Gaelic warfare

Gaelic warfare

Indigenous Gaelic Warfare


Gaels employed a variety of weapons in combat including javelins (called sleagh in gaelic), harpoons (gae), darts (birin), slings, spears and swords. Javelins and harpoons were used by the wealthiest among them while less wealthy fighters used slings and darts, although ranged combat was generally disdained in Celtic warfare as being cowardly. Gaels employed a variety of spears, swords, and axes for close quarters combat, the Craisech, a long spear used from horseback to pursue a defeated enemy and stab overhand from above, or used with both hands like a bayonet to fight at close quarters after dismounting. Gaelic swords were a very small affair, many not being over 14 inches long, though blades lengths 21 inches were common. They were ridged, double-edged and had an acute point used for stabbing. There were however longer swords based on La Tene Gallic models which were long and capable of delivering crushing blows, but these could only be afforded by the aristocracy, which fought from chariots and later on horseback.


Standards and hollowed out bull horns (a primitive battle trumpet) were often carried into battle to rally men into combat. Bagpipe would also gain popularity in the later years.


In Gaelic culture, the use of armor was generally disdained as being cumbersome and impairing the agility of the warrior. However, in a few rare cases its value was recognized and kings would be covered in armor and helmets to protect them. Armour was usually a simple affair; padded coats, the wealthier might wear boiled leather, and the wealthiest, bronze chest plates or cuirass, rarely mail (though it existed in Ireland, it was rare), or overlapping iron or bronze scales. Helmets were rather like Hallstatt helmets, even into the Middle Ages. That is, they were usually round, some with decorated cheekguards, and crested with horse hair, or featuring a long plume tail. Like most Celtic helmets, they were modular, so they could be decorated by their owners with such accoutrements. Shields were usually round, with a spindle shaped boss, though later the regular iron boss models were introduced by the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. A few shields were also oval in shape or square, but most of them were small and round, like bucklers, to better enable agility.


In Gaelic Ireland, before the Viking age, when Vikings brought new forms of technology, culture and warfare into Ireland, there was a heavy importance placed on clan wars and ritual combats. This is known as the heroic age, and Celtic clans would fight wars in an endemic manner, that is every summer and in a very ritualized fashion. In pre-Christian Ireland human sacrifice formed a huge part of these conflicts, much as in most primitive cultures, warriors killed or captured in combat would be sacrificed to the gods in ritual ways. Those killed in combat would have their heads cut off and kept as talismans, their dead corpses were offered to the goddess of war, Morrigan which they believed would turn into a crow and come to devour the dead corpses. Captives were frequently also sacrificed to other gods by drowning and by herding them into a hut and burning them. Theses acts were accompanied by chants and incantations performed by Druids (pagan priests). These customs continued even after the advent of Christianity into Ireland, for example the Viking Thorgest who was drowned by the Christian Irish. Another very important aspect of Celtic ritual warfare at this time was single combat. To settle a dispute and measure one's prowess, it was customary to challenge an individual warrior from the other army to ritual single combat to the death while cheered on by the opposing hosts. Such fights were common before pitched battle and for ritual purposes tended to occur at river fords. For examples of this behavior one can read the epic literature of Ireland, such as the Ulster Cycle and Fenian Cycle, as well as accounts of Gaelic wars such as the "Wars of the Gael with the Foreigners" and Geoffrey Keating's "History of Ireland".

Tactics and Organization

War in Ireland and Scotland was based around the cattle raid. Cattle were the main form of wealth in the Gaelic culture as currency had not yet been introduced and the aim of most tribal wars was the capture of the enemy's cattle. For this task, there were specially trained units of light infantry known as "ceitherne" or "kern" (literally 'warband') which were lightly armed with swords or knives (sgian) for self-defence. Their main task was the theft and herding away of the enemy cattle. Initially Ceithern were members of individual tribes, but later when the Vikings and English introduced new systems of billeting to soldiers, the kern became billeted soldiers and mercenaries who served anyone who paid them the most. The Ceitherne were in no way fit to engage in combat because of their light armament and lack of horses, instead, they were accompanied by the chariot mounted aristocracy which was the mainstay of the Gaelic army. Chariots were later replaced by cavalry, known as hobbelars, who acted as a vanguard, harassing the enemy, clearing ambushes and dismounting to fight battles on foot. The chariots or cavalry would protect the kern while they stole the cattle, they also did most of the actual fighting, while the kern simply rustled the cattle and occasionally acted as light infantry skirmishers.

