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For nearly four centuries these sons of Scottish clansmen and Norse raiders dominated the mercenary ranks of feudal Ireland.

County Meath, Ireland, 1423

The English army—knights, yeomen, halberdiers and billmen—under Richard Talbot, Lord Deputy of Ireland and Archbishop of Dublin, stood arrayed on the field, bracing for the Irish attack. Suddenly, an advance force of skirmishers, unarmored and barefoot, rushed forward, hurling their light spears at the English ranks. As they ran back to their lines, a swiftly advancing wall of iron-helmeted Celtic giants descended on the English, screaming their battle cries to the cacophonous squealing of bagpipes. Each man carried a huge battle ax, and their momentum, bulk and determination carried them easily through the first English ranks as they skillfully wielded their terrible weapons to deadly effect.

The battle ended swiftly, leaving scores of the English dead and others in full retreat. The victors saw to their own wounded and slain, then leaned on their blood-spattered axes to rest. They had earned their pay this day; they were mercenaries, universally known and feared as the Gallowglass.

Ireland has a millennia-long tradition of providing mercenaries for the world’s armies. According to the Honourable Society of the Irish Brigade, the Celtic ancestors of the present-day Irish invaded Greece with Persian King Darius, fought for the pharaohs, served as Cleopatra’s bodyguard and crossed the Alps as Hannibal personal retinue.

Irish soldiers of fortune fought for English King Edward I in France and along the Scottish borderlands and for the Yorkists during the 1455–87 Wars of the Roses. They battled the Welsh for England, and served in both Catholic and Protestant armies during the religious wars that swept Europe. Over the centuries they served in the Dutch, French, Polish, German and Swedish armies and at various times fought both for and against Spain. In the 1700s Irishmen fighting for Spain did battle in the New World in Honduras, Mexico, Cuba and Florida. And according to some accounts Frederick the Great of Prussia so prized the Irish as fighting men that he captured them from other armies and formed his own Irish regiment.

In the 18th century alone an estimated half-million Irish mercenaries served abroad. They were a military elite—trained professionals skilled at close-quarters fighting who stood out among raw enlistees and unwilling conscripts. Their prominence had a price, however, as attrition rates among their ranks were staggering. And, of course, most died in the employ of foreigners rather than for Ireland. Legend has it that as he lay dying after the 1693 Battle of Neerwinden, Patrick Sarsfield—1st Earl of Lucan and commander of French King Louis XIV’s Irish Jacobite army—uttered these bitter last words: “Would God it were for Ireland.”

Among the notable sects of mercenaries to arise out of Ireland’s roiling history were the Gallowglass. From the mid-13th to the early 17th centuries they had the distinction of fighting for hire in Ireland itself. Their lyrical and intriguing name is an Anglicization of the Gaelic word gallóglach (roughly pronounced GAHL-o-glukh), which translates as “foreign warrior.” They are descendants both of Scots native to the western Highlands and Hebrides and of Vikings—those fearsome Norse raiders who initially ventured to Scotland for plunder but stayed to build settlements and intermarry with the locals.

As Scottish historian Fergus Cannan notes, the Gallowglass “lived for war.…His sole function was to fight, and his only contribution to society was destruction.” These were men who had renounced the backbreaking toil common to the rocky Highlands and wind- and sea-swept Western Isles in favor of a life of adventure, combat and, hopefully, rich rewards of booty, land and title.

The first Gallowglass to settle in Ireland had fought in the Wars of Scottish Independence. They soon found work repelling another English invasion, this one prompted by the perpetually feuding Irish lords.

A century earlier when Dermot MacMurrough, deposed and exiled ruler of the Irish Kingdom of Leinster, had sought help from English King Henry II to regain his throne, he opened a Pandora’s box. In 1169 the English and Welsh did indeed arrive in force, liked what they saw and decided to stay. Two years later Henry claimed the island as the self-styled Lord of Ireland, sparking a grassroots resistance that proved almost wholly ineffectual.

The English soldiers were better armed and trained than the locals, and after long decades of setbacks the exasperated Irish lords brought in various Gallowglass clans to check the invasion. Among the first to arrive were the MacSweeneys, MacDonnells, MacSheehys, MacDougalls, MacCabes and MacRorys. Landing in the north and dispersing throughout Ireland, they stopped the English cold in their tracks—and for the next three and a half centuries they remained the premier fighting force on the island.

