- The culture, history and people of Ireland and the Irish

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


This would seem to be the proper place to point out the peculiarities in arms, equipment, and tactics, which gave the first Normans those military advantages over the Irish and Dano-Irish, which they had hitherto maintained over the Saxons, Welsh and Scots. In instituting such a comparison, we do not intend to confine it strictly to the age of Strongbow and Dermid; the description will extend to the entire period from the arrival of Fitzstephen to the death of Richard, Earl of Ulster--from 1169 to 1333--a period of five or six generations, which we propose to treat of in the present book. After this Earl's decease, the Normans and Irish approximated more closely in all their customs, and no longer presented those marked contrasts which existed in their earlier intercourse and conflicts with each other. The armour of the first adventurers, both for man and horse, excited the wonder, the sarcasms, and the fears of the Irish. No such equipments had yet been seen in that country, nor indeed in any other, where the Normans were still strangers. As the Knights advanced on horseback, in their metal coating, they looked more like iron cylinders filled with flesh and blood, than like lithe and limber human combatants. The man-at-arms, whether Knight or Squire, was almost invariably mounted; his war-horse was usually led, while he rode a hackney, to spare the destrier. The body armour was a hauberk of netted iron or steel, to which were joined a hood, sleeves, breeches, hose and sabatons, or shoes, of the same material. Under the hauberk was worn a quilted gambeson of silk or cotton, reaching to the knees; over armour, except when actually engaged, all men of family wore costly coats of satin, velvet, cloth of gold or cloth of silver, emblazoned with their arms. The shields of the thirteenth century were of triangular form, pointed at the bottom; the helmet conical, with or without bars; the beaver, vizor and plate armour, were inventions of a later day. Earls, Dukes, and Princes, wore small crowns upon their helmets; lovers wore the favours of their mistresses; and victors the crests of champions they had overthrown. The ordinary weapons of these cavaliers were sword, lance, and knife; the demi-launce, or light horsemen, were similarly armed; and a force of this class, common in the Irish wars, was composed of mounted cross-bow men, and called from the swift, light hobbies they rode, Hobiler-Archers. Besides many improvements in arms and manual exercise, the Normans perfected the old Roman machines and engines used in sieges. The scorpion was a huge cross-bow, the catapults showered stones to a great distance; the ballista discharged flights of darts and arrows. There were many other varieties of stone-throwing machinery; "the war-wolf" was long the chief of projectile machines, as the ram was of manual forces. The power of a battering-ram of the largest size, worked by a thousand men, has been proven to be equal to a point-blank shot from a thirty-six pounder. There were moveable towers of all sizes and of many names: "the sow" was a variety which continued in use in England and Ireland till the middle of the seventeenth century. The divisions of the cavalry were: first, the Constable's command, some twenty-five men; next, the Banneret was entitled to unfurl his own colours with consent of the Marshal, and might unite under his pennon one or more constabularies; the Knight led into the field all his retainers who held of him by feudal tenure, and sometimes the retainers of his squires, wards, or valets, and kinsmen. The laws of chivalry were fast shaping themselves into a code complete and coherent in all its parts, when these iron-clad, inventive and invincible masters of the art of war first entered on the invasion of Ireland.

The body of their followers in this enterprise, consisting of Flemish, Welsh, and Cornish archers, may be best described by the arms they carried. The irresistible cross-bow was their main reliance. Its shot was so deadly that the Lateran Council, in 1139, strictly forbade its employment among Christian enemies. It combined with its stock, or bed, wheel, and trigger, almost all the force of the modern musket, and discharged square pieces of iron, leaden balls, or, in scarcity of ammunition, flint stones. The common cross-bow would kill, point blank, at forty or fifty yards distance, and the best improved at fully one hundred yards. The manufacture of these weapons must have been profitable, since their cost was equal, in the relative value of money, to that of the rifle, in our times. In the reign of Edward II. each cross-bow, purchased for the garrison of Sherborne Castle, cost 3 shillings and 8 pence; and every hundred of quarrels--the ammunition just mentioned--1 shilling and 6 pence. Iron, steel, and wood, were the materials used in the manufacture of this weapon.

The long-bow had been introduced into England by the Normans, who are said to have been more indebted to that arm than any other, for their victory at Hastings. To encourage the use of the long-bow many statutes were passed, and so late as the time of the Stuarts, royal commissions were issued for the promotion of this national exercise. Under the early statutes no archer was permitted to practise at any standing mark at less than "eleven score yards distant;" no archer under twenty-four years of age was allowed to shoot twice from the same stand-point; parents and masters were subject to a fine of 6 shillings and 8 pence if they allowed their youth, under the age of seventeen, "to be without a bow and two arrows for one month together;" the walled towns were required to set up their butts, to keep them in repair, and to turn out for target-practice on holidays, and at other convenient times. Aliens residing in England were forbidden the use of this weapon--a jealous precaution showing the great importance attached to its possession. The usual length of the bow--which was made of yew, witch-hazel, ash, or elm--was about six feet; and the arrow, about half that length. Arrows were made of ash, feathered with part of a goose's wing, and barbed with iron or steel. In the reign of Edward III., a painted bow cost 1 shilling and 6 pence, a white bow, 1 shilling; a sheaf of steel-tipped arrows (24 to the sheaf), 1 shilling and 2 pence, and a sheaf of non accerata (the blunt sort), 1 shilling The range of the long-bow, at its highest perfection, was, as we have seen, "eleven score yards," more than double that of the ordinary cross-bow. The common sort of both these weapons carried about the same distance--nearly 100 yards.

