The Spear

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER III....continued

Spear.—The Irish battle-spears were used both for thrusting and for casting. They were of various shapes and sizes: but all consisted of a bronze or iron head, fixed on a wooden handle by means of a hollow cro or socket, into which the end of the handle was thrust and kept in place by rivets. The manufacture of spear-heads was carried to great perfection in Ireland at a very early age—long before the Christian era—and many of those preserved in our museums are extremely graceful and beautiful in design and perfect in finish: evidently the work of trained and highly skilled artists. The iron spears were hammered into shape: those of bronze were cast in moulds, and several specimens of these moulds may be seen in the National Museum (see chapter xx., section 3, infra). Both bronze and iron spear-heads are mentioned in our oldest literature.

Bronze spear-heads

Specimens of bronze spear-heads

In the National Museum in Dublin there is a collection of several hundred spear-heads of all shapes and sizes, the greater number of bronze, but some of iron, and some of copper; and every other museum in the country has its own collection. They vary in length from 36 inches down. Some of the Irish names for spear-heads designated special shapes, while others were applied to spears of whatever shape or size.

The words gae, ga, or gai; faga or foga; and sleg (now written sleagh: pron. sla) were sometimes used as terms for a spear or javelin in general. Among the spears of the Firbolgs was one called fiarlann [feerlann], 'curved blade' (fiar, 'curved'; lann, 'a blade'), of which many specimens are to be seen in the National Museum. The fiarlann was rather a short sword than a spear.

In the ancient Irish battle-tales a sharp distinction is made between the spears of the Firbolgs and of the Dedannans respectively: to which O'Curry first drew attention. The Firbolg spears are described as broad and thick, with the top rounded and sharp-edged, and having a thick handle. The spear used by the Dedannans was very different, being long, narrow, and graceful, with a very sharp point. Whether these two colonies are fictitious or not, a large number of spear-heads in the National Museum answer to those descriptions.

Firbolg and Dedannan spear-heads

FIGS. 15, 16, & 17. Fig. 15, a Firbolg spear-head; fig. 16, a Dedannan one; fig. 17, a Fiarlann. Now in the National Museum, Dublin.

The Irish casting-spear was usually furnished with a loop of string called suanem or suaineamh [soonev] attached to the handle near the middle, and made of silk or flax. The Greeks and Romans had a loop of a similar kind on their spears—called amentum by the Latins: but how exactly the loop was used by Greeks, Romans, or Irish, or what its effect was, is a matter of conjecture. We only know that, like the Roman soldier, the Irish warrior put his forefinger in the loop in the act of casting.

Some of the spears of the heroes of the Red Branch and other great champions are described in the old legends as terrible and mysterious weapons. The spear of Keltar of the Battles, which was called Lón or Luin, twisted and writhed in the hand of the warrior who bore it, striving to make for the victim whose blood was ready for spilling. Some spears were regularly seized with a rage for massacre; and then the bronze head grew red-hot, so that it had to be kept near a caldron of cold water, or, more commonly, of black poisonous liquid, into which it was plunged whenever it blazed up with the murder fit. The Greeks of old had the same notion; and those fearful Irish spears remind us of the spear of Achilles, as mentioned by Homer, which when the infuriated hero flung it at Lycaon, missed the intended victim, and, plunging into the earth, "stood in the ground, hungering for the flesh of men." So also another Greek hero is made to say: "My spear rageth in my hands," with the eagerness to plunge at the Trojans.

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