Battle Dress - A Study of the Changing Fashions of Irish Fighting Men
When history began in Ireland several racial strains were already playing their varying parts in concerned the shaping of our national habits and customs of these ethical contributions to our national make – up, we are here concerned only with these. The first, in point of time, was a long – headed, long – limbed race which came to Europe from North Africa in the Stone Age. In Southern Europe these people had left behind them relics of the primitive ‘Aurignacian’ culture by which we know them today. Among these relics and generally regarded as men’s first efforts of painting are representations of the human hand, done in red ochre. We know by its survival in Spain on one side of the Mediterranean and among the Berbers on the other, that these symbols of the human hand were charms against evil Influence and while noting the red hand as the oldest of our symbolic emblems we may also note that we owe its use in Ireland to these descendants of our “Aurignacian” colonists who were best known to us as the Fir Ulaidh, or the Ulidians, or Ulstermen.
Next point of time came the ‘Mediterranean,’ another long – headed though smaller statured race, known to Roman chronicles as the Iberians and known in early Irish history as the “Uibsernai,” or “Ernians.” It is to these later invaders that Ireland owes it ancient name, “Eire.” Though concentrated for the most part in the West and South during the Bronze Age, the Uibernai represented the bulk of our population in the historical times and they represent the bulk of our population today. Later, probably in the 4th Cent B C and came still more long – headed race. These were the Celts, or Gauls, who brought with them the Iron – Age culture of the Continent and at one and the same time gave us the then synonimous racial terms “Gael” or “Gall.” Until the second cent A. D the territory which they occupied in Ireland was approximately that of the present province of Leinster.
The bards and seanachies to who we owe the ‘invasion legends’ of a later age recognised these three main racial elements by naming them, respectively, the Fir Bolg, the Fir Domhnann, and the Fir Gaileoin. In addition to chronicling their arrival in that order they rightly allot to the Fir Domhnann ‘three – fifths’ of Ireland. The first of these three names is of some slight military interest in being probably derived from the arrow – quiver (Irish – saigid bolg) in which these early invaders must have carried the arrows of which we have as much archaeology evidence; the second name can best to translate as ‘men of the territory’ – in the sense of ‘compatriots,’ while the name given to the last of the three invaders is obviously inspired by the tradition of their Gaulish origin.
In a still later age our seanachies renamed these three racial elements, again respectively the “Sons of Ir,” the “Sons of Eber.” And the “Sons of Eremon.” This time, however, some semblance of unity led them to attribute a common origin to all three in an ancestor to whom they gave the name Mileadh, or Milesius, which would appear to have been derived from the Latin miles, a soldier. To be on the safe side in the matter of nomenclature they also provided as ancestors a certain Gadelius, and a lady named Scota, thus explaining to their own satisfaction the current historical names of Gael and Scot. The lady Scota, said to be an Egyptian princess, is also credited with having planted a banner with a twisted serpent as its main device – probably an echo of the “serpent worship” to which our Celtic ancestors appear to have been addicted.
The oldest of our genuinely historical sagas takes us back only to the coming of the Celts. It tells us that it was from the spears of iron, or laighers, with which these “hard – fighting Gauls” were armed, that the province of Leinster derived its name. It tells us also that the invasion was a purely masculine one, and since the invaders were thus obliged to seek their wives among the earlier inhabitants – a fact borne out by archaeological evidence – there was a convergent fusion of cultures and a consequent interchange of manners and customs. The greatest of all our historical sagas, the “Tāin Bó Chuailgne” deals with events in the North which occurred in the 1st Cent B. C. In it we are shown an Ulster still largely untouched by Celtic influences, but with a population already mixed with the pre – Celtic Ernai. Even Cuchulain himself was of the later race.
The sagas of the succeeding centuries, however – the great tales of Conaire Mór, and the better – known stories of Fionn Mac Cumhail, and the Fianna – picture for us an Ireland with a wide, more uniform culture, a culture already distinctively national.
Although the earliest known written versions of these sagas belong to a period several centuries later than the events to which they are based, they are, in the main facts, singularly free from anachronisms. The earliest of them all shows us the newly – arrived Celts fighting as newly – arrived invaders, with nothing to aid other than what they could have brought with them from Gaul. The “Tāin”, however, shows us Cuchulain and his contemporaries of the 1st Cent B. C. was making machine of war chariots, which in the still later tale of the Fianna we find that the chariot has already disappeared and warriors fight only as horsemen and as infantry.
