The Red Branch Knights
The Kings of Ulster had recourse to bodies of militia, who underwent a yearly course of training, and were in effect a standing army to be called upon whenever the monarch required them. The most celebrated of these were the "Red Branch Knights of Ulster" and the "Fiona or Fena of Erin," who flourished in the third century. Though the accounts that have come down to us of these two military organizations are much mixed up with romance and fable, there is sufficient evidence to show that they really existed and exercised great influence in their day.
The Red Branch Knights belonged wholly to Ulster, and in the ancient Tales they are represented as in the service of Concobar mac Nessa, king of that province, but not king of Ireland. The king's main palace was Emain or Emania near Armagh, but like the medieval kings they moved their courts around.
Every year during the summer months, the Knights came to Emain to be drilled and trained in military science and feats of arms. The greatest Red Branch knight was Cuchulainn, a demigod, the mightiest of the heroes of Irish romance. The other chief heroes were Conall Kernach; Laegaire (or Laery) the Victorious; Keltar of the Battles; Fergus mac Roy: the poet Bricriu "of the venom tongue," who lived at Loughbrickland, where his fort still remains near the little lake; and the three sons of Usna--Naisi, Ainnle, and Ardanmade famous by Deirdre. All these figures can be found in the ancient literature and tale of Ireland.
Everyman who held land in any sort of tenancy was obliged to bear a part in the wars of the tribe and defense of their common territory. The number of days in the year that each had to serve was strictly defined by law: and when the time was up he could go home unless a particular need arose. A chief or sub king, was periodically bound to send a certain number of fully armed men, for a fixed period to serve his superior in war. This way the High king could regularly command a standing army to fulfill any military needs by as system of tributary recycling of men and resources.
The king had in his service a champion or called Aigrette, whose duty it was to avenge all insults or offences offered to the lffamilies of the king and tribe, particularly murder: In the Red Branch it was Conall Kernach was the Kings Champion until Cuculainn took the title after many trials of strength. At a great feast being held at the Castle Rurai (Dundrum), where Bricriu caused dissent among the wives, by using precedence to get the warriors of Ulster to fight for the Champions portion. Knighthood far back as our oldest traditions reach there existed in Ireland an institution of knighthood.
Admission to the ranks of The Red Branch Knights was a very formal affair with boys of a around seven years being admitted for training. This was the age, according to Tigernach, and is also recounted in the Tales, the age at which the young hero Cuchulainn was admitted himself to the ranks, and his age was as an example for all n subsequent admissions. The young candidate was given a number of little spears suitable to his age and strength, which he hurled against a shield; and the more spears he broke the more credit he received. These are the native Irish accounts; and they are strikingly corroborated by Froissart, who tells us that the same custom still existed in Ireland when King Richard II. visited this country in 1494. This historian moreover states that the custom of knighting boys at seven, with ceremonies like those of the Irish, existed among the Anglo-Saxon kings. But in Ireland the rule of the seven years was not universally, or even generally, followed--except perhaps in case of the sons of kings or great nobles. The ceremony was commonly put off till the candidate was able to fight. The usual Irish words for a knight are curad [curra] and ridire [riddera], of which the last is the same as the German ritter, and is probably borrowed. "Assuming knighthood" is commonly expressed in Irish by "taking valour."
Many of the great Duns or forts associated with The Red Branch Knights remain to this day, besides Emain itself, there is the majestic fort of Dun-Dalgan, Cuculainn's residence, a mile west of the present town of Dundalk. This dun consists of a high mound surrounded by an earthen rampart and trench, all of an immense size, even in their ruined state; but it has lost its old name, and is now called the Moat of Castletown, while the original name Dundalgan, slightly altered, has been transferred to Dundalk. Another of these Red Branch Knights' residences stands beside Downpatrick, the great fort anciently called (among other names) Dun-Keltair, or Rath-Keltair, where lived the hero, Keltair of the Battles. It consists of a huge embankment of earth, nearly circular, with the usual deep trench outside it, enclosing a great mound, all covering a space of about ten acres. There is some confusion here as many belief that the cathedral hill to be the ancient of Keltair's rath.
Another, which figures much in the old romances under its ancient name Dun-da-ben, now called Montana,and crowns the high bank over the Cutts waterfall on the Bann, near Coleraine. Four miles west of this is a similar fortress, now known by the name of the "Giant's Sconce," which is the ancient Dun Cethern [Doon-Kehern], so called front "Cethern of the Brilliant Deeds," a famous Red Branch Knight.
John de Courcy's original Castle of Dundrum, in Down, was built on the site of one of the most formidable of all--Dun-Rury--the immense earthworks of which still remain round the present castle, at the base of the rock, though the original dun-mound on the top was leveled by the castle-builders.
The Red Branch Knights, as well as those of Munster and Connaught, used chariots both in battle and in private life. Chariot-racing too was one of their favorite amusements: and the great heroes are constantly described in the tales as fighting from their chariots.
In any expected danger from without he had to keep watch--with a sufficient force--at the most dangerous ford or pass--called bearna baoghaill [barna beel] or "gap of danger"--on that part of the border where invasion was expected, and prevent the entrance of any enemy.
Kings and great chiefs almost always kept bodies of mercenary soldiers--commonly small in number and often as a mere bodyguard--under regular pay, something like the soldiers of our present standing army. These men hired themselves wherever they could get the best pay. Hired soldiers are constantly mentioned in our ancient records. Bodies of Scotch men, and of Welshmen, were very often in the service of Irish kings: and we also find companies of Irish under similar conditions serving in Wales and Scotland.
The maintenance and pay of such soldiers was called in Irish buanacht, whence men serving for pay and support were often called "bonnaghts" by English writers of the time of Elizabeth. The practice of hiring foreign mercenaries, which was commenced at a very early period, was continued down to the sixteenth century, were Shane O'Neill had a number of fierce soldiers from Scotland as bodyguard. Mercenaries regularly supplement fighting forces the world over from time immemorial to the present conflicts of today.
Military Asylums or hospital, which according to the "Battle of Rossnaree," in the Book of Leinster, there was an asylum for the old warriors of the Red Branch, an idea that Robert Dudley, The Earl of Leicester took up when he founded a hospital for old soldiers in 1571, and can seen in the present Chelsea Hospital, and with the Royal Hospital in Dublin, were those too old to fight could spend the rest of their life in ease and comfort. It was probably paid for by public expense, and partly by payments from the inmates: but on this point there is no information.
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