The Red Branch Knights

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER III....continued

2. Military Ranks, Orders, and Services.

At different periods of our early history the kings had in their service bodies of militia, who underwent a yearly course of training, and who were at call like a standing army whenever the monarch required them. The most celebrated of these were the "Red Branch Knights" of about the time of the Incarnation, and the "Fianna or Fena of Erin," who flourished in the third century. Though the accounts that have come down to us of these two military organisations are much mixed up with romance and fable, there is sufficient evidence to show that they really existed and exercised great influence in their day.

The Red Branch Knights belonged wholly to Ulster, and in the ancient Tales they are represented as in the service of Concobar mac Nessa, king of that province, but not king of Ireland. The king's palace was Emain or Emania near Armagh, of which a description will be found in chap. xvi., sect. 5, below.

Every year during the summer months, various companies of the Knights came to Emain under their several commanders, to be drilled and trained in military science and feats of arms. The greatest Red Branch commander was Cuculainn, a demigod, the mightiest of the heroes of Irish romance. The other chief heroes were Conall Kernach; Laegaire (or Laery) the Victorious; Keltar of the Battles; Fergus mac Roy: the poet Bricriu "of the venom tongue," who lived at Loughbrickland, where his fort still remains near the little lake; and the three sons of Usna—Naisi, Ainnle, and Ardan. All these figure in the ancient literature.

The Red Branch Knights had a passion for building great duns or forts, many of which remain to this day, and excite the wonder and awe of visitors. Besides Emain itself, there is the majestic fort of Dun-Dalgan, Cuculainn's residence, a mile west of the present town of Dundalk. This dun consists of a high mound surrounded by an earthen rampart and trench, all of an immense size, even in their ruined state; but it has lost its old name, and is now called the Moat of Castletown, while the original name Dundalgan, slightly altered, has been transferred to Dundalk. Another of these Red Branch Knights' residences stands beside Downpatrick: viz. the great fort anciently called (among other names) Dun-Keltair, or Rath-Keltair, where lived the hero, Keltar of the Battles. It consists of a huge embankment of earth, nearly circular, with the usual deep trench outside it, enclosing a great mound, all covering a space of about ten acres.

Dundalgan, Cuculainn's stronghold

FIG. 7. Dun-Dalgan, Cuculainn's stronghold and residence, as it appeared, and as it was drawn, in 1758, by Thomas Wright, from whose book "Louthiana," it has been copied. Height of mound about 50 feet. The fort and ramparts are now covered with trees, and there is a modern house on top, so that it is hard to obtain a view of the general shape.

Still another, which figures much in the old romances under its ancient name Dun-da-benn—but now called Mountsandall—crowns the high bank over the Cutts waterfall on the Bann, near Coleraine. Four miles west of this is a similar fortress, now known by the name of the "Giant's Sconce," which is the ancient Dun Cethern [Doon-Kehern], so called front "Cethern of the Brilliant Deeds," a famous Red Branch Knight. John de Courcy's original Castle of Dundrum, in Down, was built on the site of one of the most formidable of all—Dun-Rury—the immense earthworks of which still remain round the present castle, at the base of the rock, though the original dun-mound on the top was levelled by the castle-builders.

Rath-Keltair at Downpatrick

FIG. 8. Rath-Keltair at Downpatrick. From Col. Wood-Martin's Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland.

Contemporary with the Red Branch Knights were the Degads of Munster—but of Ulster extraction—whose chief was Curoi mac Dáire, king of South Munster; and the Gamanraide [Gowanree] of Connaught, commanded by Keth mac Magach and by the renowned hero Ferdiad. Curoi lived in a caher or stone fort on a rocky shelf 2050 feet over the sea, on the mountain of Caherconree, near Tralee, whose ruins remain there to this day. As a still further evidence that the old legends and romances about Curoi rest on a foundation of fact, not only is the old stone fortress there to witness, but, like Emain and Creeveroe (the "Red Branch": for which see chap. xvi., sect. 5), in the north, it retains its ancient name, which has been extended to the whole mountain, and which commemorates the mighty hero himself: for "Caherconree" correctly represents the sound of the Irish name Cathair-Chonroi, the caher or stone fortress of Curoi.

