National Emblems

[From the Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 6, August 4, 1832]


SIR,-As your able correspondent, Terence O'Toole, has not as yet described that part of your emblematic engraving relating to Irish armour, I think a few extracts from works of Irish antiquarian research on that subject, may not in the mean time be mal apropos. As I see a cuirass in your frontispiece, I shall begin with Mr. Walker's observations on the ancient defensive armour of this country: he says, "It would seem that body armour of any kind was unknown to the Irish previous to the tenth century, as we find king Murkertach in that century obtaining the acititious name of Murkertach na Geochall Croceaun, for so obvious an invention as the leathern jacket;" and although poets of the middle ages describe the heroes of Oisin as shining in polished steel, no relic of that sort of armour has escaped the wreck of time in Ireland; and yet it is rather curious that coats of mail are mentioned in the Brehon laws, as the word mail is supposed to be derived from the Irish Mala. It is quite certain, however, that on the first invasion of the English, no sort of defensive armour, except the shield, or target, formed part of the paraphernalia of an Irish warrior. If they had been placed on any sort of an equality with their invaders, I flatter myself my countrymen would have kept their enemies longer at bay than, from their comparatively defenceless state, they were enabled to do. Smyth tells us, "That corslets of pure gold were found on the lands of Clonties in the county of Kerry;" but these were probably left there by the Spaniards, who had "a fortification called Fort del Ore, adjoining those lands." The shield of the ancient Irish was generally formed of wicker-work, but in many of the old poems we find the chiefs furnished not only with shields of burnished steel, but even those embossed with gold; and in the old poem of the Chase, the son of Morni is represented with a golden one; but whether or not these were taken from a foreign enemy, cannot now be determined.

It appears from some coins dug up in the Queen's County, in 1786, that helmets must have been in use previous to the tenth century, but how long, must also be a matter of conjecture. Mr. Walker mentions a golden helmet dug up in the county Tipperary; he describes it as resembling in form, a huntsman's cap (like the one in the engraving,*) with the leaf in front, divided equally and elevated, and the skull encompassed with a ribbon of gold crimped. (N. B. some of these relics of ould ancient times might be useful in Donnybrook Fair in more cases than one now.) They are sometimes mentioned by the poet as studded with precious stones; but these are supposed to have been taken from foreigners. Some of their swords, however, of native manufacture are well known to have had hilts of gold, very richly ornamented with jewels. The hilts of these are of a variety of shapes, the cross hilts, however, prevail.

The battle-axe, was a very favourite weapon with the Irish. Cambrensis describes the manner of using it, he says, "they make use of but one hand when they strike, and extend the thumb along the handle, to guide the blow, from which neither the crested helmet can defend the head, or the iron folds of the armour, the body: whence it has happened sometimes that the whole thigh of a soldier, though cased in well tempered steel, hath been lopped off at a single blow of the axe.' The spear was also a weapon in very general use, and Stanihurst, in his description of their manner of using them, says, "They grasp about the middle, heavy spears, which they do not hold pendant at their sides under their arms, but hurl them with all their strength over their heads;" and we may form some idea of the prodigious force which either custom or physical force enabled them to throw it, when Harris, in his Hibernica, mentions, "That no haubergeon, or coat of mail, was proof against their force, but were pierced through on both sides."

If Terence o'Toole does not give you any further information, I will return to the charge.



* See the Second Number