• Ali Isaac

The Art of Combat in Ancient Ireland

The Irish warrior of ancient times may have been an undisciplined killing machine, fighting under the influence of the Riastradh or battle frenzy on behalf of his family, his chieftain, or his country, but it may surprise you to know that there was an unwritten code of practice, or chivalry involved in the art of making war.

We see this, for example in the story of the First Battle of Moytura, when Bres of the Tuatha de Danann meets Sreng, battle champion of the Fir Bolg. According to the translation by Mary Jones, they parley, exchange weapons and part as friends. However, battle for possession of Ireland inevitably follows, with the Fir Bolg requesting a delay while they prepare their weapons, to which the Danann actually agree.

Much later, when the Danann are attacked by the invading Milesians, the Danann also request a delay in which to prepare for war. This is duly granted, with the Milesians even returning to their ships and retreating nine waves from the shore while the Danann make all ready for battle.

It should also be noted that no battle was ever won in  a day. They usually continued over a period of several days, during which time both sides retreated at dusk to their camps to rest, regroup, repair weapons, eat, drink, bury their dead, look after their wounded, and sleep, rejoining the combat at first light.

You would think that cover of darkness would lead to all sorts of sneaky shenanigans as one army tried to gain the advantage over the other, but this was not the case. Honour and dignity were paramount, even in the dealings of war. Again, the First Battle of Moytura is a perfect example of this battle etiquette.

Historically, every man who held land, whether rented or owned, was legally obliged to spend a certain number of days each year fighting in his tribe’s wars, or participating in their defence, after which he was free to return home to his family. This was clearly defined by Brehon Law.

Each chieftain was likewise required to supply his provincial King, and thus the High King, with a contingent of armed men.

The King always maintained a champion in his service, known as the Aire-Echta. He was responsible for avenging any insult to the King or his family, and discharged military duties as required. Ogma fulfilled this role for Nuada, High King of the Danann until Lugh challenged him.

A small group of hired mercenaries would also be maintained by the King, often to serve as his bodyguard. This practice was called buanacht in Irish.

Among Irish nobles, it was customary to ‘knight’ boys as young as seven years old. The Irish called this initiation ‘taking the valour’, and it began their journey into the ways of the warrior and manhood.

The Romans in their conquest across Europe observed how the Celts went into battle ‘naked’, ie without armour. This practice, which continued as late as the twelfth century AD in Ireland, was observed by Giraldus Cambrensis, also known as Gerald of Wales, arch-deacon of Breccon; he wrote:

‘They [the Irish warriors] go into battle without armour, for they consider it a burden, and deem it brave and honourable to fight without it.’

The ancient Irish army was composed of several battalions called catha, containing three thousand men. Each catha consisted of many smaller groupings, some as small as nine men and women. They employed their own medics, and it was not uncommon for physicians to give medical aid regardless of which army the wounded fought for.

The Irish warrior was heard to rush into battle screaming their fearsome war-chant. Likely, this formed part of the summoning of the Riastradh. This cry was known as the barrán glaed, meaning ‘warrior shout’, and probably united the warriors against their enemy, as well as providing an outlet for all their pent-up emotion. This custom continued well into later centuries, an example of which was the cry of the O’Neill clan, Lamb derg aboo, which translates as ‘The red hand to victory’.

The most famous warbands in Irish mythology are Cuchullain’s Red Branch Knights, and Fionn mac Cumhall’s Fianna.

It was extremely difficult to get into the Fianna. The applicant had to go through all kinds of tests, both physical and mental, before he, or she, could be accepted… standards were very high, and there were no exceptions. You can read more about that here. The Fianna also accepted female warriors.

What differentiates the warriors of the Fianna from all others, is that they had to be able to recite and compose poetry. This may sound daft to you now, but in those days there was no writing, all lore and knowledge was handed down and learned by oral tradition. In effect, this rule shows that the warriors of the Fianna had to be well educated. They certainly weren’t all brawn and no brain!

However, the brawn was still important, and as fighting men they had to train daily, and become highly skilled in all manner of combat techniques. These were known as Na hEalaiona Troda, or Na hEalaiona Camraic, meaning ‘Irish fighting arts’, or ‘Irish martial arts’. They were divided into two broad types of combat; unarmed, known as Gráscar Lámh, and armed, known as Troid Armáilte. 

I should just like to point out at this stage that many of the most skilled warriors in the Irish fighting arts were women, who famously passed on their skills to their male students. Cuchullain was taught by Scathach, and Fionn mac Cumhall was taught by Liath Luachra.

the irish martial arts

Gráscar Lámh consisted of the following techniques;

  1. Dornálíocht (durn-awl-ee-okht), which meant bare knuckle boxing.

  2. Coraíocht (cur-ee-okht), which was collar and elbow wrestling.

  3. Speachóireacht (spack-er-okht), kicking techniques such as those used in Gaelic football, Irish dancing, and shin-kicking contests.

Troid Armáilte consisted primarily of the following techniques, among others;

  1. Batadóireocht (bat-a-rokht), which was stick fighting. This later evolved into the traditional art of the shillelagh, or Sailéille in Irish. You can read more about it here.

  2. Claíomhóireacht, which was swordcraft.

  3. Scianóireacht, knife arts.

  4. Tuadóireacht, which was fighting with the axe.

Interestingly, though the spear was the weapon of choice for the ancient Irish warriors, I could find no reference to the name of this battle skill during my research; perhaps it fell under swordcraft, or even stick fighting. (if anyone knows, please tell me in the comments!)

And finally, we come to my favourite part, the Feats of the Hero. These techniques were known as cleasa, or ‘tricks’, and were clearly more magical in origin than the combative arts listed above. They were skills used in conjunction with the Na hEalaiona Camraic, or supported the learning of them.

For example, Cuchullain was famous for his skill at the ‘Salmon Leap’. Observers such as the Romans had commented that during battle, Celtic warriors were able to leap over the shields of their opponents. It’s likely that the ‘Salmon Leap’ was simply a high jumping technique practised until the warrior could jump higher than anyone else.

There were other feats, too, such as the ‘Sword Feat’, or Faobhar Chleas, described in the Mesca Ulad, ‘the Intoxication of the Ulstermen’, as a kind of dance involving the juggling of a sword. This may have been performed before battle to impress and strike fear into the enemy. It may also have concentrated the warrior’s mind, helping him to achieve riastradh.

The ‘Body Feat’ was thought to have been a dance which showed off unarmed combat skills. Cuchullain’s ‘Leap Over a Poisoned Stroke’ may have demonstrated his ability to leap over a sword slashing at his legs.

The ‘Feat of the Pole-Throw’ is thought to be the same as the  Scottish ‘Tossing the Caber’. The ‘Apple Feat’ was said to consist of juggling apples, apparently useful when learning to fight with a sword… don’t ask. The ‘Breath Feat’ was described as blowing apples up in the air, which may have been a breathing technique.

I’m sure there were many more, and no doubt they all contributed to making the warrior appear dashing and heroic, as well as enhancing his combat skills and chances of survival.

Please be sure to drop by on Friday to meet my special guest, photographer, blogger and RuinHunter Ed Mooney, who will be talking about his Celtic re-enactment days, and the authentic weapons training he was involved in.

thank you for visiting

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