Irish Ring Pommel Sword: New Insight into Use
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
The 2014 discovery of a new example of a sixteenth century Irish ring pommel sword has provided fresh insights into this weapon. This privately held sword is in un-excavated condition, and its remarkable state of preservation allowed it to be handled in ways that made its original fighting style more evident. These observations, combined with a fresh look at contemporary written documentation, as well as an interesting African parallel, are what follows.
The Type Established
The Irish ring pommel sword is a distinctive design that acquired iconic status when its name and image were adopted for the journal of the Military History Society of Ireland, founded in 1949. From the very first, the journal, The Irish Sword, has featured an image of the hilt of the Portglenone sword (national museum # S.E. 81). This was down to the founder of the Society, Professor G. A. Hayes-McCoy, who would provide the first systematic description of the Irish ring pommel swords in his booklet, Sixteenth Century Irish Swords in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, 1959. The type is very homogeneous and forms ‘Group 3’ in Andrew Halpin’s later analysis of Medieval Irish swords.(1) All those of known provenance have been found in Gaelic areas. The blades were imported from the major blade making centres in Europe, and while Hayes-McCoy thought most of them were German, they seem to have been brought in by Spanish and French traders. The swords were hilted locally by Gaelic Irish smiths. They appear to willfully eschew the trend towards more complex hilt types occurring elsewhere.
The ring pommel is not uniquely Irish but, combined with counter-curved spatulate quillons, it constitutes a characteristically Gaelic Irish type. In fact, the ring pommels of three swords of the British regalia (the Swords of Mercy, Temporal Justice, and Spiritual Justice) all bear an octagonal ring pommel very comparable to those seen on both the Tully Lough sword (national museum #39-1905) and a recently discovered Group 3 example in private hands. This very well preserved surviving example of a ring pommel sword has a “double-edged blade of stiff, thick construction which appears to be parallel-sided but in fact exhibits an almost imperceptibly slight taper, being 3.2cm wide at the hilt and 3.0cm a little distance from its spatulate tip. The ricasso extends for 8.5cm from the hilt, beyond which the blade is of lenticular section.”(2)
CAPTION: Dravne After the Qvicke, a woodcut in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Likely dating to Henry VIII’s invasion of France in 1544, this depicts kern carrying the Irish ring pommel sword. It is a mystery why this print and the series of related drawings do not also show the famous Irish dart. Regarding the bulbous blade tips depicted in the Oxford cut, Tony Willis noted: “When holding swords of this form, the blade ends “feel” heavier than they actually look. Hence the Oxford print is not too far off the mark in communicating the “feel” of these swords, even if in so doing the effort has created a visual inaccuracy.”(3) He further notes of the third man from the right: “With his protected left he seems to be lunging forward to parry an attack with a dagger from the chieftain on the extreme right, seemingly in order to open the way to deliver a sword blow with his right hand. Little is known of Irish armour and fighting tactics of the time but the coupling of an armoured left hand for use with a single hand sword in the right whilst on foot does seem to be unique. . . It is also noticeable that this tactic of simultaneous defense and attack is very reminiscent of the later Scottish Highlander tactic of using targe and sword together.”
Dating is difficult, but based on surviving iconographic evidence, the Group 3 is roughly placed in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. Of course, its use might plausibly extend some decades before or after that time-frame. The earliest depiction of the Irish ring pommel is in Albrecht Dürer’s famous drawing of the ‘War Men of Ireland,’ dated 1521, and showing a curiously large specimen. The equally well known series of drawings by Lucas DeHeere—and their derivatives in Continental costume books—indicate its use by the levies of kern sent to France in 1544. At least, this still remains the best hypothesis for the origin of this series of closely related images. This idea of their genesis was first posited by H. F. McClintock, who included the ‘Dravne After the Qvicke’ woodcut, which he suggested was cut after a life drawing probably made while the kern were passing through England on the way to Boulogne.(4) McClintock suggested that ‘Qvicke’ and the DeHeere series all derive from a set of originals made at that time, and I find this still the most plausible theory. Notably, all the images that we have show the ring pommel sword in the hands of the kern, or light-armed Irish foot. This type of sword never appears on lordly funeral monuments, and by the 1570’s Derricke’s Image of Ireland and the Dublin Charter galloglass seem to show the Gaelic Irish using a sword with closed disc pommels and downward-curved quillons, not unlike the more Anglo-Irish type represented by the so-called Kinsale sword.
