Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Irish project (An Tionscadal na hÉireann)

In January this year, I finally got around to ordering some of the Timeline Miniatures Irish from their Border Reivers range (formerly of Monolith Designs/Graven Images). I posted about this earlier, and have alluded to it in other posts, but I thought I'd give an update and sketch out a bit of my plans for the project going forward.


Elizabeth I's wars in Ireland were a bit like a prolonged Vietnam/Boer War/Malayan Emergency. An army designed to fight for a nation state against other nation states found itself in the midst of an insurgency fighting an enemy who used guerrilla tactics. Much of the fighting in the wars involved ambushes of English columns on the march to support isolated outposts. The only thing like a stand-up battle was the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, where the Irish forces of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, discovered why they had hitherto stuck with fighting in woods and bogs: those tactics worked, taking on the English in an open field, not so much.

Since the Norman invasion under Strongbow in Henry II's reign, England had sought to subjugate Ireland. By the time of Henry VIII, Ireland had pretty much subsumed her conquerors and the Anglo-Irish nobility had mostly gone native except for those within the Pale, the area surrounding Dublin where the royal writ was still honored.

The English Reformation was probably a significant catalyst to change all that. Having succeeding in changing England's religion by royal decree, Henry found the Irish less willing to switch. The brief reign of Mary I didn't do much to alleviate religious tensions, which only grew worse with the accession of Elizabeth in 1558. Elizabeth's policies were aimed at effectively de-Irishing the Irish. Their laws and customs were targeted to be replaced by English law, English custom, and the English church—this latter was especially true after Elizabeth was excommunicated by Pope Pius V in 1570 and in retaliation she imposed greater restrictions on Catholic practice throughout her realm, including recalcitrantly-Catholic Ireland.

Seeing the slow encroachment gradually undoing their way of life, many Irish chieftains were alarmed enough to break out in rebellion. The two rebellions of the Earl of Desmond (1568-73, 1579-83) were a resurgence of the Gaelic Irish against Anglicization. The result was the despoiling of Munster, famine, further suppression of Irish customs, plantations of English settlers in Munster, and the Earl's head decorating Traitor's Gate at the Tower of London.

English troops returning successfully from an expedition with prisoners—and heads!

In 1580, Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne rose up against Elizabeth's new Lord Deputy, Arthur Grey de Wilton. At the Battle of Glenmalure, Grey de Wilton lead his army of about 3,000 men into a trap and suffered a huge defeat, losing at least a third of his force, abandoning many weapons and military stores, and retreating pell-mell back to Dublin.

The major conflict of the period was the rebellion of Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone. Known often as "Tyrone's Rebellion," it's formally called The Nine Years War and occurred from 1594 – 1603.

English forces cross the ford at Belleek under covering fire from musketeers and calivermen

When the war started, Tyrone was still maintaining a pretense of loyalty to the crown. He provided troops to Hugh Maguire in 1593 and again to Maguire and Hugh O'Donnell (Tyrone's brother-in-law) in 1594 when they fought and won the scrumptiously-named Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits. However, in February of 1595, Tyrone declared himself in rebellion.

Tyrone's Irish confederation was initially successful using traditional Irish tactics of raid and ambush. Tyrone was able to distract the English to react in one place while he made gains in another. His greatest victory was the Battle of the Yellow Ford, near Armagh, An English force of about 4,000, en route to relieve a besieged garrison at the Blackwater Fort, was ambushed and beaten, losing about half its numbers killed or deserted. (Many soldiers in "English" regiments, were in fact Irish and were prone to switch sides—many of Tyrone's men got their military training from the English.)

The largest force sent against Tyrone was the 16,000 troops commanded by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (daddy to the ECW Parliamentarian commander) in 1599. Essex squandered his force by breaking it out into garrisons, focusing on the south, and doing very little against Ulster and Tyrone. In the end, he wound up making a disadvantageous truce with Tyrone and went home in disgrace—soon to lose his head after a desperate attempt to restore his dignity by overthrowing Elizabeth (don't mess with Queenie).