The natural genius of the Normans for war had been sharpened and perfected by then: campaigns in France and England, but more especially in the first and second Crusades. All that was to be learned of military science in other countries--all that Italian skill, Greek subtlety, or Saracen invention could teach, they knew and combined into one system. Their feudal discipline, moreover, in which the youth who entered the service of a veteran as page, rose in time to the rank of esquire and bachelor-at-arms, and finally won his spurs on some well-contested field, was eminently favourable to the training and proficiency of military talents. Not less remarkable was the skill they displayed in seizing on the strong and commanding points of communication within the country, as we see at this day, from the sites of their old Castles, many of which must have been, before the invention of gunpowder, all but impregnable.

The art of war, if art it could in their case be called, was in a much less forward stage among the Irish in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries than amongst the Normans. Of the science of fortification they perhaps knew no more than they had learned in their long struggle with the Danes and Norwegians. To render roads impassable, to strengthen their islands by stockades, to hold the naturally difficult passes which connect one province or one district with another--these seem to have been their chief ideas of the aid that valour may derive from artificial appliances. The fortresses of which we hear so frequently, during and after the Danish period, and which are erroneously called Danes'-forts, were more numerous than formidable to such enemies as the Normans. Some of these earth-and-stone-works are older than the Milesian invasion, and of Cyclopean style and strength. Those of the Milesians are generally of larger size, contain much more earth, and the internal chambers are of less massive masonry. They are almost invariably of circular form, and the largest remaining specimens are the Giant's Ring, near Belfast; the fort at Netterville, which measures 300 paces in circumference round the top of the embankment; the Black Rath, on the Boyne, which measures 321 paces round the outer wall of circumvallation; and the King's Rath, at Tara, upwards of 280 in length. The height of the outer embankment in forts of this size varied from fifteen to twenty feet; this embankment was usually surrounded by a fosse; within the embankment there was a platform, depressed so as to leave a circular parapet above its level. Many of these military raths have been found to contain subterranean chambers and circular winding passages, supposed to be used as granaries and armories. They are accounted capable of containing garrisons of from 200 to 500 men; but many of the fortresses mentioned from age to age in our annals were mere private residences, enclosing within their outer and inner walls space enough for the immediate retainers and domestics of the chief. Although coats of mail are mentioned in manuscripts long anterior to the Norman invasion, the Irish soldiers seem seldom or never to have been completely clothed in armour. Like the northern Berserkers, they prided themselves in fighting, if not naked, in their orange coloured shirts, dyed with saffron. The helmet and the shield were the only defensive articles of dress; nor do they seem to have had trappings for their horses. Their favourite missile weapon was the dart or javelin, and in earlier ages the sling. The spear or lance, the sword, and the sharp, short-handled battle-axe, were their favourite manual weapons. Their power with the battle-axe was prodigious; Giraldus says they sometimes lopped off a horseman's leg at a single blow, his body falling over on the other side. Their bridle-bits and spurs were of bronze, as were generally their spear heads and short swords. Of siege implements, beyond the torch and the scaling-ladder, they seem to have had no knowledge, and to have desired none. The Dano-Irish alone were accustomed to fortify and defend their towns, on the general principles, which then composed the sum of what was known in Christendom of military engineering. Quick to acquire in almost every department of the art, the native Irish continued till the last obstinately insensible to the absolute necessity of learning how modern fortifications are constructed, defended, and captured; a national infatuation, of which we find melancholy evidence in every recurring native insurrection.

The two divisions of the Irish infantry were the galloglass, or heavily armed foot soldier, called gall, either as a mercenary, or from having been equipped after the Norman method, and the kerne, or light infantry. The horsemen were men of the free tribes, who followed their chief on terms almost of equality, and who, except his immediate retainers, equipped and foraged for themselves. The highest unit of this force was a Cath, or battalion of 3,000 men; but the subdivision of command and the laws which established and maintained discipline have yet to be recovered and explained. The old Spanish "right of insurrection" seems to have been recognized in every chief of a free tribe, and no Hidalgo of old Spain, for real or fancied slight, was ever more ready to turn his horse's head homeward than were those refractory lords, with whom Roderick O'Conor and his successors, in the front of the national battle, had to contend or to co-operate.

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


This is a website about Irish history and culture.