Ben Miller

Methods of Using the Pike in Ireland: 1798-1921

In Georgian Era, Martial Arts, Military, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on October 19, 2017 at 2:50 pm

The Battle of Vinegar Hill, fought in County Wexford, in 1798, featured the use of the pike

On came the Saxons facing the farmer
But soon they reeled back from our pike Volunteers
Whose cry was loud and shrill, “Wexford and Vinegar hill
New Ross, Father Murphy and the bold Shelmaliers!”

– “Burke’s Dream,” a Ballad of 1867

Although it has received less attention than other aspects of martial arts history, the use on foot of various European staff weapons subsisted long into the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth. This includes the use of the quarterstaff by the English, Germans, and Danes, the use of the scythe by the Poles, the use of jogo do pau by the Portuguese, as well as many other examples. Even less attention, however, has been paid by authors and martial arts researchers to the specific methods and techniques of pike use which existed in Ireland during the same period. It is the purpose of this article to provide a brief overview of this weapon, as well as the historical sources outlining its method of use.


Depiction of Irish people, including a pike-bearing soldier, by Lucas d’Heere, ca. 1575.

The use of the spear can be found described in the earliest Irish annals, and is illustrated in some of the oldest extant Irish manuscripts. During the Tudor reconquest of Ireland, the Irish adopted continental “pike and shot” formations, consisting of pikemen mixed with musketeers and swordsmen. From this time onward, the pike became the common arm of the Irish infantry. During the late seventeenth century, an entire class of fighters called rapparees arose, deriving their name from the Irish ropairí, (plural of ropaire), meaning half-pike or pike-wielding person. These were Irish guerrilla fighters who operated on the side of King James during the Jacobite-Williamite war in Ireland during the 1690s. Subsequently, the name was also given to bandits and highwaymen in Ireland – many of whom were former guerrillas that had turned to crime in the decades following the war.

Illustration of rapparees

The pike was especially prevalent during the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798, used with bloody effect in Dublin, Antrim, and Wexford, and famously utilized in the battles of Vinegar Hill and New Ross. At this time, the pike became firmly cemented in the popular mind as the Irish national weapon, and in subsequent decades, would be commonly referred to by militant Irish authors as the “Queen of weapons” or the “Queen of arms.” During the nineteenth century, pikes continued to see use in the Irish rebellions of 1803, 1848, and 1867. Of this last rising, local folklore in County Leitrim relates,

Sliab an Iarainn in County Leitrim was a great line of defence in many of the wars of Ireland…At the time of the Fenians a great local hero named Darcy had a small army on this mountain to join in the Fenian rebellion. About half of them had guns and the rest had pikes. No one was more disappointed at the failure of the Fenian Rising than he and at his death the people of the whole country side mourned his loss. He is buried in Oughterach near Ballinamore and his funeral was very large; a couple hundred pike men marched in procession…

At the rising sixty seven
He had bone and sinew strong
His pikes and guns were ready
Prepared to join the throng

In 1873, Irish poet John C. Colgan wrote:



Forging pikes for Emmet’s 1803 rebellion

As can be seen by the numerous surviving examples, there has never been one uniform model or design of pike in Ireland. Throughout past centuries, and even up until the first decades of the twentieth century, local village blacksmiths were largely responsible for the forging of pike heads, which took on a variety of forms. Such traditions often remained in the same families of smiths; as Diarmuid Ó Duibhir of Rossmore, County Tipperary recounted:

“My great grandfather made pikes for the United Irishmen in 1798 and his sons again forged the pikes for the men of ’67.”

Among the most common design of Irish pike was the simple “spear head,” some of which were lanceolate or leaf-shaped, with a triangular cross-section and median ridge, while others were of a thin, round, conical shape, tapering to a point. Other crude models, hammered roughly out of iron, exhibited a quadrangular cross-section. Some Irish pike-heads included a cross-bar or “toggle” at their base, which could be used to entrap the adversary’s weapon or entangle the bridle of the adversary’s horse.

