Kindle Unlimited Membership Plans


Part 7: Irish army of the 16th Century

by George Gush

FOR THE WARGAMER, the Irish in this period form the most likely enemies for last month's English armies, while they are of great interest in their own right, containing many unique troop types.
    Until the rebellion of Shane O'Neill in the 1560s, the Irish indulged in constant raiding and ambushing, frequently of each other, occasionally fought a single battle, but did not really fight wars. From 1561 to 1603, however, there were a series of campaigns against the English, culminating in that of Tyrone, which was on a really large scale.
    In the early part of the 16th Century the warriors of Ireland were very traditional in armament and tactics, but as the wars continued more 'up-to-date' weapons made their appearance and some full scale battles were fought, though the traditional guerilla-type tactics were more successful, as in the Irish victory of the Yellow Ford, 1598.
    The Irish made good use of difficult country and of field-fortifications, digging trenches and 'plashing' trees into impenetrable barriers, often in connection with an ambush.

Traditional types

The Gallowglas

    These were originally Scots mercenaries, but by the 16th Century their clans or 'septs' had often been settled in Ireland for two or three centuries (the most famous were the MacDonalds and the McSweeneys); they were still mercenaries, but often owed loyalty to a particular noble (in fact in 1568 there were three septs of 'the Queen Majesty's Galloglasses'). They usually wore an iron bascinet, and either a mail shirt or a short cape of mail over a padded quilted coat called a 'cotun', and their characteristic weapon was a heavy two-handed axe which could chop an enemy's head off with a single blow (it was still in use in 1588 when McLaghlin M'Cabb killed 80 Spaniards from the Armada with one).
    Gallowglasses were organised in 'Battles' of 80 or 81 men, but each gallowglas was accompanied by two boys, who carried his supplies, armour, and his secondary weapons, three light Irish javelins or 'darts'.

The Kern

    The ordinary Irish footsoldiers, made up partly of 'bonnachts' or Irish mercenaries maintained by the various nobles, and partly of free peasantry called out to fight. The bonnachts might sometimes be dressed like the gallowglasses, or else like the 'rising-out', as the peasants were called; that is, no armour, simply the traditional Irish dress of a linen tunic with very wide sleeves, often dyed yellow with saffron, usually worn over tight trews of a plain colour, and sometimes covered with a very short coat of goat's hair or a large mantle or 'shag-rug', patterned, and with a long fringe of 'an agreeable mixture of colours'.
    Bonnachts might have the sparth-axe, but the usual weapons were javelins or 'darts' of which each kern had a handful; even the English admitted that the Irish were extraordinarily skilled with this weapon. A few of the kern also used the bow, and sword or spear and shield might be carried; the shields were oval and convex, of wood or basket-work. Each man would also carry a 'skean' or long dagger. They were often clean shaven but wore flowing moustaches and a mop of shaggy hair or 'glibb' falling over the forehead (banned by the English as making it difficult to recognise their 'thievish countenances').
    Their tactics were normally those of skirmishers, especially in difficult country where, often, no other troops could move, but they could also charge fiercely in the right circumstances, clashing their weapons together with a loud cry of 'Pharroh!' (anyone who didn't join in was popularly supposed to be wafted off to a mysterious valley in the West and Never Seen Again). What they couldn't do was to stand up against cavalry in the open.

The cavalry

    A small proportion of the average Irish force, the cavalry would normally be made up of gentry. They were equipped with a helmet with a strange turned-up nasal, mail-shirt, sword and shield, but their chief weapon was a longish light spear held in the middle and used overarm either for stabbing or throwing, not couched as a lance. One reason for this was that the Irish, like their ancient forebears, still used neither stirrups nor a proper saddle just a sort of pillow strapped to the horse with a girth), another was that their light cobs could not stand up to the heavier English horses in a full charge.
    They were thus mainly useful for scouting, skirmishing, or pursuit. In the earlier 16th Century the Irish seem to have had the unusual habit of drawing up the cavalry on the left of their battle-line.

Later changes

    These started in the 1560s, when Shane O'Neill began to equip his men with arquebusses, impress large numbers of unfree peasants, and hire extra Scots mercenaries from overseas. By 1569 musketeers and mailed pikemen had appeared in Irish armies.

The 'New Scots'

    These were a new wave of Scots mercenaries, mainly recruited from the Western Isles. They were probably bare-legged (hence their nickname of 'Redshanks') and generally dressed like other Highlanders of the period. Organised in companies with a paper strength of 100, they included some cavalry and 'shot' with firearms, pikemen and halberdiers, as well as men with the more traditional Highland weapons, longbows and two-handed claymores. They were found in most Irish armies in the second half of the 16th Century, though they had most of the usual faults of mercenaries and came quite expensive (each man got one bullock per quarter for pay and two for food!)

