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  • Writer's pictureWilde Irishe

Horseboys: Irish Lackeys, Irish Footmanship

Horseboys, “for so they call their horse-keepers be they never so old knaves” (Beware the Cat, 1584), were the lowest strata of the Gaelic Irish military, outdoor servants who also fought as demanded. Nowadays, many assume the term “horseboy” also encompassed the servants of the kern and galloglass, but period documents in English limit its use to those who did the “meating and dressing of horses.”

Stanihurst lists Irish fighting men as follows (in Holinshed’s Chronicle, 1577):

• First and lowest—daltins, or pages to the horseboys,

• Second—horseboys

• Third—kerns, or light-armed foot

• Fourth—galloglasses

• Fifth—horsemen, “which is chiefest next to the lord or chieftain.”

The main Irish chronicle, the Annals of the Four Masters, does not help with specific Irish terminology for these servants. The authors used artificial learned language, rather than everyday speech. John O’Donovan, the translator of their work, uses the word calones (Latin for military servants) to gloss the terms used by the Four Masters, which are giolla (which would indeed have been a contemporary usage), or phrases meaning unarmed people.

Picture Map, Taking of the Earl of Ormond, 1600   "More horses unbridled feedinge, and horseboyes
"More horses unbrideled feedinge, and horseboyes lyinge uppon the greene."—at Ormond's Capture, 1600

Daltins & Dalonyes / Dailtinedha ⁊ Doílmhainigh

Horseboys were usually in a 3 to 1 relationship to horsemen, as shown in the Composition Book of Connaught (1585) describing the rising-out of Tyrawley “being three-score horsemen armed and accoutered, nine-score horse-boys and horses bringing their own provision.” Nowell, author of The Power of Irishmen, a document from c. 1500 listing the forces of the Irish lords, says; “Every horsman hath two horses, some three . . . every horse hath a knave and their chief horse is ever led, and one of his knaves rides alway and bear his harness and spears.” St. Leger (Salinger) writes in 1543, “There is no horseman of this land but he hath his horse, and his two boys, and two hackneys, or one hackney and two chief horses.” At the end of the century (1600), John Dymmok is a bit clearer; “Every horseman hath two or three horses, and to every horse a knave; his horse of service is always led spare, and his knave, which carrieth his harness and spear, rideth upon the other, or else upon a hackney . . . If there be four or five boys to a horse (as sometimes there be), the poor tenants must be contented therewith and yet reward the boys with money.” Johan Bale, the Protestant divine whose Vocacyon (1553) we looked at a while back, wrote disapprovingly of the Irish horseboy; “with their horses and horsegrooms, sometime .iii. waiting upon one jade, they enter into the villages with much cruelty and fierceness . . . leaving nothing behind them for payment but lice.”

A 1515 Plan for Reformation complains of an “infynyt nombre of horsseladdes,” while an indenture with the Earl of Kildare in 1524 says he is “to take but for every horsseman 2d. a meale, and for every horsekeeper 1d. . . and but 1 boye for a horsse.” The excess of horseboys was limited by an indenture of 26th September, 1543, forced upon Munster lords (MacCarthy, O’Sullivan, MacDonough, O’Callaghan, etc.). This enacted “that no horseman shall keep more garsons or boys, than horses, on pain of twenty shillings.” (Note: this term “garson” is a southern usage, spelled gossoon in Hiberno-English, garsun in Irish, a youth; a serving boy between, say, 8 and 18 years, a modification of the French garçon).

Englishmen give the common contemporary Irish terms for these servants as dalonyes and daltins. “Dalonyes or horseboys to be a fourth sort, for that they take them into the fight: they are the very skumme, and outcaste of the cuntrye, and not lesse serviceable in the campe for meatinge and dressinge of horses, then hurtfull to the enemy with their dartes.” (John Dymmok, 1600) A mid-16th century list adds; “Item, the Horsemen of this countre to the charge of the poore fermors have usid to have hymself 3 horseis, 3 horseboyes; and many of them one other boye, to keep his spores and hose, and to make them clene, namid a Dalten.” (St. Papers, vol. 2. Pt. III. p. 505.) Stanihurst (in Holinshed’s 1577 Chronicle) adds, “The basest sort among them are little young wags called ‘Daltins’: these are lackies and are serviceable to the grooms and horsboies, who are a degree above the ‘daltins.’

The term “dalonye” is doílmhaineach (pl. doílmhainigh), meaning one free from liability; a hired soldier; a privileged person or noble. The term “daltin” is dailtín (pl. dailtinedha), still in late use, meaning puppy; jackanapes; also an orphan, brat or fosterling. Doubtless, these terms were also used to describe the servants of galloglass and kern.

Derricke's Chief (1581) with his Lord's Galloglass, left, and horseboy, right.
Derricke's chief (1581) with his personal attendants; the lord's galloglass, left, and horseboy, right.

Did They Ride or Run?

Around the year 903, the Annals of the Four Masters record the death of Cearbhall, son of Muirigen, King of Leinster. As he rode past a combmaker’s shop the craftsman happened to throw out a piece of antler which caused the king’s horse to rear up. The horse started back “so that the king struck his own javelin, which was in the hand of his own horseboy.” So, at this early date, the horseboy rode a hackney behind his master carrying his spear, as described in Tudor times by Dymmok and Nowell above. No doubt in both cases, the spare ‘chief horse’ was led and not ridden. But many of the horseboys ran, since they often outnumbered the horses. [I thought I recalled reading in Ralegh's letters of a leading rebel of the Desmond Rebellions made prisoner and “reduced to running at the stirrup like an Irish horseboy,” but I have not been able to relocate the reference.]

Polydore Virgil’s Anglica Historia (1534) says of the Irish, “The skin of their feet is so calloused that even boys whose feet are not yet hardened by long practice and labor run about with surprising speed, even in rough places.” And Stainhurst (De Reb. Hib. 1577 p. 43), says: ‘Ultimus omnium ordo cursorum numero concluditur, qu os Hiberni Daltinos, nos Latine scurras velites seu servos a pedibus, nominare possumus.’ which I tentatively translate as “Finally, we conclude the order of runners with what the Irish call Daltins, and we prefer to call in Latin scurras velites (clown skirmishers), who serve on foot.”

The German nobel, Ludolf von Münchhausen, wrote a brief account of Ireland (1591), and speaking of Irish horsemen says; “Their servant runs some ten or twenty paces behind. The servants wear helmets and carry a broad sword; they are otherwise naked.” (i.e., unarmored). Presumably he is a more reliable source than his later literary namesake, Baron Munchausen!

. . . Next Week, Part 2

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