Medieval Irish Warriors

Jeffrey James takes a close look at the native Irish resistance to foreign invaders, from the Vikings to the Tudors.

The Battle of Clontarf, 23 April 1014. One of Irish history’s decisive battles, Clontarf ended the possibility of Viking domination.
The Battle of Clontarf, 23 April 1014. One of Irish history’s decisive battles, Clontarf ended the possibility of Viking domination.

It was as aggressors that the Irish first made their impact on European history. The quasi-legendary Irish warlord Cormac mac Airt, from the 3rd century AD, not only subdued almost all of Ireland, he also launched destructive attacks on Roman Britain. Another who did so, the following century, was Niall of the Nine Hostages.

Chronicler Gildas recorded how in the 3rd and 4th centuries there emerged from ‘the coracles that carried them across the sea-valleys foul hordes of Irish and Picts, like dark throngs of worms who wriggle out of narrow fizzures in the rock when the sun is high.’

As to why Rome neglected to occupy Ireland, along with the Highlands of Scotland and the lands east of the Rhine, the Romans could not hope to gather sufficient taxes to make long-term occupation viable. Ireland’s geographic remoteness and relative lack of sophistication saved it from the attentions of Rome’s legions. There was no Roman pattern of military occupation, road-building, and urbanisation as in the province of Britannia. The country remained a patchwork of rival tribes without centralised control.

Vikings contained

The arrival of the Vikings in Irelandin the late 8th century did not markedly change the military dynamic. After a period of opportunistic terror raids on monasteries, the Scandinavians who decided to settle became but yet another strand in Ireland’s rich mosaic of peoples. Famously, they founded sea and riverine ports at places like Waterford, Wexford, Limerick, and Dublin.

When they later asserted themselves during the so-called ‘second Viking age’, they were decisively defeated by the Irish at the Battle of Tara in Co. Meath (AD 980). The victorious commander that day was Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill (Malachy II) of the southern O’Neill; the loser, Ragnall Olafsson, leader
of Dublin’s Norse Vikings.

Dublin was wrested back from Viking control as a consequence. Thirty-four years later, at Clontarf (1014), any lingering ambitions toward conquest on the part of the Dubliners and their aggressive cousins from the Western Isles were dashed for good when a coalition led by the high-king, Brian Boru, defeated them, even though he was killed during the battle.

Clontarf was an epochal contest fought just to the north of the River Liffey. Norsemen and Irishmen fought on either side that day. The leaders on the losing side were Sihtric Silkbeard, King of Dublin; Mael Morda mac Murchada, King of Leinster (killed); Sigurd of Orkney (killed); and Brodir of Man (killed).

The importance of the battle might best be seen in the context of the hegemony established in England under the Danish kings Swegen Forkbeard and his son Cnut the Great.

Norman onslaught

The Normans were another matter. No immediately decisive riposte could though be mounted in 1169 against the ‘90 Norman heroes clad in mail’ and their 300 Welsh bowmen, the vanguard of a Cambro-Norman invading force that defeated a larger Irish/Norse army at Baginbun (Co. Wexford). Two years later, Dublin fell to further waves of invaders from Wales led by Earl Strongbow. 

Unequal they came to the battle,
The foreigners and the race of Tara,
Fine linen shirts on the race of Conn,
The foreigners one mass of iron.

Although the Norman intrusion into Ireland proved to be a wholly unequal contest on the open battlefield, the invaders found themselves hard-pressed when campaigning westward into heavily wooded, trackless terrain.

Ireland was almost entirely forested in the 12th century, with very extensive areas of bogland and swamp. Roads were mere trackways. An Irish warrior’s ability to be in one place one moment and gone the next proved a trial for the Normans, just as it would for later adventurers like Sir Walter Raleigh, who, in the 16th century, recounted how fighting the Irish was ‘like beating at the air’. 

Anglo-Norman military penetration of Ireland reached its zenith sometime after the midpoint of the 13th century, during the reign of Henry III, with armies pushing west into the modern-day counties of Kerry, Clare, and Galway.

In the summer of 1261, the annals speak of a great hosting made against the Irish in the south-west: the protagonists were the Munster Geraldines and the insurgent Mac Carthaigs of Desmond.

The latter had a more intimate knowledge of the mountainous and forested terrain, which they used to their advantage to negate the usefulness of the Geraldine cavalry. This was important. Being unused to saddles or stirrups, the Irish could still not match the Anglo-Normans in an open fight, even though the invaders’ horses were no longer of the same calibre as before. 