The Gaels tended to be experts in guerrilla ambush, constructing forts in the woods which were used as hidden supply bases, connected by secret cleared paths. The armies would move through the woods at great speed and frequently avoid open battle. Instead, the Gaels preferred to use harassing tactics, offensively they would plunder the countryside, defensively they would evacuate civilians into the woods and harass the attacker, mostly with darts, javelins and stones. Close quarters combat was avoided until there was a clear advantage and cavalry or chariots always dismounted for it. Ambushes were frequently laid for advancing armies in woods, at river-crossings, in valleys and any other place where it might be convenient. The Gael also enjoyed a reputation for night attacks and stealth. This is not to say that the Gael completely avoided set piece battles, for they frequently did have pitched battles, mostly against each other while denying that honor to foreign hosts which they deemed too heavily armed and numerous. Accounts of Celtic chariot and guerrilla warfare can be found in Julius Caesar's "De Bello Gallico" (On the Gallic Wars)


As time went on, the Gaels began intensifying their raids and colonies in Roman Britain (c. 200-500 AD). Naval forces were necessary for this, and large numbers of small boats called curraghs were employed. Chariots and horses were transported across the sea to fight, but weaponry changed as a result. Because Gaelic forces were so frequently at sea (especially the Dal Riada/Scots) weaponry had to change. Javelins and slings became more uncommon as they require too much space to launch and the small curraghs did not allow this. Instead, more and more Gaels were armed with bows and arrows. The Dal Riada, for example, after colonizing the west of Scotland and becoming a maritime power, became an army composed completely of archers. Slings also went out of use, replaced by bows and by a very effective naval weapon called the staffsling (Gael: Cranntabhaill). Later, the Gael realized, probably learning from the Anglo-Saxons whom they contacted in Britain that using cavalry as opposed to chariots was cheaper, and by the 7th century AD Chariots had disappeared from Ireland and replaced by cavalry. Later, when the Gaels came into contact with the Vikings, they realized the need for heavier weaponry so as to hack through the much larger shields and heavy mail-coats of the Norsemen. Heavier hacking-swords became more frequent as did helmets and mailcoats. The Gael also learned from the Vikings how to use the double-handed Danish axe. Irish and Scottish infantry troops fighting with axes and armor in addition to their own native darts and bows were later known as "Gall oglaigh" (English: Galloglass) or "foreign youths" and formed an important part of Gaelic armies in the future. The coming of the Normans into Ireland several hundred years later also forced the Irish to use an increasingly large number of armored Galloglaigh and to use more heavily armored cavalry so as to effectively deal with the mail-clad Normans.

Exported Gaelic Warfare

Norse-Gaelic mercenaries

"See main article: Gallowglass"
The most prolific Norse legacy in general Gaelic war though is the creation of the "gall-òglaich" (Scottish Gaelic) or "gall-óglaigh" (Irish); the Norse-Gaelic mercenaries who inhabited the Hebrides. They fought and trained in a combination of Gaelic and Norse techniques, and were highly valued; they were hired by everyone in Britain at different times, though most famously the Irish, who hired many more times of them than anyone else. The French also saw fit to hire them, as they often had a tendency to hire Irish and Scots to help them in their wars, this was a natural progression. Additionally, both the English and French had a habit of hiring Gaelic horsemen, called hobbelars, and were copied by both.

Later Weaponry

During the late Middle ages and Renaissance, weapon imports from Europe had an impact on Gaelic weapon design. For example the German zweihander sword, a long double-handed affair used for brutal hacking. Irish swords copied from these models had unique furnishings, many for example often featured open rings on the pommel. On any locally designed Irish sword in the Middle Ages, this meant you could see the end of the tang go through the pommel and cap the end. These swords were often of very fine construction and quality. Scottish swords continued to use the more traditional V cross-guards that had been on pre-Norse Gaelic swords, culminating in such pieces as the now famous 'claymore' design. This was an outgrowth of numerous earlier designs, and has become a symbol of Scotland. Thclaymore was used together with the typical axes of the galloglaigh until the 18th century, but began to be replaced by pistols and muskets. Also increasingly common at that time were basket-hilted swords, shorter versions of the claymore which were used with one hand and in conjunction with a shield. These basket-hilted broadswords are still a symbol of Scotland to this day, as is the typical shield known as a 'targe'.


*Iulius Caesar, "De Bello Gallico"
*"Tain Bo Cuailnge", From the Book of Leinster
*Geoffrey Keating, "History of Ireland"
*"The Wars of the Gaels with the Foreigners"

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