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An extract from Armies of Feudal Europe 1066-1300
by Ian Heath

[Based on Giraldus’ ‘Topography of Ireland’] [Based on Chapter House Liber A] [Based on the Shrine of St. Manchán, of Manghan, c. 1130]
51, 52 & 53.      IRISH WARRIORS, 12th-13th CENTURIES

The Irishman and his axe (adopted prior to this period under Scandinavian influence) were inseparable, it being carried everywhere even in peacetime. Despite pictures to the contrary in his own ms., Giraldus Cambrensis reports in his ‘Topography of Ireland’ (c.1188) that the axe was wielded in only one hand, ‘extending the thumb along the handle to direct the blow’; he adds that neither helmet nor mail was any protection against it, though he also records in one battle anecdote that an Anglo-Norman knight managed to fight free of an Irish ambush even with 3 of their axes embedded in his horse and 2 more in his shield. He describes the average warrior’s other weapons as a short spear and 2 javelins, also making special mention of their accuracy at flinging stones ‘when all else fails’, this probably being an allusion to the use of slings (taibell or clocharma), which are recorded in many Irish sources. A sword could also be carried, though a long dagger, the skein, was more usual. Shields are mentioned in the sources, but rarely.

The short, light javelins or ‘darts’ could not pierce armour and tended to wound rather than kill an unarmoured man, and the Irish at first made no use of the bow, so that except for hails of stones their firepower was limited. However, Giraldus observes in his ‘Conquest of Ireland’ of c.1189 that following the Anglo-Norman invasion the Irish ‘by usage and experience...gradually became skilled and versed in handling arrows’; even so, Irish archers are only first recorded in a native source, the ‘Annals Ulster’, in 1243, when they are called saighdeoiri (a non-Gaelic word derived from the Latin sagittarii). The bow that the Irish adopted under Anglo-Norman influence, however, was curiously not the Welsh long-bow, but a short weapon described in the 14th century as being ‘as short as half a bow of England; but they shoot as far as the English ones.’ A 13th century example of what is apparently such a bow, made of yew and measuring about 35″ in length, with its handle slightly off-centre, was found at Castle Desmond in the 19th century. Such short bows were still used by Irish soldiers as late as the 17th century.

The costume of 51, based on illuminations in Giraldus’ ‘Topography of Ireland’, consists of soft shoes, a linen tunic, close-fitting trousers (which Giraldus describes as ‘breeches that are at the same time hosen, or hosen which are at the same time breeches’) and a long semi-circular cloak (the failang) with a shaggy collar typical of Irish mantles at this time, Giraldus describes others as wearing a close-fitting hood, the coccula, which he says was made of patchwork and hung 18-22″ below the shoulders; an Irish source of c.1100 records that the coccula was covered on the outside with tufts of shaggy wool. However, in reality this may have been no more than the collar of the failang pulled up over the head. The trousers may have been worn chiefly in winter since bare legs appear to have been more common amongst Irish soldiers by the 14th century (see figure 28 in Armies of the Middle Ages, volume 1). He wears his ‘flaxen hair’ and ‘barbarous’ beard long. 51a, from the same source, depicts an echflesc, used by Irish horsemen in place of spurs (see page 50).

52 is based on the ‘Liber A’ record book, where 3 similar figures appear whose dress consists of what is either a tunic or a short shirt, apparently tucked into their breeches. Round the lower leg are gaiter-like wrappings; earlier sources record such wrappings to have been cloth or leather, but they were uncommon. Note that the breeches have a strap under the instep, also recorded in ‘Heimskringla’.

Figure 53, based on a cast-bronze figurine from the reliquary of St Manchan, probably made c.1120-30, wears more traditional Irish costume comprising a pleated tunic, bare legs and bare feet. His axe, like that of figure 52, is of a distinctly Scandinavian design, quite different from that of 51.

Despite the fact that he describes their trousers as woollen, Giraldus says that the Irish used very little wool in their clothing, and what they did use was mainly black (the colour, apparently, of most Irish sheep at this time), though be says their trousers were ‘for the most part dyed.’ However, we know from earlier sources that the Irish liked bright colours and there is no reason to assume that their tastes had changed. Giraldus’ illustrations show clothes chiefly in light shades of green, brown, red and grey, though we know from an earlier list that purple, crimson, yellow and blue were also worn, sometimes striped or variegated. Yellow garments possibly became predominant by the end of this period and gave rise to the later saffron tunic.

The Irish at first continued to make no use of armour, being described going into battle in no more than their silk shirts even as late as 1260. However, it is hard to believe that such windfalls as the 100 mail corselets and horse bards captured from the English at the Battle or Athankip (1270) were not put to practical use, and certainly by the end of this period at least some Irish chieftains had finally adopted armour. A poem of c.1300 dedicated to Aedh O’Conor, king of Connacht (1293-1309), describes his equipment as comprising a helmet, an aketon (cotun), a mail corselet (luirech) and a mail hood (coiléar) reaching to his chest; on his feet were golden spurs, and he was armed with a sword, a spear and a white shield (sgiath) decorated with ‘dragons and golden branches’. In addition he carried behind his shoulders a red targe (called a sdarga or starra), ‘which bounced a foreign spear from his back’, such use of the shield being customary amongst 14th-16th century Irish cavalrymen.

Next: 54, 55, 56 & 57. ISLESMEN OR GALLÓGLAICH, 12th-14th CENTURIES in Armies of Feudal Europe 1066-1300 by Ian Heath