A Brief History of the Gallowglass

The Gallowglass

The Gallowglass were a group of elite mercenary warriors who played a significant role in Irish history.

Known for their ferocious fighting skills, the Gallowglass were often hired by Irish chieftains to bolster their armies in times of war and helped turn the tide of battle on many occasions.

The origins of the Gallowglass can be traced back to the 12th century when they first appear in historical records. These formidable warriors were descendants of 10th-century Norse settlers who mingled with the population of Western Scotland and the Hebrides.

Known as Gall Gaeil, or “foreign Gaels” to the Irish, these Norse-Gaelic mercenaries began steadily flowing into Ireland in the 13th century, establishing themselves as a powerful force and catching the eye of ambitious Irish chieftains.

In 1259, Aedh Ó Conchobair, King of Connacht, is said to have received a dowry of 160 Scottish warriors from the daughter of Dubhghall mac Ruaidhri, King of the Hebrides.

The Gallowglass and Anglo-Norman invasions

Notably, the Gallowglass were hired by the powerful O’Neill and O’Donnell clans in an attempt to curtail aggressive Anglo-Norman expansion in Ireland.

The Gallowglass proved to be a formidable force on the battlefield, and their presence helped to tip the balance of power in favour of the Irish chieftains frequently.

Their prowess in battle was also noted by the rising number of Hiberno-Norman nobles, prompting some to hire their own Gallowglass mercenaries. The English Lord Deputy of Ireland is even said to have hired a company of these mercenaries.

Read more Rambling History

The Gallowglass had a significant impact on Irish society. Bringing with them a new type of warfare characterised by the use of heavy armour, broadswords, and massive, two-handed sparth axes, this new style of fighting was quickly adopted by the native Irish.

Despite the introduction of firearms in combat, the Gallowglass remained a powerful force in Ireland until the late 16th century, when they began to decline in number and influence.

Nonetheless, the Gallowglass continued to play a key role in conflicts both in Ireland and on the European mainland. Images by 16th-century French and Dutch artists depicted Gallowglass warriors, for example.

Gallowglasses also served in the Dutch Blue Guards, Swiss Guard and the French Scottish Guard.

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