(It should be noted that the dozen surviving open ring pommel swords of Halpin Group 3 may have no greater claim as a characteristic Gaelic weapon than the thirteen surviving ‘V-guard’ swords of Halpin Group 2. These ‘photo-claymore’ single handed swords of Group 2 straddle Highland Scotland and Ireland, are dated to the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century, and appear on funerary monuments in both countries in the hands of high-status warriors and galloglass. Their appearance on the effigies of Malachy MacOwny O’More in Laois (1502) and a MacGillapatrick knight in Kilkenny (1510-40) confirms this, and the type seems to overlap our Type 3 open pommel swords chronologically. They are thought to give rise to the claymore proper later in the century.)
So we can say that the Halpin Type 3 open ring pommel sword is part of a ‘weapon set’ used by the Gaelic Irish kern in the first half of the sixteenth century. This weapon set also featured the Irish dart or throwing spear, the skean (scian) or long fighting knife (either alongside the sword or in place of it), and limited defensive gear (wooden target, steel ‘lyft gauntlet’ or scull).
Contemporary Description of Use
Of the various written descriptions of Gaelic Irish military types that we possess, the one most pertinent to this discussion is by the Dubliner Richard Stanihurst in his 1584 publication, De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis (Great Deeds Done in Ireland). A history of the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1170, it includes in ‘Book I’ descriptions of the 16th century Gaelic Irish. Stanihurst was a Catholic, but as a Palesman his unfavorable portrayal of the Gaelic Irish infuriated his fellow countrymen of Gaelic background. Stanihurst would eventually relocate to Spanish Flanders, becoming a Catholic priest and alchemist. His book had been prohibited by the Church at the insistence of influential Gaelic refugees on the continent, and he moderated his views in later life. So, in addition to bearing in mind his not entirely friendly attitude towards the Gaelic Irish, we must also recall that he wrote in very erudite Latin, employing phrases from Classical texts wherever possible to display learning. Here is a translation from Latin of what he says of the kern:
“The third rank comprises others, also foot soldiers, who are light-armed swordsmen [Machairaphoroi: i.e., a type of ancient Seleucid light foot, unarmoured, fighting with sword, shield, and spear]. The Irish call them Kerns [Karni]. They whirl spears, which are fitted with thongs, so manfully by strength of muscle that the spears seem to be forced into an orbital circuit like a ring. They are armoured with shields [Caetra—i.e, the circular wooden buckler, leather covered, of the ancient Celtiberians] or an iron gauntlet; going into battle they wear no heavy armor. With spearpoint, they inflict wounds from afar on horseman and horse; then at close quarters they enter the fray with drawn swords. They are notable stone-throwers, but they have no knowledge of how to use their weapons in a well-trained manner: they have no familiarity with the art of the fencing schools, rarely piercing the foe with a thrust, more often wounding him by slashing. They have an amazing love for their swords, which are kept sharp and not pitted: they care for them diligently so that they may not become rusty or blunt. The story is told that a man of this class, returning from battle having received four or more dangerous wounds, inspected his sword: when he saw that it was nowhere chipped or bent he gave great thanks to God that the wounds were inflicted on his body, not on his sword.”(5)
Note the following points from this account:
• The kern swordsmen were unarmored, but carried a round target or ‘lyft gauntlet.”
• Stanihurst considers them untrained in the techniques of the fencing schools.
• The kern do not use the point to thrust, but make slashing cuts instead.
• The are eager to keep their swords sharp.