In additions to our literacy evidence we have among our abundant archaeological remains numerous specimens of the actual arms and other durable equipment used by the Irish fighting men of all ages. We have the ‘long, blue bladed spears’ and the ‘loud – voiced trumpets’ of our first Celts. We have the chariot fillings, the spears and swords and articles of personal adornment used by Cuchulain’s contemporaries, and we have the swords and metal scabbards, the spear heads, the metal shields and helmets and the bridle fittings of the Fianna.
In addition, we have the testimony of Greek and Roman Chroniclers in regard to the continental kin of our ancestors. And since features changed but slowly in early times there is much in these continental chronicles which can be applied to Ireland. The Iberians, we are told were dark of hair and medium statured. They scorned the use of defensive armour but carried circular shields and wore metal helmets adorned with scarlet feathers. Their dress consisted of a woollen cloak. Underneath this they usually wore a smock or tunic, and on the lower part of their legs they wore greeves of woven or plaited hair. Cloaks were usually black, the natural black of the sheep. Their principal weapon was a broad – bladed, finely tempered, 2 – edged sword.
Alongside this we may profitably set an extract from the “The Tāin Bó Chuailgne”, in which is described a party of warriors of the 1st Cent B.C. “three score bridle steeds and score chariots their number. All the steeds were black; you would think it was the sea that had cast them up. They had bridle bits of gold. The men wore black – grey cloaks with crimson loops, a ring brooch of gold at the breast of each man of them. Lanas (tunics or smocks) of perfect whiteness with crimson stripes down their sides. Black hair upon every man of them, and so sleek you would think it was a cow that licked them all.”
Roman chronicles describe the Iberians as being equally formidable as cavalry or the foot, and they express admiration of the their ‘fleetness of foot and tirelessness’. Precisely similar qualities among Irish fighting men exited the envy of our would – be conquerors of Elizabethan and Cromwellian times. Incidentally, it was the Iberians, who invented guerrilla warfare, a type of offensive tactics to which, in Ireland, our enemies gave the name of “the Irish plan,” and which, in the middle of the 17th century, caused the British army in Ireland to abandon its new scarlet coats in favour of uniforms of “sadd green or russet colour.” This was the first of many changes which Ireland’s long war for independence forced upon would – be conquerors.
The Celts had other ways of waging war. They relied entirely on their strength and valour, and their ability to strike terror into the hearts of the enemy by headlong charges and by the thunderous clamour of great bronze trumpets and loud voices. “They made straight for their enemy,” says Porsidonius, “attacking him from the front without precaution, and were easily defeated by cunning.” For a long time the Celts, both on the Continent and in Ireland, regarded the use of any sort of defensive armour in battle as being cowardly, and the extremes to which they carried their ideas of honourable bravery induced them to strip off even their ordinary garments and expose their bare breasts to the enemy. Helmets of metal, however. were early invented or adopted by the Celts. In Gaul they were of different metals and of different value according to the fortune of the wearers. To these helmets they attached the horns of stags or buffalos, or bunches of plumes or foliage to give their wearers a gigantic or an awe – inspired appearance.
Animal figures and a variety of symbolic devices also came to be painted or riveted on their shields. In Gaul. Even before its conquest by the Romans. Outside influence finally brought about the occasional adoption of chain armour or mail, in a few, instances, wrought metal breast plates after the Greek and Roman styles. The chief weapon of the Celts was the sword, rather larger than that of the Romans. It was worn on the right side, suspended by bronze or other metal chins from a girdle, or belt, which glittered with gold and inlaid coral or enamel.
The costumes of the Celts, both here and in Gaul, consisted of cloak, trousers and tunic (or smock). Generally these garments were made of brightly – coloured materials, striped, chequered, or speckled with floral designs and other decorative motifs. Among the wealthy they were magnificently embroidered, often with thread of gold on “white bronze”. Diodorus, speaking of the Continental Celts, says, “Their apparel is wonderful. Their tunics are dyed with various colours and appear as if sprinkled with flowers. They wear trousers which they call breaca. Their cloaks which are also striped and richly chequered as if with flowers, are worn thinner in Summer than in Winter and are fastened with clasps or brooches”.