Irish hand-forged steel pike head and base section, 18th century. From Whyte’s auctions

An old forge-made ”1798 Pike Head”

Irish Pike head, ca. 1798, Stamped “B. M.”, from Whyte’s Auctions

Other Irish pikes included a protruding hook, which could be used for the same purpose—this last type being especially common during the 1798 rebellion. As Patrick O’Sullivan of Banteer, County Cork recounted:

“Leather reins in British Cavalry horse until Croppy Pikes were used. Hook on Croppy Pike used to cut reins so then chains were put on bridles.”

Still other pike-heads exhibited a small, axe-like blade resembling that of a miniature halberd. In 1803, rebel leader Robert Emmet (1778-1803)—concerned by the fact that Irish soldiers could be easily spotted carrying their large pikes, thus losing the element of surprise—created an additional, special type of innovated hinged pike, which could be folded in half and concealed beneath the bearer’s coat (see The Life and Times of Robert Emmet, Esq). This “folding pike” may have been inspired by those used approximately two decades prior by American revolutionary troops, and commissioned by George Washington (see Harold Leslie Peterson’s Arms and Armor in Colonial America, 1526-1783).

Irish pike, ca. 1798, inscribed Kearney C. From Mealys Auctions.

In terms of the pike’s length (including the haft), a wide variety was recommended by Irish authors—that is, from as little as four feet, to as long as twenty feet. Most Irish authors are unanimous, however, in noting that the pike’s advantage over the bayonet lay in its superior length.

The following image, from the September 30, 1865 issue of the Illustrated London News, depicts various “Fenian weapons seized in a blacksmith’s shop in Cork” (more specifically, from a smith named Hegarty in Hobb’s Lane):

The caption reads: “A. Fenian Pike, having across it a horizontal barb-pointed spike for the purpose of catching the bridles of cavalry.—B. Fenian Pike.—C. Common ring bayonet in general use.—D. D. D. is inserted as a sample of the weapon of the former rebellion.” The accompanying article also noted that,

The pikes are of a quite modern pattern. The hatchet–the accompaniment of the old weapon–is entirely dispensed with, and also the hook, leaving the new instrument a long narrow blade, somewhat like a short sword. The pike is about 18 in. in length, and screws on to a socket, which makes it 2 ft. long. The barb-pointed, horizontal spike across one of the pikes is intended to catch the bridles of cavalry. They are exceedingly well-executed articles for a common smith.


A popular misconception, reinforced by English propaganda of the period (exemplified by the illustrations of George Cruikshank and Thomas Rowlandson), was that the Irish pikemen of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were essentially an untrained mob, rough and barbaric, who utilized no systematic or technical method of hand-to-hand combat. Evidence from the period, however, indicates this to be untrue. Although raw Irish recruits may have entered the conflict untrained, they did not always remain so. For instance, the rebel general Joseph Holt (1756–1826), a native of County Wicklow, relates the following in his Memoirs of Joseph Holt: General of the Irish Rebels, in 1798, Volume I (London: H. Colburn, 1838):

I considered that my plan was to keep to the mountains and difficult parts of the country, and to attack only such parties as I could get into a disadvantageous situation: to surprise small parties, and harass the enemy by sudden attacks, where they were unprepared and kept a careless look-out. To enable me to do this, I had first to train my men to obey a command, and to make them act together, each to know his own division and company; and I taught my officers to count off their men, to fire lying down, or on their knees, and to advance or retreat stooping. My pikemen were the most difficult to manage. I had to teach them to step in time, to face about, countermarch, wheel about, but particularly to disperse and form rapidly, and to march in quick or double quick time. They were generally active, able young fellows, and alert as deer, and would puzzle a horseman to catch them. I soon found the value of the pike against cavalry. (p. 43).

