The Image of Irelande; Plate 2. An armed company of the kern, carrying halberds and pikes and led by a piper, attack and burn a farmhouse and drive off the horses and cattle.
Irish gallowglass and kern. Drawing by Albrecht Dürer, 1521.
A plate from The Image of Irelande, by John Derricke, published in 1581. The chief sitting at his table, entertained by his bard and harper is thought to be a “Mac Sweyne” (Clan Sweeney).
A raid depicted in The Image of Irelande (1581). Kern made up the bulk of the army, as light infantrymen.
With skulles upon their poules,
Insteade of civil cappes,
With speares in hand and sword by sides,
To bear off afterclappes;
With jackettes long and large,
Which shroud simplicitie:
Though spiteful dartes which they do beare
Their shirtes be verie straunge,
Not reaching paste the thigh,
With pleates on pleates they pleated are,
As thicke as pleates may lye.
Whose slieves hang trailing doune,
Almoste unto the shoe,
And with a mantle commonlie
The Irish Karne doe goe.
And some amongst the reste,
Do use another weede:
A coat I ween of strange device,
Which fancie first did breed.
His skirtes be verie shorte,
With pleates set thicke about,
And Irish trouzes more, to put
Their straunge protractours out.
Like as their weedes be straunge,
And monstrous to beholde;
So do their manners far surpasse
Them all a thousand folde.
For they are termed wilde,
Wood Karne they have to name;
And mervaile not though straunge it be,
For they deserve the same.
— from The Image of Irelande, by John Derricke (London, 1581).
Kern are mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Acts I and V):
The merciless Macdonwald–
Worthy to be a rebel, for to that
The multiplying villanies of nature
Do swarm upon him–from the western isles
Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied;
Mark, king of Scotland, mark:
No sooner justice had with valour arm’d
Compell’d these skipping kerns to trust their heels,
But the Norweyan lord surveying vantage,
With furbish’d arms and new supplies of men
Began a fresh assault.
I cannot strike at wretched kerns, whose arms
Are hired to bear their staves: either thou, Macbeth,
Or else my sword with an unbatter’d edge
I sheathe again undeeded.
The gallowglass or galloglass (also spelt gallowglas or galloglas) — from Irish: gallóglaigh (plural), gallóglach (singular) — were a class of elite mercenary warriors who principally were members of the Norse-Gaelic clans of Scotland between the mid XIII century and late XVI century. As Scots, they were Gaels and shared a common background and language with the Irish, but as they had intermarried with the X century Norse settlers of western Scotland, the Irish called them Gall Gaeil (“foreign Gaels”).
Large numbers of gallowglass septs settled in Ireland after being dispossessed of their lands in Scotland for choosing the wrong sides in the Wars of Scottish Independence. The first and probably most famous of these were the MacSweeneys (who unlike most were said to be of native Irish ancestry) settled originally by the O’Donnells in west Donegal. These were followed by MacDonnells, MacCabes, and several other groups settled by powerful Irish nobles in different areas. The gallowglass were attractive as a heavy armour-trained aristocratic infantry to be relied on as a strong defence for holding a position. In time there came to be many native Irish gallowglass as the term came to mean a type of warrior rather than an ethnic designation.
They were a significant part of Irish infantry before the advent of gunpowder, and depended upon seasonal service with Irish chieftains. A military leader would often choose a gallowglass to serve as his personal aide and bodyguard because, as a foreigner, the gallowglass would be less subject to local feuds and influences.
The word kern is an anglicisation of the Middle Irish word ceithern or ceithrenn meaning a collection of persons, particularly fighting men. An individual member is a ceithernach. The word may derive from a conjectural proto-Celtic word *keternā, ultimately from an Indo-European root meaning a chain. It was adopted into English as a term for a Gaelic soldier in mediæval Ireland.
The lower position in a two-tiered army structure, lightly-armed and swiftly moving kern infantrymen attended the more skilled and heavily armoured gallowglass on the battlefield. The dart was the kern weapon of choice; javelins, and slings were also used in battle. They made up the overwhelming majority of Gaelic forces in the Middle Ages.