Apart from the “speckled” design, the most usual patterns in Ireland were plain stripes, interlaced colours such as may still be seen in the Aran Islanders crios or girdle, and cross stripes which produce a chequered pattern. In Ireland, also these patterned and multi coloured garments served by the number of their colours to distinguish the different grades of society. They were carried from this country into Scotland by the Irish colonisers of that country, and they there underwent the further development which eventually resulted in the clan tartans.
Both in Ireland and in those parts of Gaelic Scotland which were undisturbed by the Imperial Legions of Rome the ancient arms and clothing were retained for centuries after England had become a Roman province. Our own bardic literature provides ample evidence to show that the costume of our first standing to show that the second century Fianna, did not differ in essentials from that of their Gaulish kindred of the Continent.
The equally well – known Knights (or Heroes) of the Red Branch who flourished at Emain Macha, the capital of Ulster, in the first century B.C., were not so much a standing army as a chivalric brotherhood. Their costume was that of the continental Iberians rather than the Celts, and our own literacy evidence suggests that it was chiefly notable for its full – skirted tunic (which was later to reach its highest development in the pleated kilt), for its woven greaves or puttee – like wrappings on the lower parts of the legs, and for the geometric ornamentations on cloaks, tunics and shields. They are credited, also, with having the first known Irish flag – a yellow lion on a field of green.
The Celts, on the other hand, favoured aquilae or standards rather than flags, and carried figures of animals – notably bulls and boars – as the Roman legions carried eagles. The Fianna, however, are said to have had their own emblazon flag – a sunburst on a field of blue. And it is from the last tradition that the cap – badge of our modern army is derived.
Apart from a few crude marginal drawings in early Irish MSS., and some figures of warriors on early sculptured crosses, the first authentic contemporary illustrations of an Irish warrior is to be found in the Gospel of Mac Duran, a MS, of the ninth century. He appears to be dressed in a tunic and loose – fitting trousers. His headgear might be either a hood or a helmet, and over his tunic he has what appears to be a coat of chain armour. On the whole, magnificent decorations of the Irish, And the continuous Warfare caused by these invasions had on his costume appears to have been influenced by the early Norsemen, for during the eight and ninth centuries there came, as the Irish annals have it, “great sea – cast floods of foreigners into Eire so that there was not a port thereof without a fleet.” The sombre garments of these Norsemen, their awe – inspiring shields, their great swords and axes, and their protective armour were in shape contrast to the vivid colours and a demoralising effect on the people of Ireland and interfered socially with intellectual progress. The Spirit of the Age was one of cruelty and gloom, and the misfortunes of the people were not unnaturally reflected in the increasing sombreness of their dress. A “forty years rest” brought about a slight improvement, but new invasions of Norsemen and Danes then inflicted fresh miseries on the people. Out of the turmoil of the tenth century, however, three great warriors arose, Malachy, Mahon and Brian Boru. All three contended vigorously against the invaders, but it remained for Boru, by his great victory at Clontarf, finally to break the powers of the Northmen in Ireland.
In the “War of the Gael” many fanciful descriptions are given to the costumes worn by Irish Chieftains at the Battle of Clontarf, But from more sedate testimony it would appear that the costume of the ordinary Irish warrior of this period was simply trousers gathered at the waist, and ankles, and a short cloak, He wore neither shoes nor shirt.
Brian was killed at Clontarf, but by the victory over the Norsemen and Leinstermen he had reasserted the old Ernian supremacy of the south, and the cultural work he had set in motion took upon itself something of a national revival. Hereditary surnames came generally into use, and clan and chieftain’s emblems had been carried in triumph at Clontarf acquired a lasting value and played their part in a new military organisation. Irish costumes reflected the change in more individually and a new brilliance.
In 1170, a little more than a century after their conquest of England, the Normans came to Ireland. Aided by Diarmuid MacMurragh and his Leinstermen they captured Waterford and Dublin and took nominal passion of Leinster.
