Early Medieval Period (c. 400-800)

Early medieval Ireland was not highly militarized, and without significant external threats there was little pressure to improve military technology. The quality of pre-Viking Irish weapons has been questioned, although metallographic study of weapons of this period has found that while some were technologically poor, others were quite effective. Irish sources of the ninth to twelfth centuries depict the ideal weaponry of a warrior as a shield, a sword, and one or more spears. Significantly, these are the only weapons represented in the historical or archaeological record for the pre-Viking period and, indeed, for the preceding Iron Age. The shield/sword/spear combination seems to have been the ideal throughout the Iron Age and early medieval periods.

Iron helmet, Lough Henney, Co. Down.

Iron helmet, Lough Henney, Co. Down.

The spear was the most common, and in that sense the most important of these weapons. Used by all races, classes, and types of warrior, it could be thrown as a missile or retained in the hand to thrust and parry in close combat. At least twelve different terms for spears are found in Irish sources—testimony to its ubiquity. Archaeological study of medieval spearheads is hampered, however, both by the scarcity of examples from dateable contexts and by the recurrence of similar forms over long periods. Early medieval sources contain two terms for "sword"—claideb and colg. Mallory suggested that colg is the earlier, originally applied to small Iron Age thrusting swords, whereas claideb is a fifth- or sixth-century introduction, denoting longer swords designed for slashing or cutting. Rynne suggested that swords of "sub-Roman" type developed during the fourth to seventh centuries, followed by other forms ("expanded-ended" and "crannog" swords), which may have remained in use until the ninth century. In view of the scarcity of good contextual information, however, Rynne’s classification and chronology must be regarded as provisional.

Viking/Hiberno-Norse Period (c. 800-1170)

The normal range of Viking military equipment is well known; their main weapons were spears, swords, axes, and bows and arrows. Initial Viking technological superiority could have been made up fairly readily, however, by the greater Irish kings. Military technology always responds rapidly to new influences, and Ballinderry crannog, County Westmeath, may illustrate how far this process had advanced by the tenth century. This Irish site produced Ireland’s finest "Viking" sword, a bow that must be ultimately of Viking background, and other typical "Viking" weapons. Borrowing of weaponry is not easily detected in the historical record because, on paper, few new weapon types were introduced by the Vikings (with the exceptions of bows and axes). Spears and swords continued to be the main offensive weapons, and shields the main means of defense. Undoubtedly, the form and technology of spears, swords, and shields developed, but this must be investigated through sustained archaeological research (such as works by Walsh and Pierce), rather than documentary sources.

Swords were always expensive and only available to the relatively wealthy. The Viking Age saw the introduction of finer but even more expensive swords, and among the Irish, swords were largely replaced by the cheaper axe. Introduced by the Vikings, axes were so widely adopted by the Irish that in the late twelfth century Giraldus Cambrensis portrays them as a veritable national weapon. Axes feature throughout Giraldus’ Expugnatio Hibernica, culminating in his parting advice that the English "must never grow careless of the axes of the Irish." Such major figures as Hugh de Lacy, Miles de Cogan, and Ralph FitzStephen met their deaths by the dreaded Irish axe, while Meiler FitzHenry is described as having three axes stuck in his horse and two more in his shield during an Irish attack in 1173. Giraldus knew the Irish had borrowed the axe from the Norse, and the earlier twelfth-century Cogad Gaedel re Gallaib also refers to the Irish using "Norwegian axes." This is confirmed by archaeology, since all known battle axes of this period are derived from a Scandinavian type, Petersen’s Type M.

Archery was apparently unknown since prehistory in Ireland, until reintroduced by the Vikings in the ninth century. Indeed, there is little evidence for Gaelic Irish use of archery before the thirteenth century. Archaeological evidence is largely confined to the Hiberno-Norse towns, where surviving bow fragments indicate an established bowmaking tradition, largely anticipating the better-known late-medieval English tradition. The sheer volume of archaeological evidence (mainly arrowheads) testifies to widespread Hiberno-Norse use of archery, but its military significance is less clear. Archery was apparently used mainly in preliminary missile exchanges prior to battle. There is no evidence for its exploitation to anything like the same extent as in the later Middle Ages, nor is there evidence for specialist archers—the bow was simply one of the weapons used by Viking warriors.

In contrast to weaponry, the use of armor clearly distinguishes the Irish from the Vikings. Irish sources indicate that the Irish did not wear armor, while the Norse are consistently described as doing so. Armor of this period rarely survives, and is discussed largely on the basis of representational evidence. The main body armor was a mail shirt reaching usually to the knees (the hauberk or byrnie), worn over a padded undergarment (the aketon or gambeson). Helmets were typically simple and conical, either of single-piece construction or formed of triangular plates riveted to a framework of iron bands—the Spangenhelm. Circular shields were replaced by triangular or kite-shaped forms in the eleventh century, but it is unclear when this happened in Ireland. Both forms were constructed of wooden boards covered with leather or other material, with a central iron boss and, probably, an iron binding strip around the edge. Clothing worn in battle by the Irish, even the nobility, did not differ significantly from civilian dress. This probably explains Giraldus’s statement that the Irish went "naked and unarmed into battle." The contemporary Song of Dermot and the Earl describes the Irish as quite naked," with neither hauberks (haubers) nor byrnies (bruines). Undoubtedly, some Irish warriors could have obtained Norse armor through trade or combat, but such borrowing clearly did not happen to the same extent as with weaponry.

