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Medieval Army Lists

Norse Irish (846-1260 AD)
DBA DBA #112

By Tim Donovan

This list covers Irish armies during their three hundred years of incessant warfare against the Vikings and Ostmen, including the epic battle of Clontarf in 1014. The latter part of this period covers the the initial Norman invasion till the Irish recruit large numbers of the ferocious Galloglaich mercenaries and widely adopt the use of Light Horse to counter the Knights, Bills, and Bows of the English.

Historical Context

The Initial Raids: At the time of the initial Viking raids Ireland was a patchwork of around 150 tribal kingdoms loosely grouped into the five provinces of Munster, Leinster, Connaught, Ulster, and Meath.. The Provincial kings and nominal High King had little real power to control their quarrelsome subjects so that effective resistance against any outside aggression was nearly impossible.

The first Viking raid hit Lambey island near Dublin in 795 and for the next forty years small fleets struck at the whole of the Irish coast. The favored tactic of the early raiders was to attack churches and monasteries during religious festivals to ensure a good haul of captives for their lucrative slave trade. The plundered gold and relics were simply an added bonus. This style of raiding continued till around 846 when the Vikings began constructing permanent fortified longhports with the largest and most notable one at Dublin.

Initially all of the raiders were Norwegians, but in 851 a large Danish fleet attacked and captured Dublin. Two years later Olaf the White, son of the Norwegian King, struck back recapturing Dublin and forcing many of the Danes into Irish service as mercenaries. Olafıs and his son Ivarıs ambitions went beyond plunder to conquest and political control with the founding the Kingdom of Dublin. They soon found themselves entangled in the quagmire of Irish politics that ensured fighting for one Irish lord as an ally turned many more against them. The Irish, widely adopting Viking weapons and mercenaries, were very effective in exploiting the competing interests and rivalry of the Norse and Danes and won a string of notable victories following the initial setbacks. By 873 Olaf and his son Ivar were both dead the Kingdom of Dublin went into sharp decline with the Vikings suffering a long series of defeats till their near complete expulsion from Dublin and Ireland in 902.

The Second Onslaught: The Vikings now found themselves repulsed in France and England, so returned to Ireland in force around 914. They established large permanent settlements at Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, and Limerick, from which they launched large raids inland along the major waterways and navigable rivers. The Irish were hard-pressed and suffered horribly in the first years of this second onslaught. However, with permanent settlements, the Vikings lost the primary advantage of mobility and became vulnerable to resurgent Irish resistance. To further complicate matters the principal settlement of Dublin was most often pre-occupied with attempting to conquer York while the other settlements were often at odds with one another. The disunity of the Irish and inherent value of the Vikings as mercenaries and merchants did allow for the enclaves to survive. Now long established, the Norse and Danish settlers, through frequent intermarriage, conversion to Christianity, and adoption of the Gaelic language, lost so much of their old Viking identity with the Irish now referred to them as Ostmen (Men of the East) to distinguish them from the foreign Norse and Danish raiders.

The Epic Affair at Clontarf: By the time Brian Boru lost his life and won the epic battle of Clontarf the power and influence of the Ostmen settlements were in sharp decline. All had been sacked or forced to pay tribute more than once before 1000. Thus the Battle of Clontarf has been relegated to minor significance as simply another battle amongst warring Irish factions when High King Brian Boru defeated an alliance between the rebellious King of Leisnter, the Dublin Ostmen, and their vast host of Vikings allies.

However, if taken in context of the events in the whole of the British Isles at the time, the triumph can become staggeringly important. Sweyn Forkbeard, whose mother was Irish, had often harried the coast of Ireland and most recently conquered England. It is well established that Sitrygg Silkybeard, King of Dublin, offered the High Kingship of Ireland to Sigurd the stout of the Orkneys in return for his joining the attack on Boru. However Sitrygg had neither the power or authority to do so and the only person capable of making such a grandiose offer would have been Sweyn Forkbeard. If Sitrygg was an emissary to Sigurd, and the offer was the kingdom of Ireland in alliance with Sweynıs newly won Kingdom in England then the threat to the whole of the British Isles becomes immense. With Gilli, Sweynıs brother-in-law ruling the Hebrides and Sweyn and Sigurd in control of Ireland, England, and the Orkneys they eventually and almost assuredly could have put the rest of the British Isles firmly in the Vikings grasp. That winter though, Sweyn died. However the armies had already been put into motion and on Good Friday 1014 the Plain of Clontarf turned red in a mutual slaughter that saw all of the major Nobles of this drama, excepting the wily Sitrygg, perish.

