War dogs among the early Irish

Published in Celtic Tiger, Gaelic Ireland, General, Medieval History (pre-1500), Uncategorized

Reconstruction of the battle of Vercellae, 101 BC, where Roman troops faced the Celto-Germanic Cimbri—and their dogs, according to ancient accounts. (Katriona Chapman)

Reconstruction of the battle of Vercellae, 101 BC, where Roman troops faced the Celto-Germanic Cimbri—and their dogs, according to ancient accounts. (Katriona Chapman)

In the Celtic world, as elsewhere, canines were admired for their senses of sight, smell and hearing. Dogs were used on hunting expeditions and to guard homes, as domestic pets and as a source of food. They abound in surviving mythology and folk tradition and are well represented in religion, where they are often associated with divination, omens of death and the Underworld. In addition, dogs were frequently portrayed as the attribute of a particular god or goddess. Hence, likenesses of the Gaulish hammer-god Dispater appear with a small dog totem, as does the horse-goddess Epona. There is literary evidence that confirms, or at least strongly suggests, that the ancient Gauls trained dogs to guard tribal chiefs and even imported ancient British breeds for deployment in battle.
Although by the time of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (c. 50 BC) the use of war dogs seems to have completely died out amongst the Continental Celts, there may be evidence to show that it continued or lingered, in derivative form, in the most far-flung reaches of Celtic-influenced society, namely in Ireland and Scotland. If so, then this would be entirely in keeping with what is known about the archaic nature of warfare practised in these more remote and isolated regions.

Táin Bó Cuailnge
Arguably the earliest Irish literary evidence is embodied in the Táin Bó Cuailnge (‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’), part of the Ulster Cycle of hero-tales. The oldest surviving Irish epic, the Táin describes a conflict between the lands of Ulster and Connacht for possession of the Brown Bull of Cooley. The origins of the story are obscure, although it was first transcribed in literary form by monks as early as the seventh or eighth century, from an oral tradition that might have included authentic elements of a society from as early as the first century BC. Although its individual characters are probably non-historical, the Táin is of some (though admittedly limited) value in the study of ancient, pre-Christian Irish culture.

Horsemen with a chariot and hound from the base of the cross of St Patrick and St Columba at Kells (dated AD 700–800), although it probably portrays men going off to hunt rather than to war. (Terri Julians)

Horsemen with a chariot and hound from the base of the cross of St Patrick and St Columba at Kells (dated AD 700–800), although it probably portrays men going off to hunt rather than to war. (Terri Julians)

In Thomas Kinsella’s popular translation of the Táin Bó Cuailnge, the warrior MacRoth, viewing a war muster, comments on a warrior in a chariot preceded by a brindled hunting dog. It should be noted that here the dog is only described as accompanying its master to war rather than actually fighting in battle. The passage may remind informed readers of a sculpture depicting horsemen with a chariot and hound from the base of the cross of St Patrick and St Columba at Kells (dated AD 700–800), although the latter probably portrays men going off to hunt rather than to war.
Other examples from the Táin are similarly vague or could easily be misinterpreted by the unwary as describing war dogs. After one bloody victory Celtchar reads a poem to King Conchobhor in which he speaks of ‘heroes felled, hounds cut down, horses mangled, tunics torn’. In this instance the reference to ‘hounds’ was probably a metaphor for warriors, fairly common in Celtic poetry. The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu does at least capture something of the importance of dogs in the everyday lives of the ancient Irish when it refers to the exile in Alba (‘White Land’/‘Mountain Land’ or Scotland) of Noisiu mac Uislenn of Ulster, who was accompanied by ‘three times fifty warriors, and three times fifty women and the same of hounds and menials’. The story proceeds to narrate how they settled in what was probably Argyllshire, where they made a living lifting their neighbours’ cattle. After suffering revenge attacks, they offered themselves to native chiefs as hired soldiers.

Reconstruction of the battle of Dunnichen Moss, AD 685, where the Picts defeated invading Northumbrian Anglians. Dogs may have been used by the Picts to hunt down Anglian fugitives. (Katriona Chapman)

Reconstruction of the battle of Dunnichen Moss, AD 685, where the Picts defeated invading Northumbrian Anglians. Dogs may have been used by the Picts to hunt down Anglian fugitives. (Katriona Chapman)

In this case, dogs may only have been utilised as hunt animals and for herding plundered livestock, rather than for skirmishes with the indigenous population. There are, nonetheless, several distinct passages that seem to imply that occasionally dogs were employed more aggressively. Thus the great epic hero Cú Chulainn is portrayed after battle having killed 130 kings, including an ‘unaccountable horde’ of dogs, horses and men. As ‘kings’, ‘men’ and ‘horses’ are all obviously known to have played an active part in ancient Irish battles, it is reasonable to assume here that the equal billing given to genuinely canine ‘dogs’ means that in this instance such animals had been actively involved as well.
Elsewhere in the Ulster Cycle, the Story of MacDotho’s Pig offers a vivid portrait of a dog used in combat at the climax of a skirmish between rival warriors from Ulster and Connacht. The story, given in Slover and Cross’s Ancient Irish Tales (p. 207), goes as follows:

‘MacDotho came out with the hound in his hand, and led him in amongst them [the mêlée of warriors] to see which side he would choose; and the hound chose Ulster and set to tearing the men of Connacht greatly. Ailill and Medb went into their chariot, and their charioteer with them, and MacDotho led the hound after them, and they say it was in the plain of Ailbe that the hound seized the pole of the chariot that was under Ailill and Medb. Then the charioteer of Ailill and Medb dealt the hound a blow so that he sent its body aside and that the head of the hound remained on the pole of the chariot of Ibar Cinn Chon (the Yew-tree of the Hound’s Head) whence Connacht takes its name. And they also say that from that hound Mag Ailbe (the Plain of Ailbe) is called, for Ailbe was the name of the hound.’