After two centuries of intermittent warfare Art MacMurragh Cavanagh, a descent of Diarmuid MacMurragh, became King of Leinster in his own right and waged so relentless a war against the Normans that they were eventually left with only a small territory near Dublin and a few isolated towns on the coast.
It was among the Irish fighting men of the time of Art MacMurragh Cavanagh that there came into use a distinctive dress which has every right to be regarded as the first Irish military uniform.
The Irish foot soldiers of this period were the ceitern, usually anglicised “kernes.” In the oldest Irish dictionaries the singular noun “ceithearnach” is defined as “a soldier, a sturdy fellow.” This double definition is in itself a tribute to the men who, from the time of Art MacMurragh Cavanagh to the “Flight of the Earls,” fought Ireland’s fight against outside aggression. Their very distinctive dress had as its main feature a long, full shirt, saffron in colour. It was worn gathered up at the waist by a girdle, or belt, so that it did not reach below the knees. And since its fullness gave to it the appearance of a kilt which is worn today by our Army pipers.
Some of these kernes were armed with skeans and long spears, others carried light axes, and others again carried two or three throwing spears and a short bow. Their only defensive equipment was a helmet and, occasionally, a hide – covered wooden shield not more than two feet in diameter. Other notable features of their uniform were the long baggy sleeves of their shirts, and the short coat with its half – sleeves and ruffled waist.
An English official, writing to Henry V111 in 1543, expresses his surprise that the kerns should be so “hard to be beaten,” having no defensive armour, “but only their shirts and small coats.” When Shane O ‘Neill paid a visit to Queen Elizabeth he caused some consternation in English circles by taking with him an escort of these kerns. The rich saffron colour of their great shirts was much remarked upon by the Queen’s chroniclers.
The continued use of armour by their opponents made it necessary for the Irish leaders to create a new and heavier force. And though the kerne remained the light infantrymen par excellence, the end of the 14th century saw the introduction of the Galloglas, (Irish, galloglach).
The first galloglasses were recruited by Ulster and Connacht chiefs from the Hebrides and from purely Gaelic areas on the Scottish mainland. They became not merely a professional military force, but in the course of several generations of intermarriage with Irishwomen they became completely Irish, and by bringing up their sons in their own profession they acquired the permanence and the qualities of a hereditary caste. Of these gallowglasses, the same English official who wrote to his King about the kernes has recorded;
“They have one sort which he harnessed in mail and Bassenettes (round metal helmets) having everyone his weapon called a sparrre, much like the axe of the Tower…and for the most part their boys bear for them three darts apiece, which darts they throw, or they come to the hand strife. These sort of men be those that do not lightly abandon the field, but bide the brunt to the death,”
John Dymmok, in a Treatise on Ireland written about the year 1600, says:
“The galloglasses are picked and selected men of great and mighty bodies. The greatest force of the battle consisted in them, choosing rather to die than to yield…They are armed with a shirt of mail, a skull (close -fitting helmet), a skein, the weapon they most use is a battle – axe or halberd, six foot long, the blade whereof is somewhat like a shoemaker’s knife, and without pike; the stroke whereof is deadly where it lighted. And being thus armed, reckoning to him a man for his harness bearer, and a boy to carry his provision, he is named a sparre (of his weapon so – called), 80 of which spares make a battle (Irish cath which also means a legion, or battalion) of galloglasses.”
Of our mounted soldiers of this period an English writer says:
“I think for their feat of war, which is for light scourers, there are no more proper horsemen on Christian ground, nor more hardy, nor can better endure hardness.”
The galloglass was as distinctive in his dress as the kern. His main garment was a heavy, homespun “acton” which reached to his knees. Some of them also wore short – sleeved shirt of chain mail which reached his knees. Some of them also wore short hauberks either of lether or chain mail, to give extra protection to neck and shoulders. Helmets were of steel, but not of uniform pattern; gauntlets of steel were worn occasionally.
For three centuries these heavy infantry remained, the most formidable force in Ireland’s military organisation, but towards the end of the sixteenth century we find English officials complaining that the kerns were already practising “the musket and the caliver” and becoming “good and ready shots.” From then, right to the insurrection of 1798, war against outside aggression was carried on by combinations of musketeers and pikemen.