On the 20th, my men had dispersed after the 20 June, action, and I wandered down to Whelp Rock, where I found a great number of poor creatures [volunteers] assembled, without order or control of any sort. I spoke to some of them who bore the title of captains, and asked them what they proposed to do in case they were attacked, and if they had any plan, but they seemed to be completely ignorant, and without system or any notion of regularity or discipline. I set about putting them in order, and forming them into companies, and commenced exercising them in the use of the pike. I found them pretty tractable, and they soon saw the advantages which were likely to result from the system I endeavoured to establish, and immediately agreed to obey me. If taken, instant death awaited us all; it, therefore, behoved us to make the best fight we could, and not to throw away our lives as dastards or fools. (Ibid., 47-48)

United Irish general Joseph Holt

I then set about instructing [the volunteers] in military manoeuvres, by sham battles, shewing them how to use pikes against guns, and the advantage pikemen, if steady, had against cavalry, and told them to remember Ballyellis malthouse; that the pike, in a charge, was much superior to any other weapon. Thus, I instilled into them a confidence in their own strength they had never before felt. (Ibid., 98)

I marched to Knockalt, a mountain village, on the King’s River, and had my head quarters at Oliver Hoyle’s house, a good and faithful man, ready at all times to render me service. Here I drilled my men, and used them to act in bodies, forming them into divisions, marching and counter-marching, dispersing and forming again, having sham battles, &c, until I had them very expert. I found that the musket and bayonet was not to be compared in effect to a pike. If the men were steady and well disciplined, a charge of pikes would be irresistible against the musket and bayonet; so much superior are they, that after a few months practice, I should have no fears of the result, if I were to meet the best regiment in the king’s service, with an equal number of good men with pikes. (Ibid., 156)

Given the wide geographical distribution of the many rebel units which took part in the 1798 rebellion, it is impossible to state how prevalent Holt’s “system” (or others like it) may have been. However, Holt’s account makes it clear that they were implemented at least to some degree. This is all the more remarkable considering the fact that at the same time, the British military had little, if any, system of hand-to-hand combat for the bayonet in which to train its rank and file soldiers. British (and loyalist) superiority of fight lay in the organized use of firepower–and possibly in the use of the sword exercise, with which loyalist troops were said to be well-versed. Ironically, it would be an Irishman–a native of County Donegal–who, after many years of struggle during the 1780s and 1790s, created and implemented the first system of bayonet fencing in the English army (for more information on this, see Chapter VII of Irish Swordsmanship). Given this fact, the advantage held by Irish rebels trained in the systematic use of the pike, strictly in the context of hand-to-hand encounters, seems obvious. This point was agreed upon even by British military authors; two decades following the 1798 rebellion, in 1820, a treatise entitled Proposed Rules and Regulations for the Exercise and Manœuvres of the Lance…adapted to the formations, movements, and exercise of the British Cavalry, declared that:

The Irish, I aver, will always make much finer and better Lancers than the English, as they are not bred up to the sedentary trades of the latter, but are inured to fatigue, hardships, and active duties in the open field, from their youth upwards; and the Lance (or Pike, which are synonymous terms) being likewise their national arm, they delight and pride themselves in the exercise and hurly-burly of the Lance. The Birmingham, Sheffield, and Manchester artificers will never make Lancers; the mountains of Tipperary and the wilds of Conemarra are the flowery fields for those fine fellows… (p. 142)



1798 pike head at the National Museum of Ireland

Another modern misconception exists: namely, that due to a supposed lack of literacy among the Irish peasantry in past centuries, martial techniques were never written down in Ireland. In fact, this is by no means the case. During the nineteenth century, private academies were numerous in Ireland, and even the very lowest classes of Irish Catholic society had access to Hedge Schools, run by clergy or itinerant schoolteachers (to wit: this author’s own great great great grandparents, and their children–poor Galway farmers born in the early and mid-1800s–are listed as being able to read and write both English and Irish in the 1901 and 1911 censuses).

