The gallowglass, known in Gaelic as Gall Oglaighs
(or any of a nigh-infinite
number of other spellings) or "young foreign warrior," was a type of Irish heavy infantry
which fought from the medieval
to the early modern
period. The origin of the term itself is lost to history
; a number of theories about the word exist, connecting the original gallowglasses to anything from stranded Vikings
in the eighth and ninth centuries to Knights Templar
who made a convinient appearance at the Battle of Bannockburn
two years after their 1312 AD excommunication
. The last theory holds rather little to no water, however, and the best guesses place the gallowglass as entering into the world sometime in the tenth or eleventh centuries.
Debates about the origin of the gallowglasses aside, one thing is certain: they were scary, scary fellows in battle. Having a reputation in the medieval era as mercenaries, they tended to be used as shock troops in battle. Known for a distinctive kit including a long coat of maille (or a well-made gambeson for poorer gallowglasses) and a conical helmet, they charged into battle with a greatsword that is generally seen as the precursor to the claymore, or a large battleaxe known as the sparth. It is said that the morale of opposing armies would break at the mere sight of these half-crazed warriors, charging towards their enemies with pointed and edged objects as long as a man was tall.
The gallowglass fought throughout the British Isles for centuries, earning mentions in literature such as William Shakespeare's MacBeth, and a particular fear and respect among the English. The twilight of the gallowglass came with the introduction of gunpowder weapons in the late medieval period, particularly after the 1601 Battle of Kinsale. In the wake of that battle, which saw the Irish defeated by the English, the gallowglass faded into history and legend.
Kinsale may have signalled the twilight of the gallowglass, but these men, among the last of the great ancient warriors of Europe, lived on in culture and memory. The old literature lives on in plays, movies and fiction, and innumerable people, places and things share their name. (Bands and pubs are particularly enamored with the word.) The gallowglasses themselves, and their descendants, slowly merged into the growing national armies of the time, lending their distinctive style to the British military as late as the First World War, where many Irish and Scottish regiments were noted for their particularly enthusiastic charges. The last of the gallowglasses are likely to be outlived by their legends for some time to come.