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Meet The Medieval Irish Gallowglass Warriors

On this page, meet the Gallowglass or ‘Galloglaigh’, an Irish equivalent of the Samurai warrior. Their existence is an almost forgotten piece of Ireland’s history. Yet, in medieval Ireland, galloglaigh were indispensable.

Every Norman war lord or Gaelic chieftain made sure to have his own well-trained, private galloglaigh army.

Galloglaigh warriors of medieval Ireland carrying a bow and sword.

Let’s Start At The Beginning- What Are Gallowglass And Where Did They Come From?

  • The galloglaigh were a group of  highly-skilled mercenaries  who settled all over Ireland after travelling from Scotland. They were Gaels’ like the native Irish and shared a common language and similar culture.

They were the potent result of the inter-breeding of Scottish Gaels with the Norse settlers who colonised the Scottish isles.

  • The word  gallowglass itself is an Anglicisation of the Gaelic word 'galloglaigh' which means ‘foreign warrior’. The favourite weapon of these warriors was a six foot long, razor-sharp, double-sided battle- axe, called the ‘Sparth’, which was a development of the Viking axes of their ancestors. See them on the photo below.
Galloglaigh warrior of medieval Ireland  with a sparth axe.

Galloglaigh with a Sparth axe made by and reenacted by our friends at Claiomh who kindly provided most images for this page.

  • They originally came to Ireland from the Hebride isles of Scotland. One of the first Gallowglass bands came to Ireland in 1259. They were part of the wedding dowry of the daughter of the Hebridean leader Dugald Mac Sorley , when she married Aedh O’Connor, a Gaelic nobleman of Connaught.
  • In the beginning they were recruited by the Gaelic Chieftains of Ulster and North Connaught in the thirteenth century, to work as body guards and to bolster resistance against the expansion of Anglo-Norman settlements.
  • By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries galloglaigh were settled all over Ireland and were in the service of both the Anglo-Norman nobility and the Gaelic chiefs of Munster and Leinster.
  • Gallowglasses became firmly established in Irish culture and any self-respecting Lord or chieftain would have his own contingent of these mercenaries to call upon. Renowned for their ferocity and bravery, their custom was to always fight to the death rather than withdraw when facing superior opposition.
Lough Henny galloglaigh warrior of medieval Ireland carrying a claymore (extra long sword).

In a reenactment by Claiomh, a galloglaigh carries a long ring sword over his shoulder and wears one of the typical galloglaigh helmets.

A Profession Held In High Regard

In return for their services they were granted large tracts of land and over time became a part of the hereditary nobility of Ireland. By the time of the infamous battle of Knockdoe (1504)  they had settled all over Ireland, and were highly valued soldiers in the constant feuds that took place between both rival Hiberno-Norman lords and Gaelic chieftains alike.

At the battle of Knockdoe thousands of gallowglasses fought and died on both sides during  this bloodiest battle in medieval Ireland. It is said that of the nine battalions of Galloglaigh who fought at Knockdoe, only one much reduced company survived.

Galloglaigh Lifestyle

Galloglaigh did not farm or do any work other than martial training and doing what they did best –fighting to the death! The responsibility of feeding and housing them and their families usually fell on the shoulders of the Lord’s or chieftains subjects.

Allegiance to their employer Chieftains or lords was usually hereditary in nature, although many of the Gallowglass clans were inter-related and would happily fight against their relatives when called upon.

The most famous families of Galloglaigh were the MacSweeney’s and the MacDonnells, MacCabes and MacLeods.

Galloglaigh Weaponry

In addition to their double-sided axes, they also liked to use massive double- handed swords, about five feet in length. These long swords were known as ‘Claymore’ (see photo above), derived from the Gaelic word ‘Claiomh Mor, which means ‘big sword’. The gallowglasses did not believe in doing anything in half measures!

Their weaponry also included small bows, long spears and lethal throwing darts for close quarter fighting targeting their enemies’ unprotected eyes, arteries or other vulnerable areas. They were ruthlessly efficient with them all. They also wore long ring-mail shirts and sometimes plate armour over quilted garments. They had their own distinctive dress code, sometimes having plate armour on just one of their arms. A gallowglass was usually accompanied into battle by two young assistants, one to carry his various weapons and the other to carry his food.

Galloglaigh warriors of medieval Ireland wearing typical helmets and carrying their traditional weapons.

Galloglaigh carrying a Sparth axe and ring sword, made and reenacted by Claoimh (claoimh.ie).

Read About Related Ireland History Topics

Find out about the weapons used by the Irish at the time of the Norman invasion of 1169.

Read about the castle lifestyle of medieval Ireland.

Read about Fethard, a Norman fortified market town.

Special Tactics

Their speciality was to beat off a heavy cavalry charge by forming a defensive axe-swinging wall from behind which light cavalry could make short term  skirmishes, before retreating and regrouping.

Another of their fearsome techniques was to swing their deadly axes in a figure of eight movement while marching or sometimes running at the enemy. Can you imagine the terrifying spectacle of a wall of these ferocious roaring warriors bearing down on you at speed? I for one would make sure I packed a spare pair of medieval y-fronts and some of the best running shoes available at the time!

International Standing

They were highly sought after warriors on the continent, and fought in many European battles. Over time their ranks were expanded to allow Native Irish men to become Gallowglass. This contemporary  illustration by the German artist Albrecht Durer shows two ‘Galloglaigh’ and two ‘kern’, or regular Irish foot-soldiers, drawn when they were at work in Europe.

Medieval drawing of Irish galloglaigh warriors by German artist Albrecht Duerer.

This drawing by German artist Albrecht Duerer shows galloglaigh warriors in their traditional dress carrying their unique weapons. Note the Claymore, the huge sword over the warriors' shoulder, the small bow and typical helmet. This image is courtesy of Wikipedia.

The end of the Gallowglass culture came after the Cromwellian conquest when thousands of surviving warriors were sold as slaves to European nations not at war with England in order to disable the Irish defence.

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Thanks very much, and warmest regards, Colm and Susanna

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