Evidence from Surviving Ring Pommel Swords
Now let’s consider the impressions of those who have had the opportunity to handle the surviving Irish ring pommel swords. Tony Willis and Andrew Halpin note: “the ring pommel swords are . . . blade heavy. The deceptive weight, thickness and almost parallel-sided profiles of both blades in Figure 2, combined with the relatively lightweight hilts, pushes the point of balance much further down the blade from the hilt than would usually be expected on pan-European single hand swords. The resulting blade-heaviness indicates weapons used in a forceful chopping and slashing motion rather than thrusting, with cutting capacity to the rounded blade tip in the case of the sword in Fig. 2, top (this is not so marked in the Tully Lough sword due to its condition.) The functionality of the ring pommel is now more apparent. Deliberately light in weight, it contributes to the blade heaviness whilst being wide enough to perform its primary function of preventing the user’s hand from slipping from the grip when in use. Armour for the non-sword arm would form a primary defense against an attack with such a weapon leaving the sword arm free for retaliation. Visually these swords appear to be more lightweight than they actually are in hand. The artist of the English woodcut [Dravne After the Qvicke] may have used some license in depicting swords with heavy bulbous ends to the blades to convey the blade heaviness to an audience that would never hold one to realise this feature.”(6)
An African Parallel
The kaskara, the characteristic sword of the Eastern Sudan, shares key features of the Irish ring pommel sword, and sheds light on its intended use. The kaskara gained fame in the hands of the Hadendowa, Hamran and other Beja peoples, who carried them in the Mahdists campaigns of the late 19th century (1881-1898). Thousands were brought back to Britain as trophies.
Kaskara blades were imported from Solingen, Germany, by way of Egypt. These broadsword blades were being made and exported to the Sudan right through the nineteenth century. Victorian Englishmen thought these swords must have been inspired by contact with the Crusaders, since their plain cross guards and straight blades bear a resemblance to European arming swords. But the type was well known in the Medieval Islamic world. They are very similar to the blades of the Irish ring pommel swords, but at 35 inches long, they are a bit longer than the Irish ring pommel sword blades, which are about 33.25 inches long. Like the Irish sword, the kaskara has a blade with several fullers on the ricasso area, inscribed as narrow grooves. Both feature nearly parallel sides, ending in a spatulate tip. Kaskaras were hilted locally with a simple cross guard with the wooden grip wrapped in leather and instead of a pommel, it was capped with a disc of leather to prevent the hand slipping off the grip when in use. Without the weight of a pommel, the point of balance is much further out than on European swords, being a full 12 inches out from the guard. As a result the blade is not balanced in the hand or nimble at the tip, and could not be used to parry a blow. Rather, it was a dedicated striking instrument for making big slashing cuts from far off. The spatulate tip would cut right out to its end, unlike a more tapered pointed blade, thus maximizing the swordsman’s reach. Its use required the protection of a shield, so it was part of a ‘weapon set’ that also included round shields of rhino hide and spears.
The fencing skill of the Hamran “Arabs” was questioned by Sir Samuel White Baker, who said “the Arabs have not the slightest knowledge of swordsmanship; they never parry with the blade, but trust entirely to the shield, and content themselves with slashing . . . they cannot recover the sword sufficiently quick to parry, therefore they are contented with the shield as their only guard. If opposed to a good swordsman, they would be perfectly at his mercy. . .”(7) The Sudanese obsessively kept their swords sharp, and as Baker noted, “after trying both edges with his thumb, he carefully strops the blade to and fro on his shield until a satisfactory proof of the edge is made by shaving the hair off his arm.” Baker held that “such a weapon possesses immense power, as the edge is nearly as sharp as a razor. . . one good cut delivered by a powerful arm would sever a man at the waist like a carrot. The Arabs are not very powerful men; they are extremely light and active, and generally average about five feet eight inches in height. But their swords are too heavy for their strength . . . Notwithstanding their deficiency in the art of the sword, they are wonderful fellows to cut and slash; and when the sharp edge of the heavy weapon touches an enemy, the effect is terrible.”(7)
Bearing in mind the above list of points drawn from Richard Stanihurst’s account of the kern’s swordsmanship, we can make a closely parallel list regarding the Sudanese kaskara:
• The Hamran were unarmored, but carried a round shield.
• Baker said they “have not the slightest knowledge of swordsmanship”
• The Hamran “content themselves with slashing.”