As it turn out, several forgotten period Irish treatises on the use of the sword and bayonet existed, and have been reprinted (or extracted from) in the book Irish Swordsmanship. Likewise, a number of Irish writings on the use of the pike have descended to us from posterity. These, for the most part, have not been noticed by scholars or researchers of fencing and the martial arts.

The most detailed extant source for Irish pike technique, by far, is a “manual” of guerrilla warfare, written during the 1850s by an Irish Republican author claiming direct descent from the rebels of 1798. This book, now an extreme rarity, contained one illustrated chapter treating of the use of the pike in both individual and group combat. Depicting the “folding pike” model created by Robert Emmet in 1803, the treatise clearly shows the application of basic fencing theory to the pike, utilizing the positions of tierce and quarte, as well as the lunge, parries, and the appel. This chapter on the pike (too long to be included here) has been reprinted in the appendices of the book Irish Swordsmanship.

Several other Irish sources pertaining to pike technique also exist. They include:

  • A paper by rebel leader Lord Edward Fitzgerald, written before his death in 1798.
  • A short work by Irish nationalist activist John Mitchel, published in 1848.
  • A number of writings by Irish Republican authors, written shortly before the 1916 Easter Rising.



Lord Edward FitzGerald (1763–1798) was an Irish aristocrat and leading member of the revolutionary Society of United Irishmen. He was also a veteran of the American War for Independence (on the British side) and an explorer that had been formally adopted at Detroit by the Bear clan of the Mohawk, who bestowed upon him the name “Eghnidal.” Back in Ireland, Fitzgerald became involved in the political movement for Irish independence, as well as in revolutionary activity. During the 1798 rebellion, he was betrayed by informers seeking a monetary reward for his capture; Fitzgerald died of wounds received while resisting arrest on a charge of treason.

The arrest of Lord Edward Fitzgerald

Following is an extract from a paper written by Fitzgerald on guerrilla warfare in Ireland, which was seized during his arrest:

…However well exercised standing armies are supposed to be, by frequent reviews and sham battles, they are never prepared for broken roads, or enclosed fields, in a country like ours, covered with innumerable and continued intersections of ditches and hedges, every one of which is an advantage to an irregular body, and may with advantage be disputed against an army as so many fortifications and intrenchments.

Edward Fitzgerald

The people in the city would have an advantage by being armed with pikes or such weapons. The first attack, if possible, should be made by men whose pikes were nine or ten feet long; by that means they could act in ranks deeper than the soldiery, whose arms are much shorter; then the deep files of the pike men, by being weightier, must easily break the thin order of the army.

The charge of the pike men should be made in a smart trot. On the flank or extremity of every rank there should be intrepid men placed to keep the fronts even, that, at closing, every point should tell together. They should have at the same time two or three like bodies at convenient distances in the rear, who would be brought up, if wanting, to support the front, which would give confidence to their brothers in action, as it would tend to discourage the enemy. At the same time there should be in the rear of each division some men of spirit to keep the ranks as close as possible.

The apparent strength of the army should not intimidate, as closing on it makes its powder and ball useless: all its superiority is in fighting at a distance; all its skill ceases, and all its action must be suspended, when it once is within reach of the pike.

The reason of printing and writing this is to remind the people of discussing military subjects.

– Report from the Committee of Secrecy, of the House of Lords in Ireland (London: J. Debrett and J. Wright, 1798).



John Mitchel (1815–1875) was an Irish nationalist activist, author, and political journalist. Reared in Newry, he became a leading member of both Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation. He was the most committed advocate of the revolutionary movement which culminated in the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848.

A group of Irish rebels under Smith O’Brien skirmish with police at Widow McCormack’s house, Boulagh Common, 1848.