By 1601, the war had dragged on with neither side close to victory. Despite many defeats—and being economically on the ropes—the English still possessed superior resources to Tyrone and could replace their losses. Tyrone had finally managed to get the Spanish to send an expedition, which landed at Kinsale in Munster. The English under Mountjoy, their most capable commander, promptly besieged the Spanish and Tyrone and his allies marched south from Ulster to break the siege and, hopefully, inflict a decisive defeat on the English forces. The result, however, was the disastrous Battle of Kinsale. Tyrone's army was routed, the Spanish—who sat out the battle behind the walls of Kinsale—capitulated, and the English took to reducing Munster in their typical fire and sword fashion. After Kinsale, the Irish cause pretty much collapsed.

The war went on until 1603 when James I, who had succeeded Elizabeth that year, made a truce with the Irish lords that granted them pardons—and pardons, too, for all the rebels throughout Ireland—in return for swearing loyalty to the crown and agreeing to the loss of all the things they'd been in rebellion to keep. It was an uneasy truce poisoned with mutual distrust. In 1607, Tyrone and other Irish lords left Ireland for Spain where they hoped to raise an army to restart the war, but nothing came of it. They never saw Ireland again, their lands were confiscated by the crown, and James accelerated the colonization of Ulster with plantations of Scots and English settlers.

Irish forces

The fighting men of the Irish insurgency underwent a change during the years of the wars. The traditional Irish forces were pretty much a chieftain's kern and hired gallowglass, and possibly some Scottish mercenaries known as "redshanks". However, the Irish forces—especially those under Tyrone—were aggressive in adopting the newer weapons and tactics of the time. Dart-wielding kern gave way to more-disciplined caliver-armed shot. The pike, too, was introduced in large numbers.

Reenactors (the chain-link fencing and barbed wire are, I believe, anachronistic)
By the time of Kinsale, the character of an Irish force was quite similar to its English opponents. In some cases, the Irish were even better trained and armed. Tyrone's shot were uniformed in red, according to some chronicles and accounts of the fighting. Though it was more difficult for them to come by powder and shot, the Irish tended to do better in a firefight. Until rather late in the conflict, English calivermen were required to pay for their own powder, likely an attempt to reduce wastage. However, it tended to reduce the amount of firepower because the English shot tended to carry less powder and to husband it since it was to them a dear commodity.

The improved quality of the Irish forces was not lost on the English. Many of the Irish had been trained by the English either as auxiliaries or enlisted within English companies. Although there were regulations minimizing the number of Irish in English companies, some estimates claim that up to 3/4 of an "English" company were actually local Irish. Several English commanders commented on how well the Irish troops performed compared to their experience against them only a decade or so back. In some cases, English officers fell in with Irish units mistaking them for their own.

What the Irish lacked was experience in open field battles. The movements of the Irish battles at Kinsale was disjointed (due as much to rivalry as to inexperience). Their cavalry, while regarded as individually superior to the English, were no match as formed squadrons. The rout of the Irish horse by the near-starving English troopers was the action that started the unraveling of the Irish forces at Kinsale.

The English Forces

The English army in Ireland was one of the few standing forces Elizabeth had. During the crisis of the Armada in 1588, there were more English troops in Ireland than at Tilbury. However, the garrisons of Ireland needed to be supplemented often with drafts from England—certainly for any major action against Irish rebellions.

The quality of the drafted men was mixed. In several of the battles, the raw English troops performed badly, being rescued from complete disaster only by the experience and pluck of their commanders. The Irish were often able to spot the least experienced troops by their uniforms, which consisted merely of same-colored smocks worn over their regular clothing. (There was no such thing as genuine military uniform at this time.) Veterans had long since adopted a more practical and individualist look.

Uniform smocks and 10-gallon hats—like Hoss on Bonanza
English pikemen and billmen were issued with heavy armor, including back and breastplate, pauldrons, vambraces and gauntlets for the arms, tassets for the thighs, and some form of morion or burgonet for the head. However, most soldiers considered the armor to be overly burdensome and unsuited for skirmishing in the wild Irish countryside. Seasoned troops tended to wear a simple jack or leather coat and sport some kind of cap on their heads, looking much like their Irish foes, sometimes to the point of confusion and mischance.

The mainstay of English forces comprised pike and shot. The bill and bow of earlier times were, even when they produced triumphs like Flodden, superannuated when compared with the military practices of the continent. Having no native pikemen (or shot), Henry VIII resorted to hiring German mercenaries for his wars against France. By Elizabeth's time the bow was only an auxiliary weapon and billmen made up a very small percentage of a company.

