Joseph Walker Cooper on the Armour and Weapons of the Ancient Irish

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 2, edited by Charles A. Read

We are told by Mr. Macpherson that the early Irish and Scotch summoned their tribes together by means of the sound of a shield suspended to a tree and struck with the butt end of a spear. On such an occasion it is natural to suppose that a brass or metal shield of some kind must have been used: yet no metal shield (save one), as I have already observed, has been found in this kingdom; nor can I learn that the Scots boast of having discovered any. It has indeed been asserted that silver shields were formerly not only used but forged in Ireland. But as this assertion has neither been supported by contemporary writers nor by a specimen, we are at liberty to question it. It is, however, a well-attested fact that a golden shield, or rather a shield adorned with gold, was found not many years since near Lismore in the county of Cork, by three peasants, who sold it for seventy guineas to a neighbouring silversmith. By this relation I do not mean to insinuate that golden shields were borne in common by the Irish, though it may afford good grounds for a presumption that they were sometimes carried before the leaders of their armies, flashing terror, like the aegis of Minerva: nor do I mean to insinuate that this shield was manufactured here; I am rather inclined to think that it was left by some of the northern invaders, amongst whom golden shields were prevalent. Unwilling to advance any position without proof. I shall take occasion to cite in this place a passage from a translation of a curious inedited Icelandic manuscript of the tenth century entitled A Voyage to Ireland undertaken from Iceland, in which Olave, the hero, is introduced in the martial habiliments of Iceland, bearing a golden shield on his arm. The vessel which conveys Olave to Ireland in quest of his reputed father, the then reigning monarch, being stranded on the Irish coast, the neighbouring inhabitants pour down in a body on the strand, in order to capture it. It is in the act of repulsing this lawless mob that Olave is introduced in the manner I have mentioned.--"The Irish hearing this, prepared to attack the vessel with an universal shout. For this purpose they proceeded towards her with an intent to draw her on shore, as the water was not deeper than their armpits, or the girdle of the tallest. The place, however, where the vessel rode was deep enough to keep her afloat. At the instance of Olave his companions seized their arms and ranged them along the sides between the stem and the stern, which they covered with shields, forming, as it were, a kind of breastwork or parapet, the lower part of which was filled with spears, for the purpose of being in readiness. This being done, Olave ascended the prow, arrayed in a gorget; his head invested with a gilded helm, and a gold-hilted sword by his side; and in his hand he held a lance formed hook-wise, calculated as well for stabbing as for cutting. The shield with which he covered his breast was blazoned with a lion of gold."

Before I dismiss this article I shall observe, that the loss of a shield was not less ignominious amongst the early Irish than formerly amongst the Lacedemonians, and latterly in those nations where the spirit of chivalry prevailed.

The superstitious veneration in which the sword was held by the ancient Irish is noticed by Spenser. "When they go to battail (he relates) they say certain prayers or charms to their swords, making a cross therewith upon the earth, and thrusting the points of their blades into the ground, thinking thereby to have the better success in fight. Also they use commonly to swear by their swords." To these customs Spenser gives a Scythian origin, forgetting, in the warmth of his zeal to prove the descent of the Irish from the Scythians, that the former custom must have originated amongst Christians, and that the latter was derived from the Danes.

As well in Ireland as in England and on the Continent, the dagger, which the Irish denominated a scian, was the constant companion of the sword. So early as the memorable battle of Clontarf, we find an Irish prince wearing one of these weapons in his girdle; and in the Icelandic manuscript already quoted it is mentioned as an Irish weapon. The use of this instrument, both as an ornament and defensive weapon, continued through several ages down to very late times. It appears sticking in the girdles of the Irish kings who paid homage to Richard II. In the reign of Elizabeth it was forbid by her charter to Kilkenny to leave its scabbard in the time of a quarrel:--"To draw a sword or scian in a quarrel was punishable by the fine of a half a mark." The author of Hesperineso-graphia gives it to his hero, Gillo; and in the celebrated ballad of the Plearaca na Ruercach it is given to all O'Rourke's guests--

'They rise from their feast,
And hot are their brains,
A cubit at least
The length of their scians."

Mr. O'Connor seems to speak of the use of the carab or military chariot amongst the early Irish as an undoubted fact, and says that great feats are recorded of some of our ancient charioteers. And Mr. Harris observes, that in the Tain-bo-cuailgne, military chariots, and the manner of fighting in them, are described much after the way that Caesar describes the Britons fighting in the same sort of carriage; and the guider of the chariot is there called ara, a page or lacquey. Every reader of Ossian's poems must remember the beautiful description of the chariot of Cucholinn, the famous Irish chieftain, in the first book of Fingal. But the blaze of splendour which Mr. Macpherson has thrown around this chariot will not allow the eye to look steadily on it. In an Irish romance now lying before me, of which the subject is the death of the same hero, his chariot is mentioned, but not described: "Cucholinn having put on his helmet and habiliments of war, leaped into his chariot without taking leave of Cauff or his guests, and his weapons fell down at his feet."

The chariot falling into disuse, the Irish were taught by the English to caparison the horses of their cavalry with the strong brass bit, sliding reins, and shank pillion; and as well to mount without the aid of the stirrup, as to ride after the English fashion.

Firearms were unknown in Ireland till the reign of Henry VIII. "In the year 1489 (says Harris) the first musquets or firearms that perhaps were ever seen in Ireland were brought to Dublin from Germany, and six of them, as a great rarity, were presented to Gerald, Earl of Kildare, then lord-deputy, which he put into the hands of his guards, as they stood sentinels before his house in Thomas Court." After this period firearms were no longer a rarity in this country; during the Elizabethan wars they were liberally diffused through the kingdom. It was for the purpose of carrying on those wars with more terror to the natives that pieces of ordnance were first introduced. At this time part of the Spanish Armada happening to be wrecked on the Irish coast, some of the cannon were cast on shore. One of them is now preserved in the armoury of the castle of Dublin, where it was deposited by Colonel Vallancey, who had it brought up from Kinsale. In the same repository is preserved the cannon which killed St. Ruth; but, being covered with ammunition carriages, I could not obtain a drawing of it. It is, I am told, a long six-pounder.

Thus, with a rapid hand, having completed my design, I shall dismiss this memoir with a poetical adjunct. O'Hoesy, a modern Irish bard, contrasting the ancient discipline of the Irish with that of late days, exclaims with indignation--

"No more the foe now trembles at our name,
No more their captive numbers swell our fame;
No martial earth is by the soldier prest,
The sword, the sole companion of his rest:
No warriors nightly canopy'd with air,
See the frost bind the ringlets of their hair;
Our weapons idly in our scabbards stand,
Nor grow, as erst, to ev'ry valiant hand."