Armour and the Shield
From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906, By P. W. Joyce.
Shield.—From the earliest period of history and tradition, and doubtless from times beyond the reach of both, the Irish used shields in battle. The most ancient shields were made of wicker-work, covered with hides: they were oval-shaped, often large enough to cover the whole body, and convex on the outside. It was to this primitive shield that the Irish first applied the word sciath [skeé-a], which afterwards came to be the most general name for a shield of whatever size or material. These wicker shields—of various sizes—continued in use in Ulster even so late as the sixteenth century, and in the Highlands of Scotland till 200 years ago.
Shields were ornamented with devices or figures, the design on each being a sort of cognisance of the owner to distinguish him from all others. These designs would appear to have generally consisted of concentric circles, often ornamented with circular rows of projecting studs or bosses, and variously spaced and coloured for different shields. As generally confirming the truth of these accounts, the shields in the Museum have a number of beautifully wrought concentric circles formed either of continuous lines or of rows of studs; as seen in the illustration. Sometimes figures of animals were painted on shields.
Shields were often coloured according to the fancy of the wearer. We read of some as brown, some blood-red; while many were made pure white. This fashion of painting shields in various colours continued in use to the time of Elizabeth.
Hide-covered shields were often whitened with lime or chalk, which was allowed to dry and harden, as soldiers now pipeclay their belts. Hence we often find in the Tales such expressions as the following:—"There was an atmosphere of fire from [the clashing of] sword and spear-edge, and a cloud of white dust from the cailc or lime of the shields."
The shields in most general use were circular, small, and light, of wickerwork, yew, or more rarely of bronze, from 18 to 20 inches in diameter, as we see by numerous figures of armed men on the high crosses and in manuscripts, all of whom are represented with shields of this size and shape. I do not remember seeing one with the large oval shield. Specimens of both yew and bronze shields have been found, and are now preserved in museums. Shields were cleaned up and brightened before battle. Those that required it were newly coloured, or whitened with a fresh coating of chalk or lime: and the metallic ones were burnished—all done by gillies or pages.
The shield, when in use, was held in the left hand by a looped handle or crossbar, or by a strong leather strap, in the centre of the inside, as seen in fig. 27, above. But as an additional precaution it was secured by a long strap, called iris or sciathrach [skiheragh], that went loosely round the neck. When not in use, it was slung over the shoulder by the strap from the neck.
In pagan times it was believed that the shield of a king or of any great commander, when its bearer was dangerously pressed in battle, uttered a loud melancholy moan which was heard all over Ireland, and which the shields of other heroes took up and continued. The shield-moan was further prolonged; for as soon as it was heard, the "Three Waves of Erin" uttered their loud melancholy roar in response. (For the Three Waves, see chap. xxvi., sect. 9.)
"...The O'Brennans, a sept of thieves without any right or title, ... were a perpetual disturbance to the peace of the county,"