The Gallowglass were soldiers of fortune in the truest sense. They fought for gain, and they were canny enough to know that only the upper classes had the wherewithal to provide it. In true mercenary fashion they hired out to whichever side offered the best deal, be it the feuding Irish lords or the Anglo-Irish interlopers who occupied Dublin and environs—an area known as the Pale—and they never lacked for work. The Ireland of their time was not a unified nation but rather a collection of proud and often hostile clans, and greater antipathy often existed among the clan chiefs than toward the English.

Scottish historian Cannan describes the Gallowglass as “among the most visually impressive warriors of all time.” Chiefs chose individual warriors specifically for their size, strength and fighting ability. Richard Stanihurst, a 16th century Anglo-Irish alchemist and historian, described the Gallowglass he met as “grim of countenance, tall of stature, big of limb, burly of body, well and strongly timbered.” In his epic poem The Faerie Queene Edmund Spenser patterned the warrior giant Grantorto on the Gallowglass—many of whom the English poet had personally seen—describing his character as “huge and hideous” with “great skill in single fight.”

Given the weight of the Gallowglass’ preferred weapons, muscle was clearly a prerequisite. The fully armed and armored warrior went into battle with a spear, a dirk, a bow, arrows and, from the 15th century on, a hefty double-handed claymore broadsword, a traditional weapon of the Scottish Highlands.

But the Gallowglass’ signature weapon was the battle ax. A weapon passed down from their Norse forebears, it had a 2- to 4-pound iron head with a razor-sharp, 8- to 12-inch blade edge, socket-mounted on a 5-foot wooden haft. In some instances the head was inlaid with silver scrollwork to reflect the status of the bearer. It took a powerful man to carry the ax, let alone wield it in battle. Used effectively, it was, in the words of one 16th century English observer, “deadly where it lighteth.” Another chronicler was more specific: “When they strike they inflict a dreadful wound.”

To parry an enemy’s blows, the Gallowglass sheathed his torso, arms and thighs in mail worn over a padded shirt of cloth or leather. A peaked iron helmet protected his head and added inches to his already prodigious stature.

Training among the Gallowglass was rigorous, dangerous and often bloody. It was also hereditary, the instruction being given by fathers, uncles and cousins. The commander of each Gallowglass contingent was referred to as the constable, and his authority was beyond challenge. Discipline was strict where it mattered most. A man might literally get away with murder—as was the case when Gallowglass Gorre Mackan was pardoned for killing a local woman in 1545—but he could hang for disobeying his constable or lord. In 1558 one Gallowglass who had drawn his sword in camp against orders was spared the rope but nailed to a post.

When going into battle each Gallowglass was generally accompanied by two attendants, or “knaves”—a harness bearer, who toted the warrior’s weapons, and a young man or stout boy who hauled his provisions. This three-man subset was known as a spar. The Galloglass were organized into units known in English as “battles,” comprising 200 to 400 men. Groups of spars made up one section of the battle, while the remaining ranks consisted of native Irish cavalry and a caste of native Irish light infantrymen known as Kern. The latter fought unarmored and bareheaded, wielding a dirk, darts, javelins and perhaps a sling or small bow. Slight in stature compared to the Gallowglass, they were nonetheless tough and aggressive.

The Kern and cavalry generally engaged in ambushes and skirmishes rather than direct engagements, whereas the Gallowglass were trained to stand and fight, each man swearing an oath never to show his back to the enemy. It was understood they would always lead the charge on the field and form the rearguard in retreat. Most battles in which the Gallowglass participated ended swiftly, in what Cannan refers to as a “blizzard of ax blows.” English noble Sir John Dymmok wrote in the late 1500s, “The greatest force of the battle consisteth in them, choosing rather to die than to yield.”

The Gallowglass’ reputation ensured they attracted what we might term “intense media interest.” In 1521 German artist Albrecht Dürer rendered a well-known and quite detailed sketch (see opposite) of three of their number—sturdy, forbidding men armed with pike, bow, claymores and dirks—attended by two barefoot, poleaxe-bearing Kern. Nearly a century later William Shakespeare named both classes of fighting men in Act I, Scene II of Macbeth, as the hired fighters whom the title character heroically confronts:

The merciless Macdonwald—

Worthy to be a rebel, for to that

The multiplying villanies of nature

Do swarm upon him—from the Western Isles

Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied.

