Irish Cathach

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER III....continued

4. Strategy, Tactics, and Modes of Fighting.

Subordination of Ranks.—Though the discipline of the Irish in time of war and on the field of battle was very inferior to that of the Anglo-Normans, we are not to conclude that they were ignorant or careless of the Science and Art of War. On the contrary, military science was studied with much care. The whole army was divided into catha [caha] or battalions, each cath consisting of 3000 men with a commander; and these again were parcelled into smaller companies, down to nine, with officers regularly descending in rank.

Encampment.—During marches the leaders were very particular about their encampments Even when the halt was only for a night or two, careful arrangements were made as to tents, sitting-places, sleeping accommodation, bathing, cooking, etc.: and everything was done to make the encampment comfortable and enjoyable. In all cases the camp was fortified, so far as the time permitted: and of course sentinels were set while the army slept. Where the sojourn was likely to be pretty long, more elaborate arrangements were made.

Sentinels and Watchmen.—In the early stages of society, when wars were frequent, look-out points were very important: sometimes they were on the seashore, so that the sentinel might catch sight of invaders from the sea.

Immediately beside the palace, or the temporary residence, of every king or great chief, a sentinel or watchman kept watch and ward day and night. In time of battle or campaign, warriors slept at night with a single weapon by their side for use in any sudden alarm, their principal arms hanging on the racks in the proper place.

Heralds.—In the course of warfare, heralds or envoys were often employed, as among all other nations. When on their mission, they were regarded as sacred and inviolable, and were treated with the utmost respect, even by the bitterest enemies: exactly as Homer describes the heralds of the Greeks. Heralds had a special dress by which they were at once recognised; and they commonly carried in one hand a white wand or hand-staff, and in the other a sword, symbolical of the alternative to be accepted—peace or war.

Banners, Flags, and Standards.—From the earliest period of their history the Irish used banners or standards, which were borne before the army when going into battle, or on ordinary marches: a custom common to the Celts and Romans, but unknown to the Homeric Greeks. In Ireland the office of standard-bearer to each king or [chief was hereditary, like all other important functions.

A banner is denoted by the word méirge [mair-ya]. In the accounts of many of the ancient Irish battles, there are descriptions of the standards borne by each chief or clan. The commander-in-chief had his own banner, and so had each captain under his command: and each usually bore some device or figure, so that the several captains and companies could be distinguished from a distance; and their deeds recorded by the shanachies who attended the army. The attendant shanachies of those old times answered in some sort to the war correspondents of our own day. The standard of Ulster was a yellow lion on green satin; that of Dalaradia, yellow satin; of O'Sullivan, a spear with an adder entwined with it; and so on.

Cathach or 'Battler.'—In Christian times it was usual for the ruler of a clan, tribe, or sub-kingdom, to have a relic, commonly consecrated by the patron saint of the district, which the chief brought to battle with him, in the hope that it would ensure victory: somewhat as the Jews used the Ark of the Covenant. Such a relic was called a cathach [caha], i.e.proeliator or 'battler.' The usual formula for the use of the cathach was to cause it to be carried desiol or sunwise—commonly by an ecclesiastic—three times round the army before the battle began.

The most celebrated of these battle-relics was the cathach or battle-book of the O'Donnells of Tirconnell, which may now be seen in the National Museum in Dublin. It is a small square box or shrine made of silver gilt, with enamel and precious stones, containing a copy of a portion of the Psalms, once believed to have been written by St. Columkille, the patron of the Kinel Connell, or O'Donnell family. The permanent cathach or battle-relic of each tribe was placed in the keeping of some particular family. This was considered a great honour; and the family had usually a tract of land free of rent, as well as other perquisites, as payment for the faithful discharge of their duty as custodians.

Chivalry.—In Ireland, in ancient times, people as a general rule declined to take advantage of surprises or stratagems in war. They had a sort of chivalrous feeling in the matter, and did not seek to conceal—and sometimes even gave open notice of—intended attacks, or came to an agreement with their adversaries as to the time and place to fight the matter out. In later ages, and at the present day, such plain, unsophisticated dealing would be looked upon as bad generalship. But not unfrequently a general rose up with unusual military genius and with less scrupulous notions of chivalry, who did not hesitate to employ ambush and other stratagems: and many victories are recorded as obtained by these means.

Medical Attendance in Battle.—A number of physicians or surgeons always accompanied an army going to battle to attend to the wounded, who were brought to them at the rear during the fight. This was quite an established institution from the most remote times—a fact of which there can be no doubt notwithstanding the number of fables and exaggerations that are mixed up with the accounts of their cures. We are now familiar with the humane practice in war of giving medical aid after the battle to the wounded, without distinction of friend or enemy. and it is interesting to observe that the same idea was equally familiar to the writers of the Tain Bó Quelna. When Cethern [Kehern], a famous Ulster warrior, returned from a fight against the Connaught forces, all covered with wounds, a request was sent to the Connaught camp—the enemy's—for physicians for him, as it happened that none of the Ulster physicians were at the moment available: and physicians were at once despatched with the messenger.

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