Mac Carthaig laid his ambush at a place where two cascading rivers joined close beside Ardtully Castle, near Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry. Fighting from cover boosted the effectiveness of the more fleet-footed native Irish, who in the main fought with spears, knives, bows, and slingshots. The Irish slingers made use of pierced shot, which make a frighteningly eerie whistling sound when approaching at high speed, with the capacity to maim and kill.

The Geraldines suffered a very heavy death toll when set upon. Their leader, John Fitz Thomas, and one of his sons fell in battle, along with 15 knights, eight barons, and several other young noblemen, plus innumerable common soldiers. 

A plaque on the battlefield today describes the victors of what has become known as the Battle of Callann as liberating the Kingdom of South Munster from English domination. The decay of Norman rule had firmly set in, and the Mac Carthaigs became firmly established as lords of south Kerry and west Cork.

The Gaelic resurgence

The high point of ‘the Gaelic resurgence’ against Anglo-Norman rule occurred on 10 March 1318, during the reign of Edward II, at the Battle of Dysert O’Dea. Richard de Clare, described as ‘a knavish man of an overbearing temper’, marched out from Bunratty Castle at the head of an army assessed at around 1,000 strong. His force comprised mounted knights and archers, light horsemen, and a mixed array of Norman and mercenary native Irish infantry, described by the chroniclers as ‘a general hosting’ against the Irish.

Military decline had continued apace for the Anglo-Norman lords, whereas Irish capability in battle had markedly improved. Three years of baleful occupation of the country by Edward Bruce’s Scots (the victors four years before at Bannockburn) had hardened and better equipped the Irish to fight on more equal terms with their oppressors.

The Siege of Waterford, 1170.
The Siege of Waterford, 1170.

Irish warriors now wore mail shirts, hauberks, padded aketons, and conical iron helmets, supplied by or bartered or stolen from the Scots. In the make-believe world of the storytellers, de Clare and his commanders become disconcerted by the unnatural stillness and emptiness of the landscape over which they travelled. One fanciful account even has them assailed by the Banshee Morrighan.

De Clare’s quarry fell back into a region known as ‘the ruined entrenchments’ (perhaps the rocky terrain of the Burren). The Irish order on the day was to ‘bustle up in silence … for to attack you comes a battle-flagged array of enemies.’

De Clare’s scouts spied Irish drovers crossing the Ballycullinan River, north-west of the small hamlet of Kilkee, intent, it seemed, on putting the river between themselves and the advancing Normans. De Clare’s knights rushed forward to seize the advantage, but, when skirting the southern shore of Lough Ballycullinan, they were set upon by an up-until-then unseen band of Irish, led by the notorious Felim O’Conor ‘of the red sword’.

A near contemporary image of
‘Strongbow’, Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, the Norman lord who led the attempted conquest of Ireland in the late 12th century.
A near contemporary image of
‘Strongbow’, Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, the Norman lord who led the attempted conquest of Ireland in the late 12th century.

A well-orchestrated trap had been sprung. Even so, de Clare’s men might have prevailed had not another group of Irish closed in from the north, arriving across Spancill Hill to hack and hew their way into the mass of disordered soldiery.

Richard de Clare and his eldest son were among those slaughtered. Few others of his men survived the rout that followed. Upon hearing the news of the defeat, de Clare’s wife set fire to Bunratty Castle and fled by boat down the Shannon. English power in the region never recovered from the disaster.

Back to the Pale

The Irish resurgence resulted in a general weakening of the English position, throwing colonists from Britain very much on to the defensive, leading to a steady encroachment by the native Irish into previously lost territory to the east. Aggressive clans like the O’Briens, O’Tuathals, and the MacMurroughs – described by one worried observer as ‘an advancing tide’ – on occasion even threatened Dublin directly. 

By the late 14th century, the common kerne (soldiers) of Ireland had been augmented by better armoured and equipped foreign fighters. These were axemen known as Gall Oglach, who originated from Scotland and the Western Isles, the sons of Norse-Scottish families like the MacDonalds, MacSweeneys, MacCabes, and MacDowells – described as the lustiest fighters of the Irish and a warlord’s ‘castle of bones’.

A Gall Oglach’s axe was double-bladed and fixed to a much longer than usual shaft. Each Gall Oglach warrior employed a number of horse-boys (young men), who carried his armour and provisions, acted as horse-holders, and sometimes fought at his side, hurling light javelins and in close combat fighting with long knives.

The Gall Oglach was in fact a mounted infantryman, a soldier who travelled on horseback but dismounted to fight on foot – in a unit 80 strong (not including the horse-boys).

