guest post | combat in medieval ireland by ed mooney
Updated: May 18, 2020
First of all, I would like to thank Ali, for affording me the opportunity to share this article with you. To start off, I would like to share a little about myself and how I got involved in Medieval Combat. For those readers who don’t know me, I am an amateur Photographer based in Kildare.
I have always had a great interest in ancient history, especially that of Ireland. And it was this interest which eventually got me involved in a Living History group, where amongst other things we trained in medieval re-enactment and combat.
On the combat side of things, I guess my initial journey started off when I was about four years old, when my parents enrolled me in the local Shotokan Karate Club. At the time for obvious reasons I did not realize, but this was to be the beginning which laid a strong foundation in various Martial Arts which spanned well over twenty years.
Ed Mooney in his re-enactment days.
Sadly for the moment, with a young family to look after, my adventures in Martial Arts and Medieval Combat have taken a back seat for the last few years. I have however managed to continue my historical interests and adventurous nature through the medium of photography. These days much of my photography work is based on the many historic or heritage sites that I visit and explore.
One of the biggest issues with training in Irish Medieval Combat lies in our history. Knowledge in Ireland was always passed on through word of mouth, very little was ever written down until the arrival of Christianity, so we really don’t have any ancient texts or manuscripts which we can learn from. Also we never had clan Dojo’s or schools which taught Gaelic fighting arts to young warriors.
We no longer have the Red Branch Knights, whom the young Setanta joined before becoming the Legendary Cu Chuliann or the legendary Fianna and Fionn Mac Cumhaill. There are no secret Druid Masters to teach young warriors the arts of war. So where do we learn these things in the modern era?
Well to be honest, it’s a bit like a jig-saw. There are numerous manuscripts from the medieval period from which we can take scraps of information relative to our quest. Then we look to our neighbour across the water to fill in the gaps.
The one constant thing that I have learned during my training, which never changes, is movement. Combat is essentially a movement of one person against another. This never changes and has always been same in all cultures since the dawn of time. So when you take into account the various cultural influences and material constraints, you can bring together a much clearer picture of Ireland’s fighting practises.
Now I am by no means a scholar or expert on the subject so I am writing this article based on my views and experience as a practitioner having both trained and fought in some of the major re-enactment shows in both Ireland and Britain.
Our living history group, which has since sadly disbanded, focused primarily on the early to middle medieval period, c400 -1170 AD. This was a time also known as the beginning of the middle Ages which post-dated the Golden Age of Ireland. The arrival of Christianity in Ireland had brought with it many changes which affected the culture of Ireland.
It was this period where Ireland became known as a land of Saints and Scholars. But life was still hard. Whilst many scholars where attracted to the monasteries as centres of learning, Ireland was still a country at war, having been split into several large Kingdoms with lesser Kingdoms and clans claiming lands for themselves. This meant that like our ancient tales of Táin Bó or Cattle raids, the Irish continued to fight amongst themselves.
One major concern in Ireland during this period was the arrival of our Northern friends the Vikings. These rogues who came from Denmark, Norway and Sweden to plunder and pillage, played such an important part in shaping both the cultural and fighting history of the time, that our group also incorporated Viking culture, customs and weapons into our training.
So what is the difference between a living history group and a re-enactment group, I hear you ask. Well quite a bit actually, although many people involved in the re-enactment scene also belong to a living history group, there are some minor differences. The re-enactor is trained primarily in combat, where the living history practitioner focuses on showing how life was back in these times.
So when we went to a show, not only did we participate in the numerous battles which were staged, but our entire camp had to be historically correct. Everything from our tents or sleeping arrangements, to how we cooked, ate and drank was replicated as accurately as possible.
Moving on to the basics of clothing and armour of the early warriors in medieval Ireland, the léine,(which was a loose fitting long-sleeved tunic made from wool or linen) was the common garment of the time for both men and women. The men wore the léine down to the thigh or knee region, whilst the women wore theirs much longer.
Men would also sometimes wear truis, a type of tight fitting trousers, but otherwise were bare legged. Over the léine, it was common to wear a brat, (woollen cloak). The brat would normally be fastened by a crios (belt) and dealg (brooch). The only difference would be that the men would fasten the dealg on their shoulder, whilst the women would fasten it on their chest.
Interestingly I recall being told by a member of our group that the length of the man’s crios which hung from the buckle on his waist was said to be an indication of how well-endowed the wearer was!
The colour of garments was also quite important to the Irish, with purple commonly used to denote the Irish nobility. Reds, greens, and blues were also popular for those who could afford or acquire the items required to produce these dyes. Later on the tight fitting jacket known as ionar also became fashionable.
Shoes were not always commonly worn with many images of warriors from the time being depicted as barefooted. Though as the middle ages progressed, so too did footwear, with various styles, from the very basic to a more luxurious crafted item.
