• Wilde Irishe

A Rising-Out of MacSweeneys armed “According to the Usage of the Country.”

The MacSweeneys of Donegal, who served the O’Donnells as the most venerable and established of galloglass lineages in Ireland, consisted of three septs. In the late 16th century under Magnus Ó Domhnaill and his son Aodh Ruadh (Red Hugh), these were the leaders of the septs: Eoghan Og Mac Suibhne na dThuath (MacSweeney Doe, foster father to Red Hugh and principal leader of his galloglass), Domhnall Mac Siubhne Fánad (MacSweeney Fanad), and Donnchadh Mac Suibhne na Tír Boghaine (MacSweeney Banagh).


The muster of the three septs is given in an anonymous 18th century manuscript in the Cambridge Manuscript Library, and reads as follows:


“This is the evidence of Donnell O’Gallagher, who is eight-one years, concerning every old custom that O’Donnell had in the land of Conall anno Domini 1626.”


(“Aig so uachta Dhomhnuill Uí Ghallchabhair atá bliadhain ⁊ ceithre fichit do thaoibh sean-ghnáithsa dá raibh aig Ua Domhnuill a ttuath Chonallach ano Domini 1626.”)


“Due from McSweeney Fanad, eighteen marks for beefing from him and ten marks for permanent hired soldiers and one hundred and twenty galloglasses with mail shirts, and a bullock as price for a lacking mail shirt, except for a galloglass man who had been promised.”


(“Air Mhac Suibhne Fánad ocht marg déag do mhartaigheacht uaigh ⁊ deich marg do bhuannacht buannadha ⁊ sé fiche gallóglach go lúireachuibh, ⁊ mart do chanaig is an lúirigh ná bhfuightheadh, acht amháin gallóglach fior aig a mhionnuigh.”)


“Due from McSweeney Doe, the same amount.”


(“Air Mhac Suibhne na ttúath an urad céadhna.”)


“Due from McSweeney Banagh, sixty galloglasses with mail shirts, a man to carry the mail shirt and stone of Columcille in addition to these.”


(“Air Mhac Suibhne Boghairnighe trí fichit gallóglach go lúireachuibh, fear umchurra lúirigh ⁊ chloiche Cholaim cille soar aige díobh sin.”)

organization chart of Irish galloglass companies
MacSweeney galloglass organisation

So we see that the MacSweeney galloglass company or “battle” (corrugadh in Irish) consisted of 60 men “on their feet,” as the saying went. Nowell’s Power of Irishmen, a government document of around 1500, says “A Batayle of Galoglas be 60 or 80 men harneysed on foot wth sparres Everi one wherof hath his knave to beare his harneys wherof sume have speares sume have bowes.” A battle of galloglass was nominally 100 men, with a variable number of “deadpays” reserved for the constable commanding, who also received six men’s victual allowances per quarter in addition to a warhorse and a hackney. Deadpays were a number of galloglass by which the battle was allowed to fall short, and whose pay went into the constable’s pocket.


The smaller subunit of the galloglass battle was the “spar,” named for the galloglass axe or “sparth.” This consisted of the galloglass himself plus a man to carry his harness and a boy to carry his provision (who are sometimes called dalonyes, or doílmhainigh) , according to John Dymmok in 1600. However, the government’s MacDonald galloglass in Leinster were only allowed one attendant, and this is the number indicated by Nowell as well (“Everi one wherof hath his knave”).


The number of spars in a battle of galloglass is usually either 60 or 80, but the difference can’t be pinned down geographically: in the 1585 Composition Book of Connaught, the Connaught lord’s rising-out includes “six-score mail” (i.e., two battles of 60 galloglass) maintained by MacWilliam Burke on O’Malley and O’Kelly, with “three-score mail” (a battle of 60 men) upon MacCostello. In the 1569 Calendar of Carew Manuscripts we hear that MacCarthy Mor has two 80-man battles of galloglass, one of MacSweeneys and one of MacSheeys, while MacCarthy Reagh has one battle of 80 galloglass. The same source also records MacWilliam Burke having “240 sparres or galliglasses” (four battles of 60) and MacCarthy Mor maintaining or cessing “60 sparres” on Condon’s country, and “60 axes or sparres” on Irreight, but also “160 axes” (two battles of 80) in MacMorrice’s country.


The Book of the MacSweeneys (translated by Fr. Paul Walsh, Leabhar Cloinne Suibhne, pp. 44-45), written some time after 1514, gives the following description of the equipment required:


“31. And it was then that a levy of galloglasses was made on Clann Suibhne, and this is how the levy was made: two galloglasses for each quarter of land, and two cows for each galloglass deficient, that is, one cow for the man himself and one for his equipment. And Clann Suibhne say they are responsible for these as follows, that for each man equipped with a mail shirt and a pisane collar, another should have a jack and a helmet; that there should be no forfeit for a helmet deficient except the galloglass’s brain [dashed out for want of it]; and no fine for a missing axe except a shilling, nor for a spear, except a groat, which shilling and groat the Constable should get, and O’Donnell had no claim to make on either. And previous to this arrangement no lord had a claim on them for a rising-out or a hosting, but they might serve whomsoever they wished. It was the Scottish habit [of military service] they had observed until that time, namely each man according as he was employed.”