They looked impressive and could be awesome making a frontal charge on open ground, but mailed cavalry was expensive to maintain and ill-adapted to guerrilla warfare in the bogs and hills of Ireland. It was this that eventually turned the tables in favour of the native Irish.
They looked impressive and could be awesome making a frontal charge on open ground, but mailed cavalry was expensive to maintain and ill-adapted to guerrilla warfare in the bogs and hills of Ireland. It was this that eventually turned the tables in favour of the native Irish.

The fierce MacSweeneys and their like operated freelance, proudly claiming they owed their allegiance to no one: they chose the highest bidder. But as the years went by, they became attached to specific lordships. The MacSweenys, for instance, rose to the chieftaincies of three septs of the O’Donnells in Tyrconnell.

By the 15th century, there were even Gall Oglach contingents defending the Dublin environs, contractually bound to the Fitzgerald Earl of Kildare. They were described as ‘long-haired, moustachioed,
saffron cloaked, barefooted, axe- and claymore-wielding mercenaries’, who rode back from battle with severed heads dangling from their stirrups.

The Battle of Knockdoe

The greatest ever clash of Gall Oglach occurred a few miles to the north-west of Galway, at Knockdoe, on 19 August 1504, when government forces from Dublin, led by the Earl of Kildare, did battle against a rebellious coalition of Irishmen under the command of Ulick de Burgh of Clanrickard.

Three loyalist O’Kelly castles had been demolished by de Burgh, contrary to law. His forces had also occupied Galway in breach of a royal charter that forbade armed men to enter the town. He levied punitive tolls on the citizens. Both Galway town and nearby Athenry were highly anglicised, so his actions posed a challenge to English rule, something Fitzgerald of Kildare, the English king’s governor, could not countenance.

The Earl mobilised an army of English demi-lances, billmen, and archers, as well as Gall Oglach and kerne from his Dublin garrison and from the O’Kellys of Connaught and the Clans O’Neill and O’Donnell from the north; he also gained the support of the MacMahons, O’Hanlons, O’Reillys, and O’Farrells. Interestingly, his army boasted a unit of hand-gunners armed with the arquebus. The whole force was described at the time as ‘a great fraternity of arms’. 

Plan of the Battle of Dysert O’Dea, 10 March 1318. The battle was a decisive defeat for the English cavalry and a major milestone in the gathering ‘Gaelic resurgence’
Plan of the Battle of Dysert O’Dea, 10 March 1318. The battle was a decisive defeat for the English cavalry and a major milestone in the gathering ‘Gaelic resurgence’

Like Kildare, de Burgh could also call on strong allies – clan groupings ill-disposed to English rule: O’Briens, Macnamaras, O’Carrolls, and the O’Kennedys, as well as his own large host of well-paid Gall Oglach and kerne – a concentration of force described as ‘all the rebels of Ireland’.

The stage was set for one of Ireland’s fiercest and most brutal of battles. On the morning of battle, Kildare called for his grim captain of Gall Oglach, saying his axemen would first meet the enemy attack. Kildare’s exact words are said to have been, ‘Call to me the captain of the Gall Oglach, for he and his shall begin this game.’ The leader flourished his axe and proudly exclaimed, ‘You can do me no more honour, by God’s blood!’

Behind the foremost Gall Oglach were arranged the young fighting men of the Pale, drawn up in the manner of English armies of the time, each billman backed by a bowman, with flanking bodies of archers to break up any frontal assault. The Earl’s kerne formed up separately on the right wing. On the left wing were arranged the demi-lances (light lancers).

The main body of de Burgh’s opposing army formed up opposite the Earl’s, down the gentle, almost non-existent slope of Knockdoe Hill, facing into the rising sun.

Brutal collision

Kildare had earlier written off de Burgh’s men as a rabble, saying (as related in the Book of Howth) ‘a great number of them hath but one spear and a knife … [and] without wisdom or good order they march to battle as drunken as swine to a trough.’

A fierce hand-to-hand struggle ensued. The clash between opposing Gall Oglach axemen in the front line must have been a terrifying spectacle. It would in fact be the last occasion such troops would mass against one another in any great numbers.

De Burgh’s fighters attacked uphill ‘in one great battle’, shoulder to shoulder. Chroniclers tell us virtually nothing of the battle, other than the results of individual combats, ignoring the broader struggle. 

Burgundian chronicler Jean de Waurin wrote of the commencement of another battle from the period:

Archers [drew their bows] so fast and thick that it seemed to the beholders like a thick cloud, for the sun lost its brightness so thick were the arrows … after the arrows were exhausted they put their hands to swords and axes.

A poem of another near contemporary battle, Mortimers Cross (1461), fought in Herefordshire, tells of an Irish vanguard assailing their enemy ‘with darts and skains [daggers]’; they are claimed to have amazed their better-equipped English opponents, so boldly did they throw themselves into the fray.

