The Art of Combat in Ancient Ireland


The Irish warrior of ancient times may have been an undisciplined killing machine, fighting under the influence of the Riastradh or battle frenzy on behalf of his family, his chieftain, or his country, but it may surprise you to know that there was an unwritten code of practice, or chivalry involved in the art of making war.

We see this, for example in the story of the First Battle of Moytura, when Bres of the Tuatha de Danann meets Sreng, battle champion of the Fir Bolg. According to the translation by Mary Jones, they parley, exchange weapons and part as friends. However, battle for possession of Ireland inevitably follows, with the Fir Bolg requesting a delay while they prepare their weapons, to which the Danann actually agree.

Much later, when the Danann are attacked by the invading Milesians, the Danann also request a delay in which to prepare for war. This is duly granted, with the Milesians even returning to their ships and retreating nine waves from the shore while the Danann make all ready for battle.

It should also be noted that no battle was ever won in  a day. They usually continued over a period of several days, during which time both sides retreated at dusk to their camps to rest, regroup, repair weapons, eat, drink, bury their dead, look after their wounded, and sleep, rejoining the combat at first light.

You would think that cover of darkness would lead to all sorts of sneaky shenanigans as one army tried to gain the advantage over the other, but this was not the case. Honour and dignity were paramount, even in the dealings of war. Again, the First Battle of Moytura is a perfect example of this battle etiquette.

Historically, every man who held land, whether rented or owned, was legally obliged to spend a certain number of days each year fighting in his tribe’s wars, or participating in their defence, after which he was free to return home to his family. This was clearly defined by Brehon Law.

Each chieftain was likewise required to supply his provincial King, and thus the High King, with a contingent of armed men.

The King always maintained a champion in his service, known as the Aire-Echta. He was responsible for avenging any insult to the King or his family, and discharged military duties as required. Ogma fulfilled this role for Nuada, High King of the Danann until Lugh challenged him.

A small group of hired mercenaries would also be maintained by the King, often to serve as his bodyguard. This practice was called buanacht in Irish.

Among Irish nobles, it was customary to ‘knight’ boys as young as seven years old. The Irish called this initiation ‘taking the valour’, and it began their journey into the ways of the warrior and manhood.

The Romans in their conquest across Europe observed how the Celts went into battle ‘naked’, ie without armour. This practice, which continued as late as the twelfth century AD in Ireland, was observed by Giraldus Cambrensis, also known as Gerald of Wales, arch-deacon of Breccon; he wrote:


‘They [the Irish warriors] go into battle without armour, for they consider it a burden, and deem it brave and honourable to fight without it.’


The ancient Irish army was composed of several battalions called catha, containing three thousand men. Each catha consisted of many smaller groupings, some as small as nine men and women. They employed their own medics, and it was not uncommon for physicians to give medical aid regardless of which army the wounded fought for.

The Irish warrior was heard to rush into battle screaming their fearsome war-chant. Likely, this formed part of the summoning of the Riastradh. This cry was known as the barrán glaed, meaning ‘warrior shout’, and probably united the warriors against their enemy, as well as providing an outlet for all their pent-up emotion. This custom continued well into later centuries, an example of which was the cry of the O’Neill clan, Lamb derg aboo, which translates as ‘The red hand to victory’.

The most famous warbands in Irish mythology are Cuchullain’s Red Branch Knights, and Fionn mac Cumhall’s Fianna.

It was extremely difficult to get into the Fianna. The applicant had to go through all kinds of tests, both physical and mental, before he, or she, could be accepted… standards were very high, and there were no exceptions. You can read more about that here. The Fianna also accepted female warriors.

What differentiates the warriors of the Fianna from all others, is that they had to be able to recite and compose poetry. This may sound daft to you now, but in those days there was no writing, all lore and knowledge was handed down and learned by oral tradition. In effect, this rule shows that the warriors of the Fianna had to be well educated. They certainly weren’t all brawn and no brain!

However, the brawn was still important, and as fighting men they had to train daily, and become highly skilled in all manner of combat techniques. These were known as Na hEalaiona Troda, or Na hEalaiona Camraic, meaning ‘Irish fighting arts’, or ‘Irish martial arts’. They were divided into two broad types of combat; unarmed, known as Gráscar Lámh, and armed, known as Troid Armáilte. 

I should just like to point out at this stage that many of the most skilled warriors in the Irish fighting arts were women, who famously passed on their skills to their male students. Cuchullain was taught by Scathach, and Fionn mac Cumhall was taught by Liath Luachra.

the irish martial arts

Gráscar Lámh consisted of the following techniques;

  • Dornálíocht (durn-awl-ee-okht), which meant bare knuckle boxing.
  • Coraíocht (cur-ee-okht), which was collar and elbow wrestling.
  • Speachóireacht (spack-er-okht), kicking techniques such as those used in Gaelic football, Irish dancing, and shin-kicking contests.