In this context Clontarf becomes as important as Hastings with the exception that the native defender won. This could help explain the vast wealth of myth and legend that surrounds the battle and why the chronicles of the times refer to it as "the most famous of battles fought across the sea both because of the numbers who fought in it and the importance of the result." Regardless of its importance to historians and their agendas, it was and still is, "a battle best left to the legendmakerıs hand."

The Norman Invasion: The final part of this period covers the initial phase of the attempted Norman conquest of Ireland. Chaos ensued for nearly two hundred years after the death of Boru with the Provincial Kings slaughtering each other gleefully in vain attempts at securing the empty title of High King. One such loser in these wars was Dermot Mac Murrough, the King of Leinster. In 1165 Dermot was at the height of his power, and controlling Dublin, had lent its fleet to King Henry II of England for his campaign in Wales. By August 1166 Dermot was an exile after being ousted from his realm for defying the High King and abducting a more than willing wife of another provincial King. Destitute, he traveled to France where Henry was campaigning to collect on the debt owed to him.

Henry declined to become personally involved but did allow for Dermot him to recruit mercenaries back in England. In the Welsh marches Dermot found the perfect ally in the person of Earl Richard "Strongbow." The Earlıs Estate, granted to his grandfather by William for services at Hastings, had recently been confiscated by King Henry after the Earl and many of his relatives had opposed the King.

So these two "exiled" Nobles along with a polyglot force of knights, Welsh archers and mercenary Flemish pikemen set out for Ireland in 1169 to win back a realm. Dermot, reputedly handsome and charming, rallied back many of his old allies and together with the Earl conquers Leinster, Dublin and Waterford by force while Wexford surrenders without a fight. Dermot then suddenly dies in 1171, and by agreement the Earl, who wed Dermotıs daughter amongst the ruins and slaughter of Waterford, assumes the throne of the Kingdom of Leinster. The Irish now belatedly realize the threat of a foreigner on the throne of one of the five provinces but even with the assistance of a massive Norse attack against Dublin they are powerless dislodge him.

Unfulfilled Conquest: King Henry of England, fearing the creation of a rival Norman state across the narrow Irish Sea, finally invades in 1174 with a massive host and makes a bloodless circuit of the Island securing the loyalty of nearly all of the Norman and Irish lords. He astutely plays the remaining Irish Lords, by securing their titles and lands, against the conquering Normans to curb their power while taking Dublin, Waterford and Wexford for the crown.

After his departure the Norman invaders, always few in numbers, simply fit into the cycle of Irish politics and war. They never conquer the rugged West or North and further complicate matters by fighting among themselves and forging alliances with the remaining Irish rulers. These alliances, typically through intermarriage, combined with the peculiar effect of Ireland itself on any resident foreigner eventually ensures that they simply "go native" and become "more Irish than the Irish themselves.

As was the case of the Vikings, these new invaders have a profound effect on the style of Irish warfare. The importation of heavy cavalry, massed archers, and castles force a change in the Irish style of warfare (hence a new army list) that brings about the large scale recruitment of the ferocious Galloglaich mercenaries and adoption Light Horse to counter the Knights, Bows, and Blades of the Anglo-Irish.

Style of Warfare

The Vikings made a large impact on the Irish militarily. Until their appearance battles were mainly ritualistic in nature, often with a few champions fighting on foot or earlier from small two-horse chariots. Weapons in general were feeble and archaic and although a few notable pitched battle took place most warfare was predominately small raids and a matter of vengeance, glory, and plunder. With the arrival of the Vikings, and especially from the time of establishing permanent settlements, Irish warfare changed profoundly. Better Norse weapons, especially heavy swords and war axes were widely adopted as were larger an sturdier shields. The best of the noble warriors also adopted coats of chain and metal helms but the lack of iron resources and general poverty of the pastoral culture ensured that the majority of the warriors still fought as unarmored infantry with javelins and occasionally with slings. Mercenaries had always been a prominent feature in Irish warfare and the Vikings and Gael Gaedhil simply replaced the Franks and Scots of earlier times. Many of the Irish rode to battle but the lack of stirrups and framed saddles relegated those few who remained mounted into the role of light horse. War fleets, either built and maintained or hired also became a prominent feature of warfare in this era with the Irish beating the Vikings in fleet actions on more than a few occasions.