The Red Branch Knights, as well as those of Munster and Connaught, used chariots both in battle and in private life. Chariot-racing too was one of their favourite amusements: and the great heroes are constantly described in the tales as fighting from their chariots.

The Fianna or Fena of Erin, so far as we can trace their history with any certainty, lasted for about a century. They attained their greatest power in the reign of Cormac mac Art (254 to 277) under their most renowned commander Finn, the son of Cumal, or Finn mac Coole as he is commonly called, King Cormac's son-in-law, who is recorded in the Annals to have been killed beside the Boyne, when an old man.

The chief heroes under Finn, who figure in the tales, were:—Oisin or Ossian, his son, the renowned hero-poet to whom the bards attribute—but we know erroneously—many poems still extant; Oscar the brave and gentle, the son of Ossian; Dermot O'Dyna, unconquerably brave, of untarnished honour, generous and self-denying, the finest character in all Irish literature, perhaps the finest in any literature; Goll mac Morna, the mighty leader of the Connaught Fena; Cailte [Keelta] mac Ronan the swift-footed: Conan Mail or Conan the Bald, large-bodied, foul-tongued, boastful, cowardly, and gluttonous.

Before admission to the ranks, candidates were subjected to certain severe tests, both physical and mental, one of which deserves special mention here:—No candidate was allowed to join unless he had mastered a certain specified and large amount of poetry and tales: that is to say, he had to prove that he was a well-educated man, according to the standard of the times: a provision that anticipated by seventeen centuries the condition of admission to the higher posts of our present military service, designed to ensure that every commissioned officer of the army shall be a man of good general education. This—whether history or legend—shows what was regarded as the general standard of education in Ireland in those times. The physical tests consisted of running, leaping, defence against an attack of armed spearmen, and such like.

Of all the heroes of ancient Ireland Finn is most vividly remembered in popular tradition. He had his chief residence on the summit of the Hill of Allen, a remarkable flat-topped hill, lying about four miles to the right of the railway as you pass Newbridge and approach Kildare, rendered more conspicuous of late years by a tall pillar erected on the top, on the very site of Finn's house. So far as we can judge from the old accounts, the house was built altogether of wood—like the "Red Branch"—without any earthen rampart round it: and accordingly no trace of a rampart or earthen dun remains. At this day the whole neighbourhood round the hill teems with living traditions of Finn and the Fena.

When not employed in training or fighting, the Fena spent the six months of summer—from the 1st of May to the 31st of October—hunting, and lived on the produce of the chase, camping out all the time: during the remaining six months they were billeted on the well-to-do people all over the country—fed and lodged free. After King Cormac's death they became openly rebellious, claiming in some respects to rule even the monarch of Ireland. At last the king—Carbery of the Liffey, Cormac mac Art's son, who came to the throne A.D. 279—marched against them, and annihilated them in the bloody battle of Gavra, near Skreen in Meath (A.D. 297): but was himself slain in the battle.

We have seen that the Red Branch Knights, and their contemporary heroes of Munster and Connaught, fought, rode, and raced in chariots; and that they erected immense duns or forts. In both these respects the Fena of Erin stand in complete contrast. In none of the tales or other literature of the Fena is it mentioned that they used chariots in battle, and they scarcely ever used them in any way, though during the whole period of their existence chariots were used all through Ireland. Then as to duns: while we have still remaining the majestic ruins of many of the forts erected by the Red Branch Knights, as shown at page 39, there are, so far as I can find out, no corresponding forts in any part of Ireland attributed to the Fena in the ancient tales. Even on the Hill of Allen, where, if anywhere we might expect to find a mighty fortification like that at Downpatrick, there is no vestige of a rath. No forts, large or small, that I know of, commemorate any others of the great leaders—Ossian, Oscar, Dermot O'Dyna, Goll mac Morna, Cailte mac Ronain, or Conan Mail, such as we have for Cuculainn, Keltar of the Battles, Cethern of the Brilliant Deeds, Curoi mac Daire, and others; though during their time forts were built by chiefs and people all over the country.

