestures occurred when gangs met, such encounters were usually free of violence, since police were on the watch whenever large groups gathered. Leaders of the two gangs had to confer in order to designate a battleground that was free from police surveillance. When such fights happened, a gang leader was likely to intervene if one of his own disciples attacked a younger or smaller opponent. Before a battle could even happen, it had to be agreed upon by both parties, and it stopped when one side gave up. Armstrong's long list of rituals involved in selecting targets and in escalating aggression stressed the game-like context of those fights and the inhibition of pure impulsiveness or anger.
Brawling Venetians During the Renaissance
Another cultural institution that bore resemblance to Irish faction fighting is described by Robert Davis in The War of the Fists (1994). By the fifteenth century, two major factions in Venice battled routinely throughout the year for control of certain bridges over the canals. Those bridges (rather than fairgrounds or bleachers) became public stages on which young men engaged in vigorous battles for the sake of "honor," public approbation, and raucous fun. The battles at first included some nobles (and even priests), who fought with sharp sticks and wore armor as added protection. After 1570, the use of sticks was abandoned in favor of fistic combat. The doffing of armor made the fights affordable to a large variety of working men (sailors, fishermen, gondoliers) and artisans, who joined neighborhood brigades under the banner of one major faction or the other.
Like Irish faction fights, emotions escalated during preliminary one-on-one matches between representatives of each faction held in the middle of a bridge. Those preliminary fist fights provided some comic relief, as one or more fighters were usually tripped or butted into the canal—a defeat that was much worse than being bloodied while standing one's ground. Like the Irish fights, group fights in Venice included a great deal of stone throwing. Despite the mad, headlong rushes over the bridges by the two sides, Venetians prohibited the use of knives and other weapons to strictly enforce "fairness."
Large crowds, including nobles and government officials, rewarded these fighters with wild approval. The honor accruing to group captains (padrin) could elevate the status of a working man and allow him entrance into a higher social echelon (as a guest). That increased prestige apparently was an effective reward for accepting such battering. On the other hand, fear of being shamed—even from one's own family—motivated young men to accept hard punishment. Davis quoted a contemporary:
"The losers . . . are so humiliated that there are those who do not even dare to return to their houses, because their women folk will sometimes close their doors to them and drive them away, reproaching them for their cowardice with such terms as 'Away from here, dishonorable, ignominious pig! '"
The Psychology of Fighting for Fun
In the above examples of RF, social bonding is stressed as a basis for aggression, rather than a breakdown of social rules by hot-headed individuals. The motives of these fighters are relatively pure: they enjoy fighting. They are rewarded by the excitement of onlookers and by the inherent pleasure of executing physical skills. Although a keen rivalry with similar groups is often felt, RF does not depend upon hatred of the rival, or even anger amidst the fray. If one proposes that adult fighting can be a form of play, one must ask how fighting can be enjoyable—as a quotation from one British hooligan dramatically affirms:
"Most people can't understand how it could possibly be fun to be punched, booted and battered and to have bottles and stones thrown at you, but, believe me, I've experienced it and when you're in the thick of the action, even sex doesn't come close to the feeling of being hyped up." (Guilianotti)
It is common knowledge that participants in rough sports (as well as other risky activities) experience a socalled "adrenaline rush" during their confrontations with danger. There is much evidence implicating the release in the braneurotransmitter dopamine (DA) during activities that are intrinsically rewarding. Moreover, Van Erps and Miczek report a release of DA in the brains of rats who have attacked an intruder rat. Thus, DA release may produce this rewarding adrenaline rush during fighting. (In fact, to take that one step further, it can be suggested that since DA release provides a "pleasurable high," frequent fighting may in fact lead to an actual addiction in the same manner that—as psychiatrists have proposed—gambling and sexual activity can be addictive.)
Armstrong, Gary. Football Hooligans: Knowing the Score. Oxford and New York: Berg Press, 1998.
Conley, Carolyn. "The Agreeable Recreation of Fighting." Journal of Social History 33 (Fall 1999): 57–72.
Frolicher, J. C. "Lumberjack Fights." Four L Lumber News 10, no. 43 (1928).
Guilianotti, Richard. "Ungentlemanly Conduct: Football Hooligans, the Media and the Construction of Notoriety." Football Studies. 1, no. 2 (August 1998).
Kilar, Jeremy W.. "Great Lakes Timber Towns and Frontier Violence: A Comparative Study." Journal of Forest History 31 (April 1987): 71–85.
Panskepp, Jaak. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Pellis, Sergio M., and Andrew N. Iwaniuk "Adult-Adult Play in Primates: Comparative Analyses of Its Origin, Distribution and Evolution." Ethology 106 (2000): 1083–1104.