Subject: ceithernach 'kern' light infantry skirmisher
Culture: Gaelic Irish
Setting: Ireland 15-17thc
Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)
"More a force of nature than a professional soldier, by Shakespeare’s time the ‘shag-hair’d crafty kern’ had mushroomed in the English popular imagination to become a figure of hate, a semi-mythic bogeyman lurking in the woods. From the point of view of an Irish lord, kern were a means to wage war, a means to overawe, a means to survive. Yet historians have paid them only passing attention.The word ‘kern’ is a phonetic rendering in English of the Irish ceithearn, meaning in a general sense a ‘war-band’ or ‘troop’ and having its roots in words signifying ‘battle’ and ‘slaughter’. From ceithearn we get ceithearnach for ‘trooper’. The ceithearnach was, however, understood to be a specific type of Irish soldier—he was the light infantryman of Gaelic Ireland, distinguished by his equipment and manner of fighting from the country’s two other major troop types, the galloglass and the horseman.
"Even a colonial administrator as hostile to the Irish way of life as Edmund Spenser could admire the stoical resilience of Irish kern, hailing them as ‘great endurers of cold, labour, hunger, and all hardness’, and ‘very great scorners of death’."
"Rather than bodily defence, ‘skipping kerns’ (Shakespeare, Macbeth) relied on speed and surprise to see them through. When it came to battle, kern would make a sudden rush on the enemy, bellowing war cries, pipes blaring, pitching their darts, before setting to work with broad-edged sword and dirk. If the enemy held his ground, the kern’s effectiveness was liable to wane. Principally irregular skirmishers rather than field infantrymen, kern had limited staying power in the face of missile fire or sustained assault. For this reason it was, says Camden’s Britannia, the heavily armed, axe-wielding galloglass who were commonly ‘set in the rearguard’, providing much-needed ballast to the darting waves of kern and horsemen. But when it came to ambushes, raiding, reconnaissance work and the murky, scrappy techniques of inter-clan warfare, the ceithearnach was absolutely first-rate."
* Heath & Sque 1993 p
* Heath & Sque 1993 p
"The Irish foot soldiers of this period were the ceitern, usually anglicised “kernes.” In the oldest Irish dictionaries the singular noun “ceithearnach” is defined as “a soldier, a sturdy fellow.” This double definition is in itself a tribute to the men who, from the time of Art MacMurragh Cavanagh to the “Flight of the Earls,” fought Ireland’s fight against outside aggression. Their very distinctive dress had as its main feature a long, full shirt, saffron in colour. It was worn gathered up at the waist by a girdle, or belt, so that it did not reach below the knees. And since its fullness gave to it the appearance of a kilt which is worn today by our Army pipers.
"Some of these kernes were armed with skeans and long spears, others carried light axes, and others again carried two or three throwing spears and a short bow. Their only defensive equipment was a helmet and, occasionally, a hide – covered wooden shield not more than two feet in diameter. Other notable features of their uniform were the long baggy sleeves of their shirts, and the short coat with its half – sleeves and ruffled waist.
"An English official, writing to Henry V111 in 1543, expresses his surprise that the kerns should be so “hard to be beaten,” having no defensive armour, “but only their shirts and small coats.” When Shane O ‘Neill paid a visit to Queen Elizabeth he caused some consternation in English circles by taking with him an escort of these kerns. The rich saffron colour of their great shirts was much remarked upon by the Queen’s chroniclers."
"Kern did not, of course, go into battle naked. For a start, a loose tunic, often saffron-coloured during the Tudor period, was typically worn, sometimes with a short coat. For warmth, a kern wrapped himself in a shaggy cloak or brat. We know that kern used shields; pictorial sources suggest, too, an occasional use of helmets and gauntlets, and Jean Froissart (c. 1337–c. 1410) includes a description of the Irish wearing ‘very simple’ armour (perhaps leather or fabric forms of protection). But to an English man-at-arms encased in iron plate this lack—or very minimal use—of metal armour would have amounted to ‘nakedness’."