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  • Writer's pictureBrad Parker

Man, 81, takes Irish walking stick to burglars

Don and Barbara Donovan in Illinois
What are the self-defense lessons we can learn from this?

It's the kind of feel-good story that a lot of us like to hear when the bad guys pick the wrong people to victimize.

The Associated Press is reporting that an 81-year-old former Marine in Illinois used his grandfather's antique Irish walking stick to beat three burglars and drive them out of his house.

Dan and Barbara Donovan told the Pioneer Press newspaper group that a man in a reflective vest and mask knocked on their door in Niles on Nov. 4 and said he was a utility worker who needed to check their fuse box due to a recent fire in the area.

Barbara Donovan said while they were in the basement with the man, who was looking at their electric circuit panel, she heard squeaking floorboards upstairs realized something wasn’t right.

“I yelled, ’Danny! Somebody’s in our bedroom!” she said.

The story recounts how both of the homeowners ran upstairs from the basement followed by the bogus utility worker where they found two other assailants in the house, one of them holding a pillowcase from the couple's bedroom.

Dan was able to grab the antique walking stick -- called a shillelagh -- that was propped up in the corner of the couple's dining room.

“I was trying to find some type of persuasive weapon,” he said. “So I picked up the Irish shillelagh and that turned out to be the equalizer because I managed to chase them out of the house.”

The barefoot homeowner struck the pillowcase-carrying man in the back of the head and all three of the bad guys fled the house. Dan was able to continue outside where he use the shillelagh to deliver blows to the windshield and the rear window of the men's SUV as they escaped.

Dan said, "Hopefully they got nothing more than a headache and hopefully they pursue another occupation."

Self-Defense Lessons

Although the press presents this situation as sort of a cute story of two potential victims turning the

tables on their attackers, it holds a number aspects we can discuss for our self-defense.

man holding a shillelagh
A shillelagh is a stout traditional Irish walking stick.

Let's look at some of the self-defense lessons we can learn here:

Site security depends on access control. To keep any kind of structure or area secure, you need to have the ability to control who comes into that structure or area. In this case the ruse was led by a criminal dressed in a reflective vest and wearing a mask, two cues that would help confirm his story to a trusting homeowner. If criminals are able to breach your home -- either by force or guile like this story -- they have the privacy to corral you and control you in the relatively small confines of a residence. Now they have the time to ransack your house and, worse, the opportunity to physically assault you and your family.

  • Lock your doors.

  • Don't let in strangers.

  • Call and confirm the identity of unknown and unexpected "utility workers", "police officers", "priests" and others who normally have a high-trust factor.

Never underestimate your adversaries. In this case, it would seem likely that this crew has successfully pulled off this type of burglary before. It is relatively sophisticated in that the criminals have a very believable cover story which is used to gain access from trusting homeowners. Perhaps older homeowners are targeted precisely because they are perceived to be more trusting and less able to fight off criminals. You must remember that outlaws think outside of societal norms -- that's why they are called outlaws. They don't think like you. You don't know their background. You don't know their skills. You don't know the level of violence they are willing to use.

  • Stay on guard.

  • Mentally prepare for the worst.

  • Prepare a quick mental plan of what you would do, where you would go, and what you would use if the situation goes south.

  • Get self-defense training.

Recognize your normalcy bias. "Nothing like that happens around here." Just because it hasn't happened doesn't mean it won't happen. Posts like this and news you see every day tells us differently. The village of Niles only covers about six square miles and has less than 30,000 people. It's probably considered a quiet and safe locale. People here probably have a high amount of trust in dealing with others on a day-to-day basis. The competing situation, however, is that Niles is directly adjacent to the city of Chicago's far northwest border. It seems to non-residents like me that Chicago has a crime problem. Perhaps it's likely something bad could happen in Niles.

  • Bad guys have cars too and are mobile.

  • As societal and cultural fracturing continues, crime rates are going up. It's a reality.

  • Believe your gut when you think something is wrong or JDLR ("just don't look right). It's natural to be in denial when a crisis first hits.

Use surprise or a distraction when you launch your counterattack. Your adversaries have already gained the upper hand tactically which is why you are in this predicament in the first place. Your adversaries also believe they have mental, emotional, and physical superiority. They believe you will play the victim.

  • Wait until the bad guy turns his back, looks away or is distracted. Then counterattack.

