A history of Ireland in 100 objects


Galloglass gravestone, 15th or 16th century

This stone, 1.75 metres long, was uncovered in the graveyard of the ruined church at Clonca on the Inishowen peninsula, in Co Donegal. Made of dark limestone, it is finely carved with a crucifix and a floral motif.

The name on stone is that of Magnas MacMhoireasdain “of the Isles”. But what is most striking are the images on the right-hand side of the cross: a sword and hurley stick and ball – one of the first images of the ancient game.

The sword is a typical late-mediaeval variety from the west of Scotland.

The stick and ball suggest that Magnas was famed for his skill at what was called winter hurling, a form of the game played in the north of Ireland and in Scotland.

English sources divide Irish military forces into horsemen, kerns and galloglasses. There were professional soldiers in the first two categories, but their ranks were swollen, in times of war, by ordinary farmers — only the clergy and the learned classes were exempted from the duty to respond to a general “hosting” of the clan.

Remarkably, even after hundreds of years of intermixing with Anglo- Normans and experiencing the greater power of organised cavalry, the Irish horsemen still refused to use stirrups – a striking testament to the conservatism of indigenous culture.

But the galloglass, of whom Magnas was one, were pure professional soldiers. The word (gallóglach), which means “foreign warrior”, is first used in the late 13th century for mercenaries recruited from the mixed Scottish-Norse population of the Western Isles. Throughout the 14th century, large numbers continued to arrive from the islands and highlands of Scotland, drawn from the losing factions in internal conflicts. From the beginning, however, these Gaelic-speaking mercenaries were integrated into Irish society.

In particular, two galloglass families became prominent in Irish affairs: the MacSweenys (former lords of Knapdale in Argyle) and the MacDonnells became, respectively, subchiefs of the O’Donnells and the O’Neills. The MacSweenys spread southwards from Tirconnell (Donegal) into Connacht and then into Munster, where they served the various MacCarthy clans, though by the late 16th century they were divided into two feuding factions. “The cause of their malice is that either sept do think themselves of better descent than the other.” The MacDonnells, meanwhile, spread into Co Mayo.

Each galloglass had a padded coat, helmet, dagger and the distinctive long-handled axe that marked them out. The warrior was accompanied by a manservant to carry his equipment and a boy to carry and cook his food; the unit of three was known as a spar, and 100 spars was the standard grouping. These men were quartered on the general population (a practice known as bonnaght), a cruel imposition in time of protracted war.

As warriors, the galloglass had a reputation for do-or-die courage. One account of 1534 notes that “these sort of men be those that do not lightly abandon the field but bide the brunt to the death”, and the annals mention whole battalions of galloglasses dying together in battle. This professional ethic raised the level of militarisation in Gaelic society, making it a more formidable barrier to the expansion of English control.

Where to see it The original is in Clonca graveyard, Co Donegal; this cast (right) is in the GAA Museum, Croke Park, Dublin