• Wilde Irishe

Galloglass vs. Redshank: Don’t Fight Over Spilt Milk.

Updated: Apr 12, 2020

In Scots Mercenary Forces in Ireland, G. A. Hayes-McCoy refers in passing to an incident between native and Highland mercenaries in their billets. It is drawn from a manuscript which William Hamilton said he had found in the hands of Antrim MacDonalds on his travels, as recounted in his Letters Concerning the Northern Coasts of Antrim (1790). It seems around the year 1580, a party of Highland redshanks from Cantire under Colla Dubh MacDonald arrived in MacQuillan’s country. MacDonald was on his way to assist Tyrconnell against the great O’Neill, but thought it good manners to join his host MacQuillan in a foray against his enemies “beyond the River Bann.” After this "journey," with winter setting in, MacQuillan suggested Colla Dubh stay till Spring. (MacDonald agreed, and used the opportunity to seduce MacQuillan’s daughter. Their union was the basis of latter claims by the MacDonalds to MacQuillan’s territory of “the Route.”)


MacQuillan quartered the MacDonald redshanks among his tenantry up and down “the Root,” two by two; one of his own galloglasses and a Highlander in each house. This was the bonnaught system, (or “hill billeting” as it is called in the Composition of Connaught papers.) It happened that the galloglass of MacQuillan were entitled to a mether of milk by custom.


According to the tale, in one cabin a Highlander called M’Il-Hargy, a brawny man of quick temper, questioned why he should not also receive a mether of milk. The galloglass sharing his billet responded, “Would you, a Highland beggar as your are, compare yourself to me or any of MacQuillan’s galloglass?” Needless to say, a fight commenced, and the poor tenant threw open the two doors of the cottage, and gave them free liberty to fight it out in the open field.


Galloglass and Redshank fighting in a churl's cabin
"Pray, gentlemen, I'll open the two doors and you may go out and fight it out in the fair fields, and he that has the victory let him take the milk and all to himself."

O’Grady was the Irishman’s name, a good soldier but of smaller size and shorter in the arm. The contest however was long doubtful, but at length the long arm of M’Il-Hargy overpowered his adversary, and after a struggle of nearly twenty minutes, the Irishman fell covered with wounds. Incensed by the killing, and by the seduction of MacQuillan’s daughter, the galloglasses agreed that each would kill his comrade Highlander by night, and their lord and master with them. But MacQuillan’s daughter discovered the plot and alerted her new husband, MacDonald, and the Highlanders fled by night to uninhabited Raghery Island, to feed for a time on colt’s flesh for want of other provisions. According to the MacDonald history, this commenced a lengthy feud between the MacDonalds and MacQuillan, which was largely settled in the MacDonald’s favour upon the ascension of their countryman James I to the throne of England.


The above is drawn from Hamilton’s Letters Concerning the Coasts of Antrim, and Archibald M’Sparran’s Irish Legend; or M’Donnell, and the Norman de Borgos. It is a vivid tale and apocryphal at least in part, but Hayes-McCoy saw it as an illustration of the kinds of dispute that could arise among mercenaries at bonnaught.

An Irish Mether
Mether

The mether was a communal drinking vessel cut from solid wood and measuring from 15cm to 30cm in height. It was also considered a measure equal to a half gallon, but obviously the actual capacity varied quite a bit. The mether had a square mouth tapering to a round bottom, and was fitted usually with four handles. Nineteenth century Irish gentry are sometimes pictured having fun at their guest’s expense by serving them drink in a mether, which they usually spilled on their shirt fronts by failing to drink from the corner!


The sub-rectangular cabins common in the 16th century often had two doors facing one another on each side of the house. This allowed cattle to be led in the front door and out the back, being milked in succession. It was a feature of many traditional houses down to the the 20th century.


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