When we think of the typical warrior from the middle ages, most would imagine a knight clad in shiny plate armour. Well in Ireland this could not be more further from the truth. Most accounts from the time tend to describe the native Gaelic warriors as being naked! Now beautiful as our fine Emerald isle is, we are not fortunate enough to live in a climate where you could travel around in comfort, stark naked, let alone into battle.
In my opinion when these medieval writers where describing our Gaelic warriors as naked, they meant that they fought without armour. That is to say, compared to their counterparts in England and the rest of Europe. Whilst the typical combatant from outside Ireland would go into battle in various degrees of plate armour, which we would fondly refer to as Clankie’s.
Our typical Irish fighter went into battle with minimum protection; the wearing of such was considered a burden, taking into account the fighting style of the Irish, whilst also believing that it was brave and courageous not to wear it.
That said, records show that prior to the arrival of the Vikings and of course the Norman invasion, Gaelic battle wear would have consisted of a length of material which would have been wrapped around the body a number of times, or a gambeson, also known as a padded jacket.
Another form of early Irish armour was the use of hard boiled cow hide, used to make chest armour or greaves for the arms and legs. Chain mail was also in use at this time, but due to the time and expense involved in making chainmail, its use would have been restricted to the likes of chieftains, unless you were fortunate enough to have taken it from a defeated enemy.
The cathbharr was also worn, which was a basic helmet constructed of hardened leather, held together by strips of bronze or iron. Then finally there was the sciath or shield, a must for any warrior of the time; not only could it be used to protect your body from incoming blows, but it could also be used as a very effective weapon, be it smashing through an enemy’s line or cracking heads open by striking with the edge of the shield.
Whilst some of the early shields were constructed of wicker covered in hide, later versions were made from bronze or solid timber. The later were also covered in hide and more often laden with various degrees of metal studs or bands which commonly used as decoration would also have added to the durability of the piece.
Weapons in Ireland changed quite a bit as the middle ages progressed, so for the purpose of this article I will concentrate on the weapons I trained with and used on the battlefield during my time, namely the Spear, Javelin, Axe, Knife and Sword.
In re-enactment battles, safety was of utmost importance, even a dull blunt spear-head, axe or sword could inflict rather nasty or life threatening injuries, so in order to fight in a safe manner certain techniques with various weapons were not permitted.
The two handed spear was the most common weapon used by the Irish and the first weapon a newbie (beginner) would have to learn when joining our group. It could be used for both defence and offensive purposes and gave the practitioner a good grounding for the use of other weapons.
There were many variations of the spear, with different length shafts and heads, but the principle use and technique remained the same. Spears could be used to stab, slash or even take an opponent off their horse.
On the battlefield the first couple of lines of each opposing army would have been made up of lines of spear men, also known as spear walls. These walls made cavalry charges quite difficult and could keep the enemy at a distance.
When using a two handed spear, the lead hand is used as a fulcrum, with the rear hand controlling the direction and movement of the spear. With the two handed spear being of considerable length, averaging approx 6ft, it was quite an effective weapon even in such an enclosed space as the spear wall.
One of my favourite techniques to use was known as ‘The Guarding Gate’, which was used when a Clankie, (soldier in plate armour) would try to crash through our spear wall. Two spears would be crossed in front of him, pointed into the ground and the fighters would push their shafts toward the intruder, thus trapping him where he stood, after which he would be impaled with spears from either side of the blocking spearmen.
There was also a shorter single handed spear, which would have been used along with a shield, however I was never a big fan of this and would much prefer a sword in such an instance.
The next weapon we will look at is the throwing spear or Javelin/Dart. Not to be confused with an arrow, these throwing darts were surprisingly quite effective at a certain range and great fun to train with.
Usually made from hazel or split ash, some would have come equipped with tips like arrow heads and some would have even used fletching. But for our training we used basic wooden shafts with a rubber tipped head to avoid injury.
Now when you first pick up a dart the natural thing is to try and throw it by hand. But there is a much better way to do this, utilising what is known as a suaineamh, or throwing strap. The throwing strap has been around for many years and has been used in many cultures, which I think stands for its effectiveness. From Ancient Greece and the Roman legions, the tribes of Gaul, Iberia, North Africa, Ireland and Wales. Even the Norse and Anglo Saxons used them.
We normally used a length of leather thong for our strap, but you could also use a piece of linen. From what I know, there are two ways to use the strap; the first was to tie one end of your strap around the point of balance on the shaft, the strap would then be wound around the shaft a number of times, with the remainder being held in the hand, with what is known as a Floating Grip. Both the shaft and remaining strap are loosely held in the hand with just two fingers. This made throwing the dart more accurate.