The traditional view of Irish warfare was that they preferred to plunder, raid, and harry the enemy while being loath to stand up to them in open battle. It is true that the Irish, in their rugged country, did excel at this style of guerrilla warfare. This is only partially true as the Irish were known to fight a good number of pitched battles against the Vikings. One of the principal accounts of the era "The Cogad Gaedel re Gallaib " relates Brian Boruıs strategy for war. In it he consults with his captains and they discuss the strategy for assembling the forces and supplies necessary to go to war, and then decide to march to a particular place to observe the enemy so as to ascertain if they were able to give them battle and if not to make a wood and camp assault on them. A clear distinction is drawn between offering a pitched battle in the open or to resort to harrying tactics against a superior enemy, advice that every Irish wargamer would be wise to follow.

Enemies

Norman (102c), Viking (106a), Pre-Feudal Scots (111), Norse Irish (112), Scots Isles and Highlands (128), Anglo-Norman (134), Anglo-Irish (144)

Not included in the list but probable enemies include Sub-Roman Strathclyde (82), Welsh (92), Middle Anglo-Saxon (75b), Anglo-Danish (113), Scots Common (140), and Feudal English (145).

Army List

1 x 4Aux or 4Sp (4Wb) The Noble Irish. Typically armed with sword and javelin but also carrying a heavy axe capable of defeating Viking armor. Helmets and chain armor may have been worn by a few and larger shield were also utilized. The spear element is based on Brian Boruıs pen of shields at Clontarf and is a very dubious element at best. His son actually led the army and fought as a ferocious warband of noble "Hostage Sons" that broke all before them on the battlefield and I strongly suggest amending the list to portray this.
3 x 4BD The Ostmen (Men of the East) The Viking settlers in Ireland that still fought as heavily armed and armored infantry.
1 x 3/4Wb or 3Aux The Gael Gaedhil. Renegade mercenary bands in times of war or despised outlaws and brigands during times of peace. Typically they were Irish boys raised by the Norse and the combination of Celtic and Norse warrior ethos produced exceptionally ferocious fighters despised by all. Brian Boru sent them raiding England and Alba during times of peace to rid Ireland of this menace till they were slaughtered en masse at Clontarf.
4 x 3Aux Bonnachts. These are the typical Irish warriors, unarmored and equipped with javelins, shield, shortsword or dagger.
3 x 2Ps Kerns. These are the skirmishers, typically relying on javelins but also a few armed with slings and very rarely bows.
1 x 2Lh Light Horse. This is not an option with the DBA list but I highly reccomend painting a stand or two if you plan on refighting the later battles of the Viking Era and any against the Normans and English. The riders are typically without armor or have very little and ride small rugged horses without the use of stirrups or framed saddles.

Painting & Figure Guide

Nobles: The figures are best represented by a mix of armored and unarmored men with large shields armed with a mix of axes, swords and javelins. I use a whole variety of Vikings, Picts, Saxons, Scots, Franks, and Irish figures. They wear saffron or light colored natural tunics while the cloaks are a mix of leather or can be green, blue, red, red-brown, brown or gray with a contrasting border or stripe with a checkered cloaks thrown into the mix. If the Spear option that I despise is used Lowland Scots or better equipped Saxon Fyrd figures would be appropriate.

Bonnachts: Unarmored, barefoot, clad only in a loose fitting tunic and armed with javelins and a small round shield. Gaelic law prescribed the number and type of colors a person could wear depending on their rank in society. I mix figures in the traditional saffron tunics with green, red-brown and blue-gray ones being careful to never use more than 2 colors on a lower class warrior.

Kerns: Similar to Bonnachts or possibly dressed in the traditional trews and a short tight-fitting jacket. They are unarmored with only about half bearing a shield and typically armed with javelin and dagger although a few may have used slings.

Ostmen: Vikings, most in chain and helmets bearing their dreaded axe. The Dublin Vikings are known to prefer red cloaks and often rode horses to the battle and may have on occasion fought from horseback.

Gael Gaedhil: My stands are a mix of a typical Viking in chain or leather, a bare-chested berserker, and a wild Celt in a saffron tunic and armed with an axe. Highland Scots and Galwegians (the area took its name from them) are an easy morph and work well.

Camps

A herd of cattle, flock of sheep, beached longship, nobles tent, small circular stone rath, or cattle drawn wagon or praying monks would all make for a suitable camp.