Anglo-Norman Period (c. 1170-1300)

Anglo-Norman weapons and armor were little different from those of Hiberno-Norse warriors; their military success must be explained in terms of organization and tactics, rather than technology. Hauberks remained the main body armor, supplemented from the later twelfth century by separate mail chausses, mufflers, and coifs, worn over the legs, hands, and head and neck, respectively. Conical helmets continued in use alongside hemispherical and cylindrical forms, which developed by around 1200 into the "great helm," fully enclosing the head. Triangular shields tended to become broader and shorter in the thirteenth century. Knights used spears and swords, much like those of the Hiberno-Norse period; long, double-edged blades, designed for cutting blows either from horseback or on foot, predominated. A series of surviving Irish swords, of twelfth- to fourteenth-century date, are typical of what would have been used by the first Anglo-Normans and their successors. Maces with spiked heads of bronze were also used, but the bow and arrow remains the most common weapon in the archaeological record. Archers made up the bulk of Anglo-Norman forces, and in the thirteenth century there is the first clear evidence for the use of archery by the Gaelic Irish. References to the capture of English armor imply that the Irish were also using armor in the thirteenth century. This is difficult to quantify, but undoubtedly the English conquest markedly increased the amount of armor circulating in Ireland.

Late Medieval Period (c. 1300-1550)

The lack of dramatic changes in military technology continued through the late Middle Ages, which is characterized by the use of apparently antiquated armor and weapons. There is a logical explanation for this, first expressed by Giraldus Cambrensis. Even in the twelfth century it was clear that the trend toward increasingly strong—and heavy—armor must be constrained, in Ireland, by the overriding requirement of mobility, dictated by the physical environment and prevailing tactics of warfare. Despite initial military superiority, the Anglo-Irish largely adopted Gaelic warfare tactics, based on raiding rather than large campaigns or battles. Late-medieval European developments in plate armor came at too high a price, in terms of increased weight and rigidity, for Irish combatants. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Anglo-Irish effigies depict armor consisting of a "pair of plates" (early plate armor for the torso) over a mail shirt, with separate plate defenses for arms and legs and a visored helmet worn over a mail mantle, covering throat and shoulders. Elsewhere such armor might be dated around the late-fourteenth century, but it appears on Irish effigies into the later-sixteenth century. Sculptural and documentary evidence suggests that Gaelic nobles and their gallowglass mercenaries routinely wore armor that differed only slightly from the Anglo-Irish pattern. Mail shirts (and the aketons underneath) tend to be longer; separate plate defenses for torsos, legs and arms are rare; and helmets are usually not visored. Even these distinctions are not rigid, however. Early sixteenth-century effigies of an O’More at Abbeyleix, County Laois, and a MacGillapatrick at Fertagh, County Kilkenny, display armors close to Anglo-Irish style, while the finest example of the "Gaelic" pattern, the Glinsk (Co. Galway) effigy, apparently represents an Anglo-Irish de Burgh. Archaeology confirms the sculptural evidence for armor forms. Although no surviving armor is known, late medieval Irish swords and arrowheads retain blade forms designed for use against mail armor; forms developed for use against plate armor—common elsewhere in Europe—are absent.

The aristocratic figures represented on the effigies would have fought as horsemen, and their principal weapon would have been the lance or spear. Gaelic horsemen did not use their spear in the couched position—the lack of saddle and stirrups would not have permitted this—but rather held it overarm, for throwing or thrusting. Their other main weapon, the sword, is depicted on effigies as a single-hand weapon, as would be expected for horsemen. Swords on Anglo-Irish effigies conform to common European styles, but no surviving examples are known. Swords on Gaelic effigies, however, display characteristic hilt forms found on a substantial group of surviving swords. This form is also found in Scotland as early as the fourteenth century, and its presence in Ireland probably reflects gallowglass activity. In the sixteenth century these may have been replaced by a distinctively Irish sword form, characterized by open-ring pommels. Surviving battleaxes, including fine ceremonial weapons inlaid with silver, are also often attributed to gallow-glass. However, they were also used by the Gaelic Irish and clearly developed from the Viking battleaxe tradition, which predates gallowglass activity in Ireland. Common (non-noble) soldiers rarely wore armor and used a range of weapons. Archery was hugely important in late medieval English warfare, and from the mid-fourteenth century the Anglo-Irish government almost invariably employed English retinues composed mainly of archers. Deliberate efforts were made to foster archery among the Anglo-Irish commoners, but were ultimately unsuccessful outside of the core of the Pale (essentially Dublin and Meath). Besides bows and arrows, Anglo-Irish archers also used swords and bucklers (small shields). The poorest commoners used staff weapons such as bills and glaives. Gaelic common footsoldiers, or kern, might be armed with a sword, axe, or long knife; perhaps a bow and arrows; or a number of spears and a shield.

Artillery—although sporadically used from as early as 1361—was extremely rare until the late fifteenth century, when there is evidence for artillery and handguns being used by the Anglo-Irish and even by some Gaelic Irish. Artillery was first used effectively in government campaigns of the 1520s and 1530s (notably the Fitzgerald revolt), but it was not until the later sixteenth century that English armies decisively abandoned the longbow in favor of the musket. The attraction of firearms was not based on superior range or penetrative power, but simply on the fact that their use required little or no training, whereas archery, to be effective, demanded large numbers of highly trained men. Firearms ultimately revolutionized every aspect of warfare, but in Ireland this was a post-medieval development.

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