Troid Armáilte consisted primarily of the following techniques, among others;

  • Batadóireocht (bat-a-rokht), which was stick fighting. This later evolved into the traditional art of the shillelagh, or Sailéille in Irish. You can read more about it here.
  • Claíomhóireacht, which was swordcraft.
  • Scianóireacht, knife arts.
  • Tuadóireacht, which was fighting with the axe.


Interestingly, though the spear was the weapon of choice for the ancient Irish warriors, I could find no reference to the name of this battle skill during my research; perhaps it fell under swordcraft, or even stick fighting. (if anyone knows, please tell me in the comments!)

And finally, we come to my favourite part, the Feats of the Hero. These techniques were known as cleasa, or ‘tricks’, and were clearly more magical in origin than the combative arts listed above. They were skills used in conjunction with the Na hEalaiona Camraic, or supported the learning of them.

For example, Cuchullain was famous for his skill at the ‘Salmon Leap’. Observers such as the Romans had commented that during battle, Celtic warriors were able to leap over the shields of their opponents. It’s likely that the ‘Salmon Leap’ was simply a high jumping technique practised until the warrior could jump higher than anyone else.

There were other feats, too, such as the ‘Sword Feat’, or Faobhar Chleas, described in the Mesca Ulad, ‘the Intoxication of the Ulstermen’, as a kind of dance involving the juggling of a sword. This may have been performed before battle to impress and strike fear into the enemy. It may also have concentrated the warrior’s mind, helping him to achieve riastradh.

The ‘Body Feat’ was thought to have been a dance which showed off unarmed combat skills. Cuchullain’s ‘Leap Over a Poisoned Stroke’ may have demonstrated his ability to leap over a sword slashing at his legs.

The ‘Feat of the Pole-Throw’ is thought to be the same as the  Scottish ‘Tossing the Caber’. The ‘Apple Feat’ was said to consist of juggling apples, apparently useful when learning to fight with a sword… don’t ask. The ‘Breath Feat’ was described as blowing apples up in the air, which may have been a breathing technique.

I’m sure there were many more, and no doubt they all contributed to making the warrior appear dashing and heroic, as well as enhancing his combat skills and chances of survival.


Please be sure to drop by on Friday to meet my special guest, photographer, blogger and RuinHunter Ed Mooney, who will be talking about his Celtic re-enactment days, and the authentic weapons training he was involved in.


thank you for visitingWant more mythology? Sign up to my mailing list!
Or get one of these!

66 Comments on “The Art of Combat in Ancient Ireland

  1. Pingback: Riastradh, the Warrior’s Battle Frenzy | aliisaacstoryteller

  2. My last name is O’Neill! It’s great to learn my family battle cry! “The red hand to victory!” No idea what that means, but I’m definitely going to shout it when I’m stuck in traffic tomorrow morning!

    Like

    • LOL! Wonderful! Hope it works for you! As for what it means… maybe the red hand represents a bloody hand, their power and might in battle, or maybe they were Red Branch Knights, I don’t know, I’m afraid. Whatever it means, it sounds good, and you can yell it with pride!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. With the exception of the role of women, I’m surprised at the many similarities between Ireland and Homeric Greece. Whole paragraphs of your post could have been written about, say, the Iliad.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent and entertaining piece of work Ali. You really drill deep in your research. Rather a worrying number of unattached heads in that really good first video 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Noelle! I’m sure they were pretty impressive in action. I read somewhere that one of the ways they struck fear into their enemies in battle was during the chariot charge, the warrior would actually run along the pole which connected the chariot to the horses, and fought from there, much like a gymnast dancing on a balancing beam… can you imagine that? Must have been amazing to see!

      Like

        • That would not be beyond the realms of possibility. But the Samurai were all about control and self discipline, whereas the Fianna and ancient Irish were as a people very full on and emotional, full of life, not cold and aloof.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Yeah. I probably should have made that distinction. I was thinking about challenges and how you don’t know what you’re going to be doing until right beforehand. Same for when a person would seek to join them, they weren’t told about all the tasks ahead of time but only what the next step would be, after finishing the one they were currently doing. It’s a great strategy, I think. You end up realizing that most of what you confront in life is uncertainty, the actual events can be far more reasonable than what’s going around in your head about them. 🙂

            I think the Samurai did something similar? The fianna had discipline but that’s just one part of life. I get the impression that to them stoic asceticism seems a bit myopic. You’ve got to be an authentic, balanced whole person. Denying parts of who you are like emotions, compassion, joy and sorrow and passion for living, that winds up hurting yourself and other people needlessly, like limiting the beingness of human being. All of it’s sacred and important and has a place to living. The greatest strength and wisdom and meaning in living comes from being, embracing, all that you are, is the point of view, at least for all the people I have met. 🙂

            Liked by 2 people

            • That’s lovely Éilis! Denying one part of yourself for the fulfilment of another isnt really living is it? I dont think our ancestors ever suppressed any aspect of themselves, did they? They embraced life and all aspects of being human and a part of the wonder of the physical world around them.