Táin Bó Flidais

Large shaggy mastiff portrayed on a Roman stone relief from Chester, England. (Terri Julians)

Large shaggy mastiff portrayed on a Roman stone relief from Chester, England. (Terri Julians)

Apart from the Ulster Cycle, another fascinating account of the use of dogs in warfare is contained in the Irish tale Táin Bó Flidais, a copy of which is preserved as part of the Glenmasan Manuscript, originally held in the Scottish Collection of the Advocate’s Library in Edinburgh. Written in Gaelic, it was thought to have been transcribed in about 1238 from an older work. In one section a band of raiders is portrayed as being pursued by Donald Yellowlocks (father of Aillill the Fair of Ulster), who is himself accompanied by his own warriors and a large bitch leading some 50 other hounds. A colourful account is then given of a struggle that is well worth recounting here. Donald was the first to overtake the raiding party, upon whom he unleashed the pack of dogs that accompanied him. These eagerly rushed at the fleeing men, who turned to face the attack. The female lead dog sprang at the chariot of a warrior by the name of Fergus. The fury of the assault caused the vehicle to fall apart; Fergus leapt out only in the nick of time, leaving the animal to take revenge on the hapless charioteer, Fergarbh, who had his head torn from his body. The story relates how the dog then savagely seized upon the horses, after which Fergus counter-attacked and killed the animal by hurling a spear that transfixed its head to the ground.

The Fenian Cycle
The Fenian Cycle comprises the second group of heroic tales from Ireland, its subject-matter being the deeds of Fionn MacCumhail and his hand-picked followers, the Fianna Éireann. Stories of Fionn may be as old as the seventh century, though his development as a national hero took place later, during the tenth to twelfth centuries. Indeed, by about 1200 Fionn had been placed within a historical context, supposedly flourishing in the period between the Battle of Cnucha, fought by Conn Ceadcathach in AD 174, and the Battle of Gabhra, fought by Cormac mac Art in AD 283.
The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne has been accepted as the most famous of the prose tales of the Fenian Cycle (the earliest version being traced to the tenth century) and here, too, there appears to be mention of a large band of armed warriors before whom paced three men with keen tracker dogs leashed with chains. These animals were subsequently ‘loosed upon’ their human quarry but were killed in succession: one by a well-aimed javelin throw, another—in truly heroic style—by being seized by the hind legs and its head dashed against a rock.

Leabhar Breac

‘The Ancient Briton and his Mastiff’, from an imaginative Victorian engraving. (Terri Julians)

‘The Ancient Briton and his Mastiff’, from an imaginative Victorian engraving. (Terri Julians)

An even less certain, though no less intriguing, reference is provided much later by Adam of Bremen (d. 1081/85[?]). He records a fantastic story from before the mid-eleventh century in which a band of Frisian mariners voyage beyond Norway and Iceland to the near Arctic before eventually being shipwrecked on an ‘island’ that has been tentatively identified with Ireland. Here they encounter unusually tall one-eyed men who unleash dogs of enormous size upon them. The animals attack the stranded mariners, with one being caught and torn to pieces before the horrified eyes of his comrades.
That canines were being used here to run down intruders or trespassers may complement an extract from the Leabhar Breac or ‘Speckled Book’. This collection of Middle Irish and Latin ecclesiastical writings seems to have been compiled in the late fourteenth/early fifteenth century by Murchadh Riabhach Ó Cuindlis and includes a Life of St Patrick. In one episode, Patrick is confronted by a guard-dog in circumstances perhaps not unlike the account given previously. The saint is in a boat nearing Inverslany when Dichu son of Trechem sees his approach from the beach and sends a fierce hound against him. Patrick makes the sign of the cross and whispers a magical incantation that stops the animal dead in its tracks.

Irish dogs for export
There is some literary evidence that Irish dogs were exported overseas, where their aggressive qualities were put to use. What is often cited as the earliest classical reference is found in an extant letter dated to AD 393, written by the Roman senator and ex-consul Quintius Aurelius Symmachus (AD 340–402) to his brother Flavius, thanking him for his gift of seven ‘Irish hounds’ (Scottici canes), which had apparently been displayed in the games at Rome, to the amazement of onlookers. Similarly, in his Confession St Patrick alludes to the overseas trade in Irish hounds, and Icelandic sagas that portray events and characters from c. 1000 sometimes record the Norse use of dogs brought from Ireland for hunting, personal security and as guard-dogs to protect their long halls from the raids of enemies. Animals especially celebrated for their loyalty and courage include Samr, owned by Olaf Peacock and Gunnar (in the Saga of the Burnt Njal), and Olaf Tryggvason’s Vigi (from the Heimskringla).
Of course, it is quite possible to dismiss all of the above collection of passages drawn from a variety of written sources as inadequate proof for the existence of war dogs in the remote past of Irish history. Yet there is overwhelming evidence to confirm that canines occupied an important place in ancient Celtic society elsewhere. One cannot, therefore, ignore the fact that they also feature prominently in early Irish literature and are often associated with combat, whether as personal guard-dogs, as animals deployed for the pursuit of fugitives or directly for shock assault in battle.  HI

David Karunanithy is the author of Dogs of War: canine use in warfare from ancient Egypt to the 19th century (Yarak Publishing).

Further reading:

T. P. Cross and C. H. Slover, Ancient Irish tales (Dublin, 1969).

T. Kinsella (trans.), The Táin (Oxford, 1969).

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