(“31. Et as annsin do cumadh galloglaig ar Chlainn tSuibhne ⁊ as amlaid so do cumadh iatt .i. diass as in cethramuin ⁊ da bho as an bfer nach fuighthi dibh .i. bó as in dunie ⁊ bo as in éidegh ⁊ is amlaid aderid Clann tSuibhne sin do beith orra .i. luirech ⁊ sgabal fa fher díbh ⁊ seca ⁊ cinnbert fan dara fer dib ⁊ gan cáin sa cinnbert fan dara fer dib ⁊ gan cáin sa cinnbert acht inchinn an galloglaig ⁊ gan cain sa tuaigh acht sgilling ag in consabal ⁊ bonn sa nga ⁊ can buain acc O nDomnaill re nechtar aca ⁊ as amlaid do batar roime sin gan erge amach can sluaigedh orra ag nech ar bith acht acc an tí do thoigeoratis fein ⁊ issé nos na hAlban do bi aca conuige sin .i. gach duine as a doman fein.”)


This passage is sometimes interpreted to mean that one sort of galloglass has a mail shirt and pisane collar, while a second sort has a jack and helmet. In fact, I believe this passage may describe how the full armour of a galloglass should be divided between the two attendants that “...bear his harneys.”


For as early as 1429, Donnchad Murtough, King of Leinster, had “8 battles of footmen arrayed in the guise of this country, that is every man in aketon, haubergeon, mail hood and bascinet...” Clearly, these four items together formed the complete galloglass harness. It defies logic to accept that a man clad in expensive mail would forgo the protection of a helmet, and the regulation goes on to indicate that any galloglass foolish enough to present himself for muster without a helmet need not be fined since he would pay for it by having his brain dashed out. And one cannot wear mail without a padded foundation garment. This was called a cotun, from the French haqueton, or seca, from the word jack or side jack (i.e., long jack) found in Anglo-Irish documents. It was a vertically ridged, knee-length garment seen extending below the hem and elbows of mail shirts in grave slab depictions of 15th and 16th century Irish armours, made of many layers of linen stitched together.


Galloglass in mail, bacinet and aketon.
A "galloglass well armed according to the usage of the country."

This form of armour is well illustrated in the late 15th century galloglass carvings (above) from

Roscommon Abbey. These show absolute uniformity, each man being harnessed in a pointed bascinet, pisane, mail shirt and padded jack or aketon. The uniformity could extend to the colour of the fabric jack or cotun, for of the Irish troops sent to the Siege of Rouen in 1419, 18 score were clad in white cotun, and 18 score in red cotun.


This full panoply was worn by the MacSweeneys into the late 16th century, as seen in the examples below. Note the spreading (horsehair?) crest seen on the scull of galloglass in both images, and the similar styles of axe. Two weeks ago we looked at John Derricke’s 1581 images of galloglass, armed simply in a longer sleeved shirt of mail and a scull, without a pisane collar. But here we see contemporary depictions of the same armour found on the Roscommon effigy still in use. In fact, Lord Justice Drury writes in 1579 of meeting a number of mounted O’Reillys, “most of them wearing glibes, and armed in mail, with pesants (pisane collars) and skulls.”


Map illustration and grave slab showing galloglass armour
Left, Goghe's 1567 map showing MacSweeneys. Right, MacSweeney grave slab at Killybegs, circa 1550.

This harness survived even later in the Western Isles of Scotland, used into the 17th century by the chief’s personal retainers called “galloglass.” A military census of Athollmen taken on the eve of the Civil War in 1638 shows that of 523 men, 11 retained helmets, mail shirts and long axes or halberds. And the Woodrow MS., describing the “Highland Host” of 1678, mentions “steel-bonnets raised like pyramids...”, obviously the same faceted bacinet seen on the Rocsommon Abbey galloglass above. Around 1699, Rev. Kirkwood’s Collection of Highland Rites and Customs states that “Of old they used ...Mailcoats, Head-pieces...and that which they called Scapul, which covered their Shoulders.” In fact, a horn carving of about this date shows a “lord’s galloglass” manservant still wearing the vertically ridged cotun or jack.


Highland chief in trews, doublet and bonnet, hunting with servant in cotun or aketon.
17th century Highland powderhorn showing hunting chief accompanied by his "galloglass" in a jack or cotun.




319 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All