Artillery was rarely used in the field. It was, however, of great value for taking and defending fortified places. In this regard, the English had a huge advantage over the Irish who had almost no artillery. The situation was so lopsided that Tyrone destroyed his own fortified places to avoid them becoming places where troops could be besieged and lost. In most cases, the Irish were only able to take English forts and outposts by cutting them off from supply (hence so many of the battles being ambushes of relief/resupply forces).


As noted, the minis I'm using come from Timeline Miniatures/Hoka Hey Wargaming. I'd been eyeing these figures for years, but I wasn't sure what I'd do with them, so for a long time I did nothing. When The Pikeman's Lament came out in January, my interest reawoke.

The Border Reivers range, formerly of Monolith/Graven Images, sculpted by the late Jim Bowen is the main line I'm using. Alan Rudd at Timeline acquired them a few years after Bowen died (along with some other Monolith ranges). The figures in this range come in some variety. There are 2-3 basic poses for each type with head variants providing increased variety. As I've stated in previous posts, I really love Jim Bowen's figures. They're simple, but have a lot of charm. If the range didn't exist, I would likely not be doing the project. They're also BIG. (See my review from earlier this year.)

Timeline also produces a range of 28mm Elizabethans. These figures are an discontinued Pendraken Miniatures, which Alan acquired some years back. Pendraken are soley 10mm, as far as I can see, but about 10 years back they tried to branch out into a few 28mm ranges, but they lost their designer and the ranges went looking for new owners.

The Timeline Elizabethans match the Border Reivers range pretty well. The style and size are similar. However, there are only single poses for every type. The Elizabethan range is a valuable auxiliary to the Border Reivers range because they offer several types that don't exist in the Border Reivers range: Irish cavalry (2 types), English cavalry (5 types), "redshanks", artillery, etc.


As noted above, the project really got its start when Osprey released The Pikeman's Lament. The scope and nature of these rules was such that it made it possible to do the Elizabethan wars in Ireland. In most Renaissance rules, the Irish are a hapless lot, bound to be shot to bits by English calivers and then run down by English cavalry. Bringing things down to the skirmish level evens the game.

Even though The Pikeman's Lament was a primary catalyst in starting this project, I have to give honorable mention to Donnybrook. I'd heard about them when they first came out and a few people bought them. However, the reception by those people was negative. I got the PDF version online and I'm not so sure they're as bad as my local fellow-gamers aver. The basing I use, is suitable for either set of rules, so at some point I'll have to play a Donnybrook game with them.


No project would be worthy of the name if it didn't involve our friend the printed page. I have to admit that prior to starting this project, I had a pretty woeful grasp on this period of Irish history. I bought and read a pile of books to get an understanding and, more importantly, the "feel" of the period. The following is a representative (not exhaustive) list of the books I read:

Elizabeth's Irish Wars by Cyril Falls (first published 1950). This is a good overview of the wars from Shane O'Neill's rebellion in the 1560s until the end of the Nine Years War. Falls provides a good background of Elizabethan Ireland and has a lot of information about the nature of the armies that fought.

Gallowglass 1250-1600 by Fergus Cannan (Osprey 2010). Good Osprey-style overview of these traditional mercenaries.

Renaissance Armies 1480-1640 by George Gush (1975). This is a broad overview of Renaissance armies and includes short sections on the English and Irish, which provide a pretty good description of the troops involved on both sides.

The Irish Wars 1485-1603 by Ian Heath (Osprey 1993). Another good overview of the wars with a lot of historical background information and descriptions of the armies.

Irish Battles: A Military History of Ireland by G.A. Hayes-McCoy (1969). This book covers several Irish battles from Clontarf in 1014 to Arklow in 1798. Five of its chapters address a battle from our period: Farsetmore 1567, Clontibret 1595, The Yellow Ford 1598, Moyry Pass 1600, and Kinsale 1601.

The Nine Years War 1593-1603 by James O'Neill (2017). This is a very recent book that takes advantage of the latest research on the war. O'Neill (who doesn't claim to be an ancestor of Tyrone), does a good job dividing the war into phases starting with Tyrone's proxy war and moving in stages to the aftermath of Kinsale. He also provides a chapter at the end about Tyrone's military revolution in Ireland and a final chapter that examines the character of the war in the context of European conflicts.