  • Ask the adversary a question. When he starts to answer, counterattack.

  • When he has his hands full (like holding a pillowcase), counterattack.

Be decisive in resisting. Why are we not surprised when we see that Dan Donovan is a Marine? He might be an 81-year-old Marine, nevertheless, he's a Marine. He has the advantage of being molded by a branch of the U.S. military which has a proud tradition of a martial heritage that creates legendary fighting men known as "Leathernecks" and "Devil Dogs" (or "Teufel Hunden"by the Germans). So it would follow that Dan's trained response would be to counterattack. His wife, Barbara, appears to be a firecracker too and kicked off their response by recognizing the sounds of additional adversaries in the house.

  • When you start, you must continue until you are safe.

  • Launch hard and continue to resist.

  • Follow through with your techniques. It might be the third strike that is decisive.

  • Do not quit, even if you are injured.

  • Stay in the fight and win the fight. Your life depends on it.

You must repel force with force. Use enough force early enough and quickly enough to gain and maintain the tactical advantage. Sometimes this is called "violence of action". We talk a lot about using levels of force legally. Remember, we are not cops obligated to use the minimal force necessary to affect an arrest. Gradually ramping up your response gives the adversary time and the ability to negate your lower level of force with counterattacks. It's easier to throttle back your force after you've stopped their attack than it is to increase your force in the face of harrowing odds. Reliably being able to evade, avoid, and redirect force during the fight requires an incredibly sophisticated response. This is in the rarified atmosphere of elite martial artists and warriors. So be prepared to use caveman gross body movement techniques which can be amplified by your adrenaline. Swinging a shillelagh to smash a bad guy in the head counts as one of these.

  • When force is being used against you, you must now use force to stop the attack.

  • Do not count on reasonableness or mercy from your attackers.

  • There is no talking or reasoning your way out of this now.

Use a self-defense tool. Empty hand defense should be a core competency in your training. However, it takes a level of training and skill which might allude many of us. Using tools to stop an attack is recommended for citizens who are at a disadvantage due to stature, age, sex, fitness, impairments, and experience level. These tools include pepper spray, batons, knives, and firearms. A tool generally becomes a weapon when you hit, stab, or shoot someone. Traditionally, implements like walking sticks and daggers were used by many of our ancestors to keep kith and kin safe from bandits and highwaymen. It should not be lost on us the effectiveness of Dan's antique shillelagh in driving invaders from his home. Sláinte.

  • Look around your home and kitchen for tools that can be picked up and used as weapons.

  • Have your self-defense tools available on your person, in your car, and in your home (this goes for fire extinguishers too).

  • Get formal, expert training for your firearms of choice. Just going out shooting at cans is not the optimal way to train for a life-and-death encounter. There's more to effective gunfighting than the plinking you did growing up. Get training. From people who know things like this.

  • Sign up to get your CCW (concealed or license to carry) through your state's approved process or instructors.

  • If that is not possible, look for local firearms instructors who are certified by the NRA. This will give you a solid foundation. Not a cutting-edge foundation, but a fundamentally sound start from an instructor who has been held to a credible level of knowledge.

  • Look for instruction and training on how best to use impact weapons and knives to defend yourself. Often this is less extensive than firearms training, but no less valuable. In the end, however, the objective of the impact weapon is to hit someone and the objective of the edged weapon is to cut or stab someone. Neither of these have to get overly complicated.

  • Purchase and carry pepper spray. Pepper spray (or OC spray -- Oleoresin Capsicum) is pretty straightforward. If you've ever sprayed air freshener in a room or sprayed a wasp's nest, you have all the mechanical skills you need. It also doubles as a good repellant for dogs and other wild animals.


We are -- and will continue to be -- faced with interpersonal violence and we need to be trained and ready to respond effectively.

Unfortunately, there are numerous things we cannot control:

  • When the attack will occur.

  • Where the attack will occur.

  • How many attackers we will face.

  • How skilled and experienced our attackers will be.

  • Why the criminals are motivated to attack us.

Fortunately, there are a number of things we can control:

  • Our levels of awareness

  • Our fighting skills and abilities

  • Our level of physical fitness

  • Our equipment and defensive tools

  • Our knowledge of the moral and legal implications surrounding the use of force

By focusing on what we can control to increase our self-defense skills and knowledge, we are on a path to ensuring our family's safety and our own self-defense. Check out the full article at the link above.


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