The same year as the outbreak of the rebellion, Mitchel founded the journal The United Irishman, which called for resistance against British rule in Ireland. The following article on “Pike Drill” appeared in the United Irishman of April 8th, 1848:

1st. Rifle and Pike Clubs should practice themselves in marching, counter-marching, wheeling to the left and right, in slow march, quick step, and tint, in line in files, by sections, etc., whenever and wherever possible—any good old pensioner in the parish can train a squad quickly, and they communicate the craft to all their brethren. If no such mentor is available, the men must do the best they can. They may make one or two laughable attempts, but a straight eye and attention will secure eventual precision. The first lessons may be learned indoors, in a barn or a hay-loft, or a large room of any kind. Confederate Clubs should march in regular files of 3, 4 or 5 deep, to all meetings and public places, just us the Dublin Confederates now do.

2nd. Some drilling of this kind is essential to the well-being of the pike-men. “The pike,” said Emmet, “is the weapon of the brave.” We shall need it generally for these purposes:—

First. To charge, in street fighting, on columns of infantry.

Second. To charge artillery in a bog, or deep, miry fields, or rutty, broken up, or blockaded road, or where a horse or two is shot, or the drivers and gunners otherwise put out of countenance.

Third. To hold a road across against retreating or advancing columns.

Fourth. Mixed with riflemen and musketeers to defend the front of a ditch or rampart, or wood against a bayonet charge.

Fifth. To defend the open flanks of a ditch or covered way in the line of which are riflemen and musketeers.

Sixth. To meet a cavalry charge.

Seventh. To charge in lines of greater or lesser strength.

The first business, therefore, of pike-men is to learn to charge in line. This should always be done in a trot. The pike should be grasped in both hands—the right hand resting on the right hip, the hands from two to two feet six inches asunder, and the shaft quite horizontal. The files of the pike-men accustomed to act together should be nearly as possible equal height, the line in charging should be kept with the most precision, and the points all brought to bear a right line, and simultaneously. This is the perfection of a pike charge. If the line straggle, become concave or convex, or even if the points show at irregular elevations or irregular distances, or if the shafts be held at an angle upwards or downwards, or aslant to right or left, half of the effect, and all the beauty, of the charge is lest. But if the thing be rightly done, as we have explained, no column of infantry can resist for an instant.

Pikemen, unless exquisitely disciplined, should never charge in lines of great length. The necessary length of line in charging must depend upon the ground of advance, the position to carry, and the length of line of bayonets opposed to you. But it may be taken as an axiom, that the shorter the front charging, the better for pikemen incompletely disciplined. In all cases, they should never charge less than three deep. The pikes of the second rank should be passed between the men in the front rank, and the pikes of the third rank should he held in readiness, their points reaching over the heads of the front rank, and as low as possible, thus:

The ranks being thus disposed, the pike of each “b” extended between two “a” “a”; and considering that a good pike is ten feet long and that therefore, the pikes of the second ranks will extend 5 ft. or so, in front of the front rank, and so be equal to a gun and bayonet in the hands of the front rank—you offer to a line of musketeers of a length equal to your line of pikemen, double the number of their points; in other words, for every bayonet extending 5 feet or so, they can bring to bear—viz., those of their front rank—you bring two pikes—one extending between 8 and 9 ft. (viz., those of the front rank) and one extending 4 or 5 ft. in front (viz., those of the second rank)—a capital disposition. The pikes of the second rank should be held horizontally on a line with those of the front rank.

This order being observed, it is quite easy to protect the flanks of a column of pikemen charging, 3, 4, or 6 files deep. The men on the flanks hold their pikes sloped outward on a level with the points of the front rank, while their shafts slope at an angle of from 30 to 40 degrees with the line of advance, thus:

—the point of “b” protects the flank of “a,” “e” of “b,” “b” of “c,” and so on; and in the same way as with the pikes of the second front rank, the pikes of the man next but one to the flank are thrown out between flanking pikes.

With this practice, and ordinary evolution of bayoneteers, we should have a very decided and decisive “public opinion” of pike-men.