Armies of the 16th Century: The Armies of England, Scotland, Ireland, The United Provinces, and the Spanish Netherlands 1487-1609 by Ian Heath (Foundry Books 1997). I bought this and a companion volume (about the Aztecs, Incas, etc.) published by Foundry Books when they came out near 20 years ago. Until recently, they've sat on my shelf getting an occasional browse. I started looking through them in earnest when I did the Quetzalcoatl Rampant project with Kevin and now with The Irish Project. There's a wealth of information about the troops that fought in Ireland in this period with lots of nice line drawings (no color).

Scots Mercenary Forces in Ireland (1565-1603) by G.A. Hayes-McCoy (first published 1937). This is a fairly exhaustive study of the role of mercenaries from the Scottish Isles (the "redshanks") in Irish wars prior to and during the Nine Years War.

The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland by John McGurk (1997). Despite its dramatic title, the book isn't a military history about wars 'n' battles 'n' stuff. It's mainly about the societal impact of the wars in Ireland on the English and Welsh shires that supplied the majority of the drafts for the English armies as well as most of the logistical support. There is a nice chapter characterizing the experience of the Tudor soldier in the Irish wars (spoiler: it was pretty grim).

Chapters Towards a History of Ireland in the Reign of Elizabeth, Being a Portion of the History of Catholic Ireland, by Don Philip O'Sullivan Bear translated by Mathew Byrne (first published 1903). This is a series of  historical notes written by the nephew of Donal Cam O'Sullivan Beare. Philip O'Sullivan was sent to Spain in 1602, where he spent his life in Spanish military service. He wrote his Chapters in 1621. They contain a lot of interesting anecdotes about the Nine Years War (which O'Sullivan calls the Fifteen Years War), including a dramatic narration of the Battle of the Yellow Ford.

Ireland in the Age of the Tudors 1447-1603 by Steven G. Ellis (1995). This is a pretty good background history of Tudor Ireland mostly political and societal, but with a bit of military information interspersed.

Articles. Not cited are several articles available online (some as digital copies of printed articles) that address some aspects of the wars in Tudor Ireland. In the age of the Interwebs, there is a surprising amount of information waiting to be mined, especially on the more obscure topics that get short shrift in standard histories, but which attract a lot of interest from budding professional and amateur historians. For example, one BBC article shows how battlefield archaeology by a local farmer has challenged the traditional location of the Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits, by discoveries of caliver and musket bullets at a spot on his land where the farmer had a hunch that that's where the fight occurred.

"Armor-piercing" bullet on the left—tungsten with a depleted uranium core
There are questionable aspects of these articles, however. The BCC article claims that the smaller shot found were special "armour-piercing bullets." I'm rather of the opinion that the smaller shot are from calivers and the larger shot are from muskets and there's nothing more to it than that. I don't think "armour-piercing" was really a consideration for small arms projectiles circa 1594—in fact, the smaller caliver shot, having lower kinetic energy, were less likely to pierce a breastplate than the heavier musket shot fired from a larger bore weapon that used a larger powder charge. In his Chapters, O'Sullivan Beare often distinguishes between heavy (muskets) and light (calivers) firearms, the former being more effective against armored men like Henry Bagenal at the Yellow Ford, whose armor was proof against all, until he lifted up the visor of his close helmet and got shot between the eyes.

State of the Project

"And how's it working out for you?" I hear you ask. Well, it's a going concern. I have a large Irish force painted, based, and boxed already. There's the cavalry yet to paint and I think I need to order a bit more kern, redshanks, and pikes. The English are in the works with 8 units in some state of being worked on and more figures ordered.

English pikemen painted and glopped, awaiting basing
So far, I've made three not-inexpensive orders to Timeline with at least two or three more contemplated. The good thing is that I'm not incurring a lead backlog. The figures paint quickly, partly because of the nifty dip method and also because it's the nature of the figures. They just give themselves to rapid completion.

I hope to get a game in with them sometime in September. The only unit that's been fielded on the felt and seen the dice tumble is my Irish pikeman, who came on as ersatz reinforments in a quasi-ECW game of The Pikeman's Lament. I'm happy to say they acquitted themselves well and put paid to a unit of rampaging Polish pancerni (I did say it was quasi-ECW).

My longer-term goal is to host a few games of it at Enfilade! in May, 2018 with a trial run or two before that (like at Breakthrough in January).