Tyrone's Army

    Hugh O'Neil, Earl of Tyrone, created the first really effective Irish army of the period, using as a nucleus Irish infantry he had kindly offered to train for Queen Elizabeth and senior officers who had served in the English or Spanish armies. He raised 6,000 disciplined Irish foot, organised in companies of 100 and regiments probably 500 strong, with drums, bagpipes and colours, and armed with matchlock muskets and pikes (the musket bullets were made out of lead imported from England, ostensibly to re-roof O'Neil's castle of Dungannon). There were at least two musketeers to every pikeman, probably more.
    Tyrone also reorganised the cavalry, equipping at least 300 'in the English fashion' with light lances and (presumably) stirrups; however, his cavalry, though good at harassing tactics, still could not stand up to the English in the open. Generally, gallowglasses had become pikemen, kern musketeers, and dress and armour was probably little changed, though one of O'Neil's regiments wore red coats (probably his original troops for English service), and his men were said to have plenty of 'graven murrions' (morions).
    On the flanks of his 'regular' forces, numbers of skirmishers with the older types of weapon operated, and there were also 'New Scots' including Tyrone's own bodyguard of 200 musketeers.
    Tyrone normally used harassing tactics in difficult country, but at the disastrous battle of Kinsale his forces drew up in the open in three large tercio-style blocks.

The Catholic Confederates

    After the defeat of O'Neil and the crushing of his followers there was no war in Ireland until the 1640s, when Catholic uprising became confusingly involved with the Civil War situation in England. In the 40s, Owen Roe O'Neill, the ex-commander of an Irish regiment in Spanish service, led the army of a Catholic Confederation (claiming loyalty to King Charles) to considerable success against Scots and Parliamentary armies. The 'rebels' this time included both 'Old Irish' and Anglo-Irish, and were armed largely by Spain and organised on Spanish lines. The Anglo-Irish would probably wear English-style coat, breeches and hose just like any English Civil War troops) while many of the 'Old Irish' might still be in traditional dress.
    At the Irish victory of Benburb (1646), Owen Roe had seven infantry regiments; his own and that of Alexander MacDonnel were of 15 companies (1500 men) and the rest often 10 companies (1000 men); they were made up about half and half of pikemen and musketeers, and drew up in the usual fashion with pikes in the centre and shot on their flanks. The pikes were longer and smaller-pointed than British ones.
    There were also nine troops of horse, some at least of them being lancers after the Spanish fashion.
    Later, at Dungans Hill, the Catholic army included four ox-drawn demi-culverins and 800 Scottish 'Redshanks', armed chiefly with sword and targe. The Earl of Ormonde, who subsequently led all Royalist forces in Ireland, had among his Lifeguard a regiment of fusiliers with flintlock muskets.

Irish flags

    The cross of St Patrick was not apparently considered a symbol of Ireland at the time; two 'national' flags which may have been used in the 16th Century are a blue flag with three gold crowns, and the traditional Irish harp in gold, probably then on a blue ground.
    In the 'Desmond Rebellion' (1579-83) the rebels had the Pope's banner, presumably red with the crossed keys of St Peter in silver and gold beneath the triple crown of the Papacy.
    Tyrone had recognised Philip II of Spain as King of Ireland, and had the support of Spanish troops, and it appears that some of his units carried 'Spanish Flags' of white bearing the red diagonal cross raguly of Burgundy, but they had other flags too.
    The 17th Century Confederates seem to have been the first to use a green flag with a golden harp.


    There are several very good and readable books on the wars in Ireland; two of the best are by Cyril Falls - Elizabeth's Irish Wars and Mountjoy, Elizabethan General ; covering a wider field in time and also very good though a little harder to get hold of is Irish Battles by G. A. Hayes-McCoy.


Left to right: Irishman in mantle. Cap is of a type worn by Irish irregulars in Europe; Gallowglas in 'Cotun', mail cape and helmet; Gallowglas in mail cape and skirt and cavalry-style helmet. Note different shape of axe (based on a Durer drawing); and Kern with 'Skean,' shield and darts. Note tunic, simpler than Ulster version in prints, and type of surcoat.

Above: alternative Gallowglas helmets; on the right is a 15th Century padded one.

Typical Irish sword of the 16th Century. Note ring at base of hilt with tang passing through it, and square ended scabbard. Irish swords of this period were usually straight and large. Note different types of scabbard on the following two illustrations, especially those with a dagger strapped to the outside of the scabbard.

Flags shown in print of Irish force at battle of Erne Fords, 1593. Colours not known.
Infantry flag on left, cavalry on right.

Taken from Derricke's The Image of Irelande (1581), this British Museum print shows the English (on left) defeating the Irish. In the foreground 'Northern Horse' in mail charge the typical Irish cavalry who are very well shown (including method of using spear).

Taken again from Derricke's The Image of Irelande (1581), this British Museum print shows Ulster Kern indulging in their usual raiding; the particular type of jacket worn, with pleated 'frill', is probably an Ulster variation. The men with long axes at lower left are probably Bonnachts. Note the bagpiper.

Previous: Part 6: Henry VIII's army by George Gush
Next: Part 8: The Universal Soldier by George Gush
Return to Contents of Renaissance Warfare by George Gush (Airfix Magazine Articles)

See also Clothing of the Ancient Celts: A Guide to Celtic Costume by M. E. Riley
Other Illustrations of Irish Costume & Soldiers