• “The greatest care is taken in sharpening the swords.”(7)
This sword type has been very well explained by Matt Easton of Schola Gladitoria in a recent video here, which is highly recommended.
Matt Easton is one of the founders of HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), an association of martial artists who explore medieval European fighting techniques based on sources such sources as Fechtbücher and Bolognese sword manuals. Some of these practitioners have turned their attention to the weapons of the medieval Irish and Scots, for which there are no surviving sixteenth century manuals. Christopher Scott Thompson in particular has considered the woodcut ‘Dravne After the Qvicke,’ and feels the kern with drawn ring pommel sword depicts the basic guard stance for this weapon: left foot forward with the sword held back behind the head, blade angled forward, its striking edge held away from the opponent.(8) His left hand is held up besides his cheek, per the advice of 18th century practitioners like McBane and Lonnergan, who advise this stance when cutting or defending on the inside. This seems to indicate the ‘equilibrio’ style of swordplay advocated, for instance, by Page in his brief treatise on the eighteenth century Highland broadsword.
Coda: The Fate of O’Donovan’s Son
In his account of Bagenal’s defeat by Hugh O’Neill at the Battle of Clontibret, 1595, Professor G. A. Hayes-McCoy made a comparison to the running attacks on an army on the march experienced by Hicks Pasha, whose command was ultimately massacred by Mhadist forces in the Sudan on 9 September, 1883. In the van of the Mahdi’s forces were the Hadendowa swordsmen wielding their kaskara blades. And, tragically, among their victims was Edmund, son of John O’Donovan, the foremost Gaelic scholar of the nineteenth century, and possibly of all time.(9) John O’Donovan’s most enduring contribution is his translation of the Annals of the Four Masters, and he accompanied the Ordnance Survey teams as translator and historian.
Edmund was 39 at the time of his death. His eminent father had had him educated by the Jesuits, and recommended he read law or join the R.I.C. Instead, be became a Fenian, and was arrested in 1866 and exiled to America. Arrested a second time and jailed in Limerick, he fled to France and served in the Foreign Legion there during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. A further stint in the Carlist War in Spain decided him to become a war correspondent rather than soldier. Covering the Russian advance into Central Asia, he transgressed the limits of his new profession, encouraging the emirs of Merv to resist the Russian by intimating British support for their actions. After pursuing this ambiguous course of amateur diplomacy in Britain’s ‘great game’ in the east, he transferred to Egypt to report on Hick’s ill-fated expedition up the Nile. So, in contrast to his scholarly father, he died a man of action, likely hewed to death by men whose weapons and techniques bore a close resemblance to those of the sixteenth century Irish kern.(10)
1.) Halpin, Andrew, Irish Medieval Swords, c. 1171-1600, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 1986, pp. 183-230.
2.) Willis, Tony and Halpin, Andrew, A Recently Discovered Sixteenth Century Irish Open Ring Pommel Sword, Spring 2017 Park Lane Arms Fair Catalogue, p. 16, 2017.
3.) Willis, Tony, A Two Handed Gaelic Irish Sword of the Sixteenth Century, Fifteenth Park Lane Arms Fair Catalogue, p. 125, 1998.
4.) McClintock, H. F., Handbook on the Traditional Old Irish Dress, 1958, Dundalgan Press, p. 7.
5.) Stanihurst, Richard, De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis, Dublin, 1584, Ed. Barry & Morgan, 2014, Cork University Press, p. 125.
6.) Willis, Tony and Halpin, Andrew, A Recently Discovered Sixteenth Century Irish Open Ring Pommel Sword, Spring 2017 Park Lane Arms Fair Catalogue, p. 17, 2017.
7.) Baker, Sir Samuel White, The Nile Tributaries of Abyssinia: and the Sword Hunters of the Hamran Arabs, 1868.
8.) Thompson, et al, Scorners of Death: Fighting Skills of the Medieval Gaelic Warrior, Fallen Rook Publishing, 2018, p. 37.
9.) Hayes-McCoy, G. A., Irish Battles: A Military History of Ireland, Longmans, 1969, p. 87.
10.) Ure, John, Sabres on the Steppes, Constable, 2012, p. 227.