After the passing of kern and galloglass there is little of outstanding distinction in Irish uniform, little to distinguish it from the costumes of the times and little that could be regarded as giving to it a particularly national quality. For the “Flight of the Earls” in 1607 was followed by a bleak period in which Ireland was sunk in misery and degradation, a period which saw the creation of a new kind of “Irish Army” – recruited to serve England, both at home and overseas. Yet it was soldiers trained in this army, together with some later “militia” units, which provided the military nucleus of the Irish insurrection of 1641 and, to a large extent, that of the army of Owen Roe O ‘Neill which came so near to freeing Ireland in the years that followed. But from the point of view of uniforms and equipment this period can best be studied as a part of British Military History.
In England, for a very long time after the Norman conquest, only the Norman knights themselves came within the category of “uniformed” soldiers. The English peasants, pressed into military service by their Norman lords, wore only the peasant costume of the period. And since this system continued after the passing of armour, with is distinguishing crests and emblazoned coats of arms, the need for some rallying point which would easily be recognised by the soldiery resulted in the introduction of unit standards or regimental colours.
Henry V11 established the first body of permanent troops in the English service; it survives today as the “Yeoman of the Guard.” His successor Henry V111 is credited with an attempt to have his soldiers uniformed generally in coats of blue cloth, “in the fashion of London footmen.” And, incidentally, it is to the much – married monarch we owe the adaption of the harp as the Irish national emblem. Our actual coat of arms at the time consisted of three golden crowns in a blue field but when Henry was looking for a symbol to represent his claim to the lordship of Ireland he was afraid that the three crowns might be mistaken for the Papal tiara; he therefore decreed the substitution of the harp.
After Henry’s time we read of soldiers wearing “cassocks” of pale blue, with doublets and hose of white; while among Elizabeth’s soldiers in Ireland there were detachments wearing both red and blue, and at least one other with coats adorned with red and green lace.
Charles 1 made the first determined effort to standardise equipment in the British army, but it was only during the Civil War which ended his reign that any measure of success was achieved in the matter of uniformity of dress, a uniformity more of style than of colour. Coats of red, blue, yellow, and grey became common, and appear to have been worn indiscriminately with breeches of grey “or other good colour.” A new attempt at the conquest of Ireland was responsible for the introduction of the “sadd green or russet” colour, which was less likely to provide easy targets for the Irish guerrilla fighters.
James 11 tried without much success to have his own royal colours, scarlet and gold, adopted throughout his army, reserving blue coats for levies or militia regiments. It may also be noted here that it was the same King James who was responsible for the “legal” adoption of the Red Hand as the official provincial emblem of Ulster.
The army of King James at the Battle of the Boyne consisted of loyal regiments of the British army, variously uniformed in scarlet, grey, white and blue coats, a French contingent in equally varied French uniforms, and locally raised Irish units wearing English blue coats, French uniforms, or simply Irish bawneens.
William of Orange had at his disposal a number of disloyal British regiments officered by Whigs, some regiments raised in Ireland by English officials, and a sort of International Brigade which included German units, some hired Danish regiments (all but one composed of German mercenaries), some of William’s own Dutch troops, and a number of French Huguenots. The Dutch troops mostly wore blue and grey coats with various coloured facings, the Danish infantry wore green coats and their cavalry white with buff waistcoats. Among the odds and ends of the Williamite forces were 200 negros “wearing embroidered caps with white furs and plumes of feathers,” and 200 Finns dressed in “bearskin and black armour.”
With so much variety in dress it was necessary in battle for each side to have some marking in common. The Williamite forces therefore decorated their hats with sprigs of green, while the Jacobites wore white cockades made of paper. To this surprising choice of colours it may be added that there is no evidence to support the implication of the ballad of Sarsfield’s men, who “wore their jackets green.” For the Battle of the Boyne was in no sense a part of Ireland’s fight for independence. It was merely an eddy of a political storm between England’s Whigs and Tories. There were, unfortunately, good Irishmen wasted on both sides. It is not until 1782 that we come upon any real evidence of “jackets green” being worn by Irishmen, and even then only by a few units of the Irish Volunteers who were called into being by the government of occupied Ireland to repel a possible French invasion. For the most part, this short – lived volunteer army wore uniforms which were based on those of corresponding units in the British army.