Over time the Gallowglass fell into two categories—those who served a specific lord, and the freelance soldiers who wandered from job to job, not unlike the feudal Japanese ro¯nin, or unattached samurai. Gallowglass who fought for a single lord—be he Irish or Anglo-Irish—served as his house guard and were at hand for whatever task of arms he deemed necessary. Lords often rewarded the constables of such units with legal contracts granting them land and privileges. An exceptional warrior, one of unquestioned loyalty and skill with weapons, might serve as the “lord’s Gallowglass,” taking responsibility for his employer’s safety and answering all challenges to personal combat levied against him. Only the wealthiest lords could afford the long-term investment of a personal force of Gallowglass, however. Among the privileged was Maurice FitzGerald, 1st Earl of Desmond, who boasted eight permanent battles of Gallowglass, hundreds of cavalrymen, 3,000 Kern and a battle of gunners and crossbowmen. He was unique; most lords and chiefs strove to hire a single battle of Gallowglass, while others could afford only them as needed.

The freelance Gallowglass fought in what was referred to as the “Scottish habit,” selling their services on a temporary basis, generally for periods of around three months. While their term of service was also secured by contract, it was strictly for pay. The leaders of these roaming Gallowglass clans aspired to become a part of the first group, serving a single lord in hopes of acquiring their own lands, stock and stronghold.

In addition to being provided with room and board, a Gallowglass received one silver groat (fourpence) per day, an amount that doubled by 1562. This equates to nearly $16 in today’s dollars. In lieu of coin, however, they often accepted goods equal to the value of their pay. According to period records, each Gallowglass received “one beef for his wages and two beefs for his feeding and diet.” In addition to his deed of land, the constable generally earned 10 to 20 times the pay of his subordinates. For those extra considerations, tradition and honor dictated he lead his men into battle from the front. No one—least of all his followers—would have argued he didn’t earn his pay.

Inevitably, as the ranks of the original Gallowglass thinned from attrition and age, local Irish lads of sufficient strength, stature and ambition applied to join the elite group. And although they continued to be referred to as Scots, a number of the Gallowglass clans eventually comprised mainly Irishmen. The selection process remained strict, the training brutal and the prospect of violent death high, but to many young Irishmen death in battle was preferable to spending their lives grubbing in the dirt as feudal vassals.

Such vassals initially viewed the Gallowglass as heroes and liberators. That perception was short-lived, however. As far as the mercenaries were concerned, the peasants existed merely to serve. Part of the arrangement lords made with their hired soldiers was to billet them with the vassals, who had scarcely enough to sustain themselves. The practice was called “coyne and livery,” and it was at best a form of extortion. As one English writer observed in 1572: “There will come a kern or Gallowglas…to lie in the churl’s house. Whiles he is there, he will be master of the house; he will not only have meat but money also allowed him, and at his departure the best things he shall see in the churl’s house, be it linen cloth, a shirt, mantle, or such-like. Thus is the churl eaten up.” To his unwilling host, the mercenary was, as one chronicler succinctly put it, “a parasite.”

The Gallowglass earned a reputation for brutality. While adhering to a code of honor of sorts on the battlefield, it did not prevent them from abusing the peasants with whom they billeted. (Warrior #143 GALLOWGLASS 1250-1600: Gaelic Mercenary Warrior, by Fergus Cannan)

In his downtime the Gallowglass generally caroused, boasted, drank and ate sufficient beef to keep up his bulk and strength, while his knaves cleaned, honed and polished the weapons. When he was called to duty, all semblance of comfort vanished. The chief or constable would order a muster, or “rising out,” and each man was expected to immediately join his comrades armed, armored and prepared to march, his knaves in strict attendance. This is what he what he was paid for—and indeed lived for.

The fight itself could take any of a number of forms: large-scale battle, single combat, reive (raid), siege or skirmish. The Gallowglass might even be required to aid in the theft of an opposing lord’s livestock. Cattle stealing was accepted as an honorable pursuit in Ireland, and it was common practice to drive off a rival’s herds and burn his house and outbuildings. The Gallowglass typically formed the rearguard, shielding the lord and his vassals as they drove home the beasts.

A muster might also precede a clash between the lord’s Gallowglass and English soldiers representing their Anglo-Irish master. More often, however, it was a proper battle between two feuding lords, each with his own retinue of Gallowglass. One lord would invade the lands of another, and the respective Gallowglass detachments would deploy to advance or repel the incursion. Inevitably, Gallowglass came face to face with members of their own clans and families in fights to the death, with quarter neither given nor expected. As Anglo-Irish jurist and politician Robert Cowley observed in 1537, the Gallowglass “serveth for their wages, and not for love, nor affection.”