The second method, and my personal favourite, was to use a length of thong, starting about six to eight inches from the base of the shaft, the thong was run tightly down around the base and back up the other side, where the remainder was wrapped around the throwing hand. This technique greatly extended the reach and velocity of the throw, similar to the Atlati used by natives of the Americas.
The Axe must be one of the oldest tools known to mankind and numerous examples have been found over the years ranging from stone, as well as bronze, copper and iron. What started out as a tool used in daily living quickly evolved into one of the most deadly weapons used in a fight.
The Tuagh, or battle axe, has been in use since prehistoric times in Ireland, with many fine examples to be found in the National Museum. Whilst there are many different variations of the axe which range in both size and shape after the small throwing axe, my favourites have to be the Gallowglass and the Kern Axes.
We used to play a fun little game in training known as ‘Caith an Tua’. In this training game, using a small throwing axe, we would form a circle and start of by calling out the name of a person within the circle and lob the axe to them. This takes a bit of practise, but as you become accustomed to catching a moving axe, the circle would be made bigger and the throws would become faster.
To make things interesting, we would introduce two, sometimes three axes into the circle depending on how many players were involved. Apart from the odd grazed knuckle, ‘Caith an Tua’ was a rather fun game to play and it actually came in useful on the battlefield. I recall a number of occasions, where after losing my weapon in a melee, one of my guys would be able to throw me an axe from a distance, and I could continue fighting.
The Galloglach or Gallowglass translates as ‘foreign solider’, after a bunch of armoured mercenary soldiers of Scottish/Norman descent. These foreign warriors served mainly as bodyguards to the Gaelic Chieftains. These guys were notorious for their strength and size and their weapons reflected this. One of their main weapons was the Sparth, a rather large axe which was used to devastating effect. Not something you would want to come up against in battle.
Then you have the Ceithernach or Kern, a bunch of light infantry foot soldiers. One of their weapons, the Kern Axe, which is quite similar to a Halberd, is a real nasty piece of work, and nicknamed ‘the tin opener’, by many Irish re-enactors due to its ability to devastate opponents wearing full plate armour.
This axe which can be also be used for stabbing is in my personal opinion, one of the best all round fighting weapons. The fact that the English knights in their shiny plate armour hate to see it on the field, attests to its effectiveness.
Whilst our previously mentioned weapons are all relatively inexpensive and could serve a dual purpose for hunting and battle, the sword in medieval Ireland would have been mainly used by the wealthy members of the clan. Back then, swords were not mass produced and each one would have been made to suit the individual, taking into account such factors as height, reach, strength, etc.
Prior to the arrival of the Vikings in Ireland there is thought to be two main types of sword in Ireland. The Colg, a small thrusting sword and the Claideb, a longer sword designed for slashing or cutting. My personal favourite Gaelic sword was the ‘Leaf Blade’ which is remarkably similar to the Roman Gladius. This sword dates back to the Bronze Age and so does not fit in to our medieval time frame. So I will concentrate on the popular Ring sword and the infamous Claiomh Mor.
The ring sword, pictured below, or ‘bastard sword’ as it was also known, was a constant design used exclusively by the Irish during the medieval period. Only the hilt changed around the 15th/16th centuries. It was made in both single and double handed varieties. Easily distinguished by the common open ring design of the pommel, these blades have a lovely balance and were surprisingly light and easy to manoeuvre.
The Gallowglass were also well known for their use of a particular massive broadsword, similar to that of the Claiomh Mor, or Claymore, which means ‘Big Sword’. These guys sure did nothing in half measures, think of that big sword used in the movie Braveheart and you will get an idea of what I mean.
Despite their massive bulk, these swords where actually quite light considering their size and where utilized by the Gallowglass with devastating efficiency. In fact these mercenaries saw action not just in Ireland and England, but were also much sought after in continental Europe right up until the 16th century and the arrival of gun powder.
I shall finish off with the most underestimated weapon of them all, the scian. Like many of the previously mentioned weapons which served a dual purpose, the Scian or Irish long knife was the Swiss Army Knife of medieval Ireland.
But up close and personal, this was my favourite weapon to finish off opponents with, even if they were covered from head to toe in plate armour. The Scian had the ability to penetrate in between the armour and reach vital areas of the opponent like no other weapon could do. Once you got inside the range of your opponents weapon, be it a spear or sword, this was the perfect tool to finish the job. Any knife fighter worth their salt will tell you that with a knife, chances are you won’t see your end coming until it’s too late.
Thanks, Ed, for a fascinating glimpse into your life as a medieval re-enactor, and the life of a warrior in ancient Ireland! I’ve really enjoyed having you on aliisaacstoryteller.
Ed has a blog where he showcases his stunning photography of Ireland’s ancient places, with accompanying articles on their history and mythology. If you enjoyed Ed’s post, you will love his post on the famous Battle of Clontarf, and be enthralled by his post on the Brian Boru Millennium festival last year.
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