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Gaelic military formations in the Nine Years War

Updated: Sep 11, 2022

At the time of the outbreak of the Nine Years War, with the exception of the O’Neills, the fighting formations of the Irish were at best outdated, but in truth obsolete. The main European fighting formations, including the English were pikemen and musket men (shot). The main Irish battle tactic was the ambush, to which their soldiers were best suited. They were not capable of facing the English in a pitched battle. Hence the urgency of O’Neill and other leaders to train their men in the use of firearms, import weapons from the continent and Scotland and get as many Spanish trainers as they could.

Below are the main troop types of the Irish clans at the time of the outbreak of the Nine Years War:


These were mercenary soldiers, usually Scottish or of Scottish descent. These were heavily armed mercenaries who used long axes with curved blades. The main Irish houses usually had clans of Galloglass that worked for them on a permanent basis. A Galloglass leader was called a constable, a formation of Galloglass a battle and a Galloglass usually had the support of a horseboy or Kern and this was referred to as a spar. Galloglass got paid around three cattle per quarter.

Above is an example of an O'Neill Galloglass at the Hill of O'Neill


These are ‘new Scots’ or Scottish mercenaries hired directly from Scotland, usually seasonally. They were called Redshanks because they went barelegged. They were usually armed with swords and bows. They normally got paid the same as Galloglass, around three cows per quarter.


These were armed with muskets and were used to harass the enemy with hit and run tactics. The Irish lords tried to retrain their Galloglass and other experienced soldiers to become either shot or pike as fast as circumstances would allow. Depending on the clan, the amount of shot the Irish armies could field would depend on their access to guns and ammunition. The O'Neills had the best network of merchants and smugglers willing to procure weapons for them and they normally distributed guns and ammunition to the smaller clans Therefore, the O’Neills were mainly armed with shot while the smaller clans were not.

Above is an example of an O'Neill musketeer at the Hill of O'Neill


There is little evidence that the pike was widely available to the Irish rebels. These formations also did not suit the Irish style of ambush warfare. However, the more progressive clans such as the O'Neills converted many of their Galloglass into pike units and used them in their key battles.

This is an example of a Maguire pikeman in Enniskillen Castle


These were usually the nobility of the clan. They rode without stirrups, which potentially made them unstable when facing heavier English cavalry, and were usually armed with javelins. They were more useful for harassing an enemy than for use as shock troops. The English thought them only good for stealing cattle.


These were traditional Irish light infantry who were peasants who were equipped the same to go cattle rustling as they were to go into battle. While the English thought them to be useless they still employed kern in their Irish armies. They were usually not armoured and supplied their own weapons. The weapon of choice was the dart. They also used javelins, swords and bows. Their main uses were to support the heavier armed Galloglass, capture and herd cattle away from enemy territory, and against the English, they were used for lighting attacks and harassment. They usually got paid around one cow per quarter.

The Irish formations were supported by experienced Irish mercenaries who had fought mainly with the Spanish army in the Dutch Revolt. These men would have been skilled in modern European warfare and made a vital backbone to the Irish military formations. The Irish were also trained by Spaniards who had survived the Spanish Armada, Irish veterans who had served in the European continental armies and defectors from the English army.

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