Then there were assassinations for hire, in which a lord would select Gallowglass singly or as a unit to murder those thought hostile or dangerous. The hit list might include members of the lord’s own family. The Annals of Connacht recorded in 1316 that a chief’s daughter “hired a band of Galloglass and gave them a reward” for killing her own cousin. The Gallowglass dealt in death, and whether it meant killing individually or in battle, they were at the ready.

Even during a particularly violent era the Gallowglass earned a reputation for excessive brutality. In describing their “most barbarous life and condition,” Spenser observed, “They spoil as well the good subjects as the enemy; they steal, they are cruel and bloody, full of revenge and deadly executions, swearers and blasphemers, ravishers of women and murderers of children.” Stanihurst ascribed to them an odium humanitatis—hatred of humanity—while Dymmok denounced them as “naturally cruel—without compassion.” Cannan deemed them “especially, often needlessly, destructive,” adding, “Reveling in the chaos of war and repulsed by peace, [they] combined many of the worst aspects of medieval Scotland and Ireland—a chimera of Scottish excessive violence and Irish anarchic nihilism.” To be frank, that lack of compassion almost certainly stemmed from daily exposure to—and dismissal of—death as merely an occupational happenstance.

The Gallowglass himself professed to have no fear of death, and considering his place in the forefront of battle and as rearguard in retreat, and given the stunning rate of attrition in the ranks, such a claim seems beyond question. That he committed atrocities is also beyond dispute; chilling though it might seem to modern sensibilities, however, his was a generally accepted form of warfare. Barbarism was both an outlet and an officially sanctioned deterrent. Ultimately, the Gallowglass was a consummate killer for hire, and his success in finding consistent employment over the span of nearly four centuries testifies to both his effectiveness and the unqualified demand for his services.

As ruthless as the Gallowglass was in combat, he did adhere to a code of honor. One precept was a refusal to desert the lord who had hired him, even under the most hopeless of circumstances. In 1582, during a revolt against English rule, forces loyal to Queen Elizabeth ambushed Gerald FitzGerald, 15th Earl of Desmond, and his 80 Gallowglass bodyguards. While a handful of his men spirited the disabled Earl across the bogs in a blanket, the rest staged a doomed rearguard action against overwhelming odds. Desmond made it to safety (although his head would adorn London Bridge within the year), but more than half his Gallowglass lay dead in his wake.

For most Gallowglass life was brutal, bloody and short. Their enemies were legion, and many survived battle only to be slain in roadside ambushes or in their own homes. Those rewarded with land and chattel found it difficult to pursue a farmer’s existence, having grown addicted to the exhilaration of lethal combat. Some chiefs and constables did achieve the Gallowglass’ ultimate objective, enriching themselves with estates and castles bearing their clan names, but they were a fortunate few indeed.

Elizabeth eventually wearied of the incessant rebellions levied by the disparate Irish lords, and her impatience came to encompass the Gallowglass. The line between the mercenaries fighting for the rebellious lords and those serving at Her Majesty’s pleasure grew too indistinct for her comfort. To exacerbate matters, in several instances lords who found themselves at Elizabeth’s mercy treacherously laid the blame for their seditious conduct on their own Gallowglass. Admittedly, the mercenaries—whether serving the queen or the fractious Irish lords—were an unruly lot at best, and in the late 1500s Elizabeth excluded them from both her retinue and her plans to remake Ireland in England’s image. Neither she nor her minions in Dublin saw any further need for the services of the wild Irish Gallowglass.

In the last two decades of the 16th century a series of abortive rebellions brought a bloody end to the days of the feudal Irish lords and their Gallowglass clans—the MacSweeneys, MacDonnells, MacSheehys and the rest. English authorities killed many of the mercenaries. Others abandoned Ireland to fight abroad, as had their ancestors centuries before. Those choosing to stay kept their heads down and hands to the plow on small farms or simply blended into the peasantry they had once disdained and whose enforced hospitality they had so long abused. The purge even claimed the “lucky few” who had retired to their estates, as the English took the land to make room for their own kind. With the subjugation of the feudal clan system, the warrior caste that had dominated the battlefields of Ireland for more than three centuries was no more. 

Ron Soodalter is a regular contributor to Military History and the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader. For further reading he recommends Galloglass, 1250–1600: Gaelic Mercenary Warrior, by Fergus Cannan, and Gallowglass: Hebridean and West Highland Mercenary Warrior Kindreds in Medieval Ireland, by John Marsden.