The United Irishmen, of 1798, wore no uniforms, but they did a great deal of fighting, and it was they who gave us the old green flag – with a harp surmounted by the red cap of liberty. Then, in 1803, Robert Emmet planned another insurrection and as part of his plans designed a uniform (with white breeches and green coat) for the new Irish army he hoped to establish. He failed, and the uniform he designed is known today only as that of the National Order of Foresters.
Some forty years later the “Young Irelanders” created the “Eighty – two Club” – a uniformed, semi – military organisation – once again with white breeches and green coats, but this time with hussar braiding across the chest. They, too, failed; but it was they who gave us our first Irish tricolour of green, white and orange. It was made by “the ladies of France” and brought from Paris by Thomas Francis Meagher.
The Fenians who, with better leaders, could have become the largest army of liberation in Irish history, were never uniformed and, except for some minor skirmishes near Dublin and a few places in the south, they waged no war.
So we come next to the tiny Citizen Army of 1913, for which a dark bottle – green uniform – rather like that of the Royal Irish Constabulary – was designed. With it went a slouch hat of green felt.
Then, in the same year, came the new Irish Volunteers, with a uniform once again closely resembling in pattern that of the British army, but made of green serge instead of khaki. Their contribution to Irish history is fortunately well – known, for it was they who revived “the Irish plan” which had so worried would – be conquerors before, and (as the Irish Republican Army) brought about the Treaty which marked the end of the Anglo – Irish war.
In 1922, following the establishment of the Irish Free State, there was created the “Defence Force of Saorstat Eireann.” It was given a uniform closely resembling that of the Irish Volunteers, but of a more modern cut, with breeches for all services, and with brown boots and leggings.
In 1938 came the new Constitution, the passing away of the Irish Free State, and the change in status of the Defence Force of the State to the “Defence Forces of Ireland,” in which all officers held their commissions direct from the President of Ireland.
Finally came the great new army of 1940, a product of the emergency which a new World War forced upon us. New conditions called for new ideas. The breeches and leggings of our small peace – time army were replaced with long, ski – pattern trousers and ankle – length leggings. The earlier “coal – scuttle” patterned steel helmet was abandoned in favour of the present “battle bowler.” The high – necked tunic for officers was replaced by the more comfortable open collar type. The colour of the uniform was changed to a lighter olive green or “olive drab.”
Two things remain unchanged, the badges and the buttons. Of these the cap badges and the buttons. Of these the cap badge commemorates the Fianna of the second century A. D.; the buttons, with the harp and initials “I. V.”, the Irish Volunteers of 1913. The old uniform, in the design and its darker green colour, now survives as a whole only in our revived horse transport units and in the memories of the veterans who helped to make the old army and served on to help to make the new.
Today the army is in battle dress, an essentially practical battle dress of a colour admirably suited to the Irish landscape, and in appearance bearing comparison with that of any army in the world. But that is not all. In the new uniform we have sacrificed most of our traditions, but in it the sons of English – created Irish peers have stood side by side with mountainy lads from the Gaeltacht and youths from the city slums to learn the art of war from old guerrilla fighters of the I. R. A. Heirs to Irish chieftainships have made common cause with the progeny of “planters.”
The elements which contributed to our early make -up have met and mingled with the once – foreign elements. Names already famous in Irish history and names which were once proscribed by English law are interspersed on every battalion roll with names which appear on the lists of “Adventurers for lands in Ireland” and the “Battle Roll of Hastings.” The thing which Thomas Francis Meagher saw symbolised in our first tricolour, the thing which Thomas Davis prayed for in verse, the thing which Wolfe one died for, and which John Mitchel and a thousand men after him made into a National gospel, has come true. Our new battle dress now clothes men of all creeds and classes, men whose lives have been strengthened by the knowledge that great men before them have done great deeds on the soil they tread, men who are one at last, not alone in their uniform olive green, but in the loyalties and the ideals of which that uniform is the outward sign, and the common name of Irishman the panache.
“The Call to Arms.” “An Authentic Historical Record of Ireland’s Defence Services”
“Battle Dress – A Study of the Changing Fashions of Irish Fighting Men”; written by Capt. Seamus Mac Call, (Army Headquarters staff) with his sketches of various peoples.
(pages 17 – 31)