To come to strictly historic times:—Ordinary War Service was of several kinds. Everyman who held land in any sort of tenancy was obliged to bear a part in the wars of the tribe and in the defence of their common territory. The number of days in the year that each should serve was strictly defined by law: and when the time was ended, he might return to his home—unless some very special need arose. A chief or king, if required, was bound to send a certain number of men, fully armed, for a fixed time periodically, to serve his superior in war. The men of the superior king's own immediate territory, with the contingents supplied to him from the several subordinate tribes by their chiefs, went to form his army. The tributary chief again made up the contingent to be sent to his superior, partly from his own household troops, and partly by small contingents from his sub-chiefs.

The king had in his service a champion or chief fighting man, called Aire-echta—always a flaith or noble (see page 77, below)—whose duty it was to avenge all insults or offences offered to the families of the king and tribe, particularly murder: like the "avenger of blood" of the Jews and other ancient nations. In any expected danger from without he had to keep watch—with a sufficient force—at the most dangerous ford or pass—called bearna baoghaill [barna beel] or "gap of danger"—on that part of the border where invasion was expected, and prevent the entrance of any enemy.

Kings and great chiefs almost always kept bodies of mercenary soldiers—commonly small in number and often as a mere bodyguard—under regular pay, something like the soldiers of our present standing army. These men hired themselves wherever they could get the best pay. Hired soldiers are constantly mentioned in our ancient records. Bodies of Scotchmen, and of Welshmen, were very often in the service of Irish kings: and we also find companies of Irish under similar conditions serving in Wales and Scotland.

The maintenance and pay of such soldiers was called in Irish buanacht, whence men serving for pay and support were often called "bonnaghts" by English writers of the time of Elizabeth. The practice of hiring foreign mercenaries, which was commenced at a very early period, was continued down to the sixteenth century: and we have already seen (p. 27, supra) that Shane O'Neill had a number of fierce soldiers from Scotland as bodyguard.

These several bodies constituted a small standing army. But where large armies had to be brought into the field, the men of the tribe or tribes owing allegiance and service were called upon to serve. It was understood, however, that this was only for the single campaign, or for some specified time, as already stated, at the end of which they were free to return to their homes. An army of men on campaign usually consisted of men of all the different kinds of service.

Military Asylums—According to the "Battle of Rossnaree," in the Book of Leinster, there was an asylum for the old warriors of the Red Branch—in some manner corresponding with the present Chelsea Hospital, and with the Royal Hospital in Dublin—where those who were too old to fight were kept in ease and comfort: and it was under the direction of one governor or commander. It was probably supported partly at the public expense, and partly by payments from the inmates: but on this point there is no information.

Knighthood.—As far back as our oldest traditions reach there existed in Ireland an institution of knighthood. The Red Branch Knights have already been mentioned: and it appears that admission to their ranks was attended with much formality. It was usual to knight boys at an early age, commonly at seven years. This was the age, according to the statement of Tigernach—and also of the Tales—at which the young hero Cuculainn was admitted: and his example as to age was often followed in subsequent times. The young candidate was given a number of little spears suitable to his age and strength, which he hurled against a shield; and the more spears he broke the more credit he received. These are the native Irish accounts; and they are strikingly corroborated by Froissart, who tells us that the same custom still existed in Ireland when King Richard II. visited this country in 1494. This historian moreover states that the custom of knighting boys at seven, with ceremonies like those of the Irish, existed among the Anglo-Saxon kings. But in Ireland the rule of the seven years was not universally, or even generally, followed—except perhaps in case of the sons of kings or great nobles. The ceremony was commonly put off till the candidate was able to fight. The usual Irish words for a knight are curad [curra] and ridire [riddera], of which the last is the same as the German ritter, and is probably borrowed. "Assuming knighthood" is commonly expressed in Irish by "taking valour."

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