Miniature Suppliers

25mm Old Glory (Arthurian, Dark Ages, and WOTR ranges) provides for very suitable Bonnachts, Kern and Ostmen. Gripping Beast (Scots, Picts) and Foundry (Picts, Vikings, Franks, Balearic slingers) all make suitable figures for the whole range and they mix well together and produce a stunning and varied army.

15mm Generic Essex figures or better yet Feudal Castings will provide one with everything they need.

Tactics

The Irish are deadly in rough and broken terrain and can be used very successfully with practice. The standard tactic is to use the Ostmen to hold a gap in rough terrain while the Kern (Ps) skirmish off one enemy flank while the fleet-footed Bonnachts (Ax) chew up the oppositions light troops and then fall on the flank of the enemies main battleline.

A risky but very effective option against the Vikings or other heavy foot armies, is to place the general in the warband element. Flanked by the Ostmen, charge into the enemies battleline and rip a hole while the Bonnachts and Kern fall on and turn or hold off the flanks. Many a Viking army has been shredded this way although admittedly many an Irish general has died a cruel and gory death this way.

Campaign battles against somewhat similar armies such as the Welsh and Scots require completely different tactics. Neutralize their warbands with the Bonnachts (Ax) as they are faster and need be only one rank deep while the Ostmen (Bd) will stand firmly against their mounted troops. If the enemy fields bows these are your main targets as the Ostmen and Bonnachts can chew them to pieces. The numerous Kern (Ps) and an additional Bonnacht or two are the Œkillers" and should use their speed to swarm the flanks of the enemy, attack the camp, and dominate the rough. If the enemy is able to put warbands on the Ostmen and Mounted against the Light troops all you can hope for is high rolls.

Mounted armies, especially the Normans, are a real nightmare and skill and luck still may not be enough to defeat them. Try to chew up any foot accompanying the army with the Bonnachts swarming on the flank while the Kern should back up the Ostmen to hold any open terrain in front the camp and be prepared to fall on an opportune flank. I occasionally will place a lone element(s) far off and slightly behind the flank(s) of the main battleline as a threat to the rear of any flank turning moves by the enemy mounted troops. They must either spend precious pips to chase these loners down or risk them falling on the rear for a risky attempt at a recoil kill. The Irish will always loose troops so do not hesitate to sacrifice them wisely to draw a Knight into the rough terrain or rupture the main battleline.

Regardless of the enemy, timing the main attack is critical. While waiting for the "pips" to swarm, distract the enemy with a lone Bonnacht or Kern rushing the camp and always threaten their General if possible. Dominate the rough terrain and use it to send a swift moving column of Bonnachts rushing behind the main battleline. Victory in half of your battles will be a stunning achievement.

Background Resources

Arthur and the Anglo Saxon Wars. David Nicolle, 1984 Osprey (#154)
Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: Middle Ages, Hooper & Bennet, 1996
Conquest of England, Eric Linklater, 1966, Doubleday & Company
Early Medieval Ireland, Daibhi O' Croinin, 1995, Longman History of Ireland
The Fury of the Northmen, John Marsden, 1993, St. Martin's Press
Historical Atlas of the Vikings, John Haywood, 1995, Penguin
History of the Vikings, Gwyn Jones, 1968, Oxford
Irish Battles, Hayes-McCoy, 1969, Barnes & Nobles
Kings and Vikings, P.H. Sawyer, 1994, Barnes & Nobles
Lion Of Ireland, Morgan LLywellyn, 1981, Tor
Medieval Historical Battles 732 to 1485, Peter Sides, 1993, Gosling
Medieval Ireland, Michael Richter, 1995, St. Martinıs press
Medieval Warfare Sourcebook, David Nicolle, 1995, Arms and Armour
Neglected Heroes, Terry Gore, 1995, Praeger
Njals Saga, Magnus Magnusson translated by Hermann Palson, 1960, Penguin
Norman Invasion of Ireland, The, Richard Roche, 1995, Anvil.
"Stern Sudden Thunder Motion" Guy Halsall, Miniature Wargames 1986
The Viking art of War, Paddy Griffith, 1995, Greenhill Books

WRG:
Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome, Phil Barker
Armies of the Dark Ages, Ian Heath,
Army Lists, Book Two, 55bc -1000 AD (for WRG Rules)
DBM Army Lists, Book 3 : 476 AD to 1071 AD
DBA


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Last Updated: March 17, 2000.

My thanks to Tim Donovan for this essay. Questions, comments and suggestions welcome. Send your feedback to Chris Brantley, IamFanaticus@gmail.com.