Another battle, Stokefield (1487), near Newark, saw large numbers of Irish kerne attack an English array of billmen and bowmen head-on, down a shallow slope. The Irish that day are said to have worn loose-fitting cloaks and kilts and been armed with wooden shields, swords, spears, javelins, bows, and daggers. Any felled opponents were garroted using knotted cord they habitually carried.

At both these battles from the English Wars of the Roses, the Irish failed to break through, being ‘shot through’ with arrows by the opposing English/Welsh bowmen. Bowmen may also have played a key part at Knockdoe – the battlefield, it is said, soon to have become ‘littered with corpses cross-thrown’. 

The potent mix of arrow, javelin, and axe proved decisive. Of de Burgh’s nine battalions of Gall Oglach (numbering, in all, 1,800 men), only the remnant of one battalion escaped: the rest died where they fought.

The killing continued all the way to Claregalway and the banks of the River Clare, where the ruins of a castle and abbey still stand. Remnants of the defeated army made a series of rearguard stands as they fell back, enabling de Burgh and other commanders to make their escape. Kildare gained the Order of the Garter from Henry VII in recognition of the victory.

Irish warriors in English service

It is from as early as the reign of Henry III (d. 1272), much earlier than the Wars of the Roses, that we first hear of Irishmen being mustered to help fight England’s wars. Three thousand Irish foot soldiers, referred to by naysayers as ‘shag-haired crafty kerne’, were called up by Henry to support him against his Welsh rebels. Churchmen referred to these men, when let loose, as a ‘shower from Hell; sons of malediction, beyond salvation’.

In the main, they comprised light infantry and might have appeared innocuous other than for the ‘devilish tokens’ they wore on their heads and for their distinctively long, plaited locks of back-combed hair, their half-shaven skulls, and their habit of carousing while picking over the possessions of the men they killed.

Late-medieval Irish armies included contingents of formidable mercenary Gall Oglach, mounted infantrymen who dismounted to fight.
Late-medieval Irish armies included contingents of formidable mercenary Gall Oglach, mounted infantrymen who dismounted to fight.

One description of the kerne is of ‘a kind of footman, lightly armed with a sword, a target [round shield] of wood, or a bow and sheaf of arrows with barbed heads, or else three darts, which they cast with a wonderful facility and nearness, a weapon more noisome to the enemy, especially horsemen, than it is deadly.’ 

Shakespeare, in the 16th century, makes several references to the kerne of Ireland. In Macbeth he writes of ‘the merciless MacDonald’ being supplied by swarms of ‘skipping kerne from the Western Isles’. In Henry VI, ‘the uncivil kernes temper clay with the blood of Englishmen’.

Shakespeare’s contemporary, Barnaby Rich, called them ‘the very dross and scum of the country… hags of Hell, fit for nothing but the gallows.’ Rich saw them as symptomatic of an arcane and backward land, where ‘if the father hath been a kerne, the son will be a kerne.’

Tudor subjugation

Another 16th-century writer, Raphael Holinshed, wrote of the Desmond clan (descendants of the victors of Callann) as having become virtual princes in south-western Ireland, adding that they illegally put upon the King’s subjects the Irish impositions of ‘Coign and Livery, cartings, carriages, lodgings, cosherings, bonnaught [billeted men], and such like, which customs are the very breeders, maintainers, and upholders of all Irish enormities.’

Constraining them was seen to require a much scaled-up permanent militarisation, as well as the wholesale immigration of planters. One report considered: ‘An army that is moving [only]… for a season and not perpetual, shall never profit the King in Ireland without the King’s subjects of the land be put in order, for, as soon as the army is gone, the obedience to the King goes too.’ 

Fire and sword was a feature of Irish warfare over many centuries.
Fire and sword was a feature of Irish warfare over many centuries.

The Tudors were strong, centralising monarchs, who baulked at having a warring Gaelic society on their doorstep. Ireland’s Lord Justice likened the feuding Irish to ‘bears and band-dogs, tugging at each other so that no-one really cares who comes out on top.’

Elizabeth I’s spymaster-general, Francis Walsingham, compared Ireland to ‘an old sock which had been so often mended to now need urgent replacing’. Puritan Thomas Churchyard considered ‘fear and terror’ as the only way to keep the native Irish in check.

Hostility became official state policy, ushering in a century of aggressive colonialism, making the native Irish for a time the most oppressed people in Europe.

Jeffrey James is a regular contributor to MHM and is the author of Ireland, The Struggle for Power: from the Dark Ages to the Jacobites, and Edward IV, Glorious Son of York.