It is seldom necessary to charge in extended lines. In street fighting, or road fighting, never—in few streets, even the widest, con more than 40 bayoneteers be brought into line. To these we can oppose more than 80 pike points—these at a rush, one half 10 ft. long, the other five, and where are your bayoneteers? She is “the queen of weapons,” that pike of mine.

“Forging Pikes–A Recent Scene in Ireland.” Illustrated London News, August 5, 1848.



An unusual Irish account of a prearranged combat between two men–an Irishman wielding a pike, and an officer wielding a sword–was recounted by John Harkin, who, in 1937, was a forty-four year old resident of Church Hill, Co. Donegal. Harkin does not date this account, and it is thus difficult to know when it took place, or how truthful it may be. Possibly, his story is nothing more than pure folklore. However, given the importance of oral tradition within Irish culture, and the uniqueness of this account, we present it here in full:

“There lived in Derryveagh a man named O Donnell who was considered a great pikesman. The pike was commonly used as a weapon in those days, and it was considered a great offence for a man to own one. The officers of the law found out that O Donnell had a pike and they went to Derryveagh to arrest him. In those days men were arrested for very little. They took O Donnell with them but said they would give him a sporting chance, e. g. if he could beat an officer on horseback with his pike they could give him his freedom. Next morning they met the officer mounted on his horse and armed with a sword. O Donnell with only his pike.

“The officer made a rush at O Donnell intending to kill him with one blow of his sword but O Donnell pierced the horse’s leg with the pike and the horse fell toppling the officer. O Donnell jumped up and beat the officer until he killed him.

“The people looking on were enraged and were going to make a rush at O Donnell but an officer of high rank stopped them, saying that the bargain was that O Donnell should get his freedom if he beat the officer, so O Donnell was set free.” -National Folklore Collection, UCD.



After the turn of the twentieth century, Irish revolutionaries associated with the so-called “New Nationalism” continued to write on the subject of attack and defense with the pike. The weapon would go on to see limited use during the Easter Rising of 1916, as well as in the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and Irish Civil War (1922-1923). These late writings on the use of the pike by Irish rebels are worthy of their own article, and will be included in the next installment (PART II) of this series, which shall be published shortly. In the meantime, we will end with the following traditional verses, set down in County Wexford during the early twentieth century:

O Rourke the blacksmith forged a pike
And better neir was made
‘Twas eight feet long in handle
And six inch wide in blade
Father Murphy blessed it at Ferry Carrig side
It was Brian Bán who kissed it
as a lover with his bride
O God be praised the captain said
The hour has come at last
There is no tiger in the forest
That springs more fierce or fast
Be up my boys be ready
Have those pike in grand array
And we’ll march through Enniscorthy
By the dawning of the day
And we’ll die as did our forefathers
With pike and steel in hand
And if we give one blow for them
We’ll give one for Ireland too.

Text of this article, excepting extracts reprinted herein, © 2017 by Ben Miller.



The martial wisdom of Ireland’s swordsmen survives in Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland. The product of more than ten years of research, the first part of this book tells the story of eighteenth century Ireland’s most renowned duelists, gladiators, and fencing masters. The second part of this book contains the text of A Few Mathematical and Critical Remarks on the Sword—an almost completely overlooked fencing treatise, now published again for the first time in more than 230 years, that is currently the only known original treatment of swordsmanship by an Irish author published in Ireland during the eighteenth century. The Irish pike exercise has also been included among the book’s many appendices. “Irish Swordsmanship” contains extensive footnotes, more than sixty drawings, paintings, and engravings from the period, a comprehensive glossary of terms, and seven appendices.


  1. […] that less ’eminent’ (!) people weren’t willing to take their advice and put the pike in the thatch. So they proclaimed that Ireland was in a state of rebellion and declared martial law. And those […]

  2. […] are to Assemble at Belfast in July 1782 (see Irish Volunteer, Vol. 1, No. 19 and 20), and the 1848 United Irishman “Pike Drill” by John Mitchel (see Supplement to the Irish Volunteer, Feb. 27, […]

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