              Like

  5. It’s beguiling, in a most surreal way, to think of your warrior family fighting 9-5 and being home for their tea. Thanks for another brilliant and digestible round-up of colourful history, Ali, especially your insight regarding the purpose of poetry in warfare…

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks for this post Ali—fascinating as always. The Brehon Laws seemed to rely a lot on honour rather than a police force to make them work. And there’s no indication that they didn’t work either. What a shame human society has changed so much in that respect.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think code of honour only works if everone understands it. In later centuries, as the world opened up and different cultures with their different codes of honour mingled, protecting the law relied more heavily on violence… the sword was a rule everyone understood! Not forgetting how Patrick and the Christians had that meeting to drop every part of the Brehon Law which could not be controlled by the church. The new dismembered Brehon Law coupled with a new religion no one understood would just have ceased to have any meaning, relevance or coherence, I imagine.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Wonderful post, Ali! Apple juggling? You’ve got me too curious not to ask. Should I tell you what I find out? 🙂

    I had no idea that kids trained as young as seven! So crazily young!!! And I wasn’t aware of all the specific skills which warriors would have to learn, but it makes perfect sense: thanks for providing the Irish words, too. Now I can learn them. 🙂 And I am sincerely grateful I don’t have to leap over a sword, it just seems particularly dangerous if you can’t see where you’re going. lol

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know… sounds crazy, doesnt it?!! There were other combat skills too, such as fighting with the syckle, with a flail, etc… doesnt bear thinking about. Oh, and I also found reference to an Irish longbow in an old book, you’ll be pleased to know! It was called a fiobac (feevac) but I havent researched it further yet!

      Like

      • I agree, I definitely make sure I limit how much I think about anything violent. I hear about stuff but don’t have to see it, fortunately! It would be way too difficult for me for all sorts of reasons.

        Awesome about the longbow! Ailbhe is glad someone wrote something down about it and says, “I would not lead you astray on such matters.” 🙂 I’ll be totally excited to see what else you find out!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Not sure about the normal life span – but would kids need to start young in order to gain coordination/focus/proficiency by the time they were considered “adult” ? (which is probably a lot younger than “adulthood” now)

        Like

        • Yes, I think you are probably right. But the warrior class were all nobles, poorer people worked the land, and although there were Druid schools, there was no formal education system. Many children were fostered out, and underwent their training in their foster homes, this was common practice in Ireland. I guess if they didn’t work like the poorer children, something had to be found for them to do! But I reckon that being good enough to survive battle took a LOT of training, and the younger they started, the better chance they had.

          Like

        • Yes I am quite sure of it. I think fifty would have been considered very very old, but don’t quote me on it, Ali’s done the research whereas I am estimating. 🙂 I knew children could begin training as young as nine, but was surprised by seven. Childhood as a concept must have been incredibly different or nonexistent for our ancient ancestors. I read once that the concept of childhood we have now originated as late as the 1800’s.

          Liked by 2 people

            • I think the IR just widened the gap between the have and have-nots. The poorer children still had to work, often in much worse conditions in factories and coal mines, whilst the wealthy children had more leisure time and had little responsibility, if any. But also schooling was more widely available by then, and was growing into a concept which identified children as different from adults. Rather than mini adults.

              Liked by 1 person

            • I was just thinking that people once they were aware of child labor conditions, perhaps there were those who insisted on reform: getting kids into schools and out of dangerous factories…probably not at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Some VIctorian authors did start write about factory conditions.
              In the US I think the rise of Labor Unions ended child factory workers. Schools here were free and became mandatory – but not sure of time frame. Late 1940’s-early 1950’s kids were no longer expected to be little adults? Childhood has certainly changed. Learning responsibility early, learning history’s stories, and being expected to contribute to the community not be such a bad idea….without all the knives, swords, and sharp dangers? Enjoyed the chat

              Liked by 1 person

            • Yes… I think the 1950s finally gave rise to ‘the teenager’! I agree with you, all of those things are a great improvement, minus the sharp dangerous instruments lol! I’m not sure of the timescale either… my head and heart are firmly stuck in pre- Medieval times, I’m afraid! Havent much clue whats going on in the world today! 😀

              Liked by 1 person

            • And I’m so glad of that, Ali, because then that makes at least two of us! 🙂 I sometimes feel I know more about the ancient world, at least in Ireland than the world now. At least, stuff in this age can absolutely baffle me, down to the simple social stuff, whereas even when I don’t agree with something from ancient times I understand it! And I agree more often than I don’t. 🙂

              Like

  8. Beautifully researched as always. Such a shame that the code of chivalry didn’t survive to modern times and with some combat being dealt with between champions.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Thank you so much for changing your blog to black text on a white background. I had to give up reading it several months ago, because of the strain the old theme put on my visual impairments, and because the full text was not available in the Reader. Now I can magnify the text and catch up on “back issues.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Christine! I was thinking of you when I did it! I tried so many different themes but none of them looked right with my content. Then I was messing around one day and realised I could customise the one I already had! I think it looks cleaner. Glad its working for you, and thanks for letting me know! 😀

      Liked by 2 people

Please feel free to join in the conversation...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s