Ben Miller

Bayonet, Pike, Dagger and Sword: Martial Arts, Nationalism, and the Gaelic Revival in Early Twentieth Century Ireland

In Edwardian Era, Military, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on October 25, 2017 at 1:42 pm

“Superiority in fighting is extremely valuable in view of the large proportion of recent battles where the issue has been decided with cold steel. There is no reason why this superiority should not be at once gained by the Irish Volunteers…”                       —Séamas Ó hAodha, 1914


Two major surges of interest in the martial arts—both inspired and informed by a romantic interest in the past—can be observed during the last three centuries of Irish history.

The first occurred during the 1780s, and was spearheaded by the Knights of Tara, a celebrated group of fencers and duelists which formed as a result of a “call to arms” issued in an Irish treatise on swordsmanship, entitled A Few Mathematical and Critical Remarks on the Sword (1781). This first wave of interest–mostly led by members of the Protestant ascendancy–coincided with the establishment of the militant Irish Volunteers, as well as with a resurgence of interest in ancient Gaelic Ireland (exemplified by the founding of the Royal Irish Academy in 1786). It also resulted in the publication of a number of treatises on the art and science of fencing with the sword and bayonet, written between 1783 and 1805, and, in many ways, peaked with the failed United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798.

The second martial revival occurred towards the end of the nineteenth century, and continued into the early twentieth. Just as in the case of the first wave, the second coincided with a resurgence of militant sentiment (which arose in Ireland during the 1890s), as well as with a renewed interest in traditional and ancient Irish Gaelic culture (referred to today as “the Gaelic Revival”)—all of which combined to manifest in new forms of cultural nationalism, such as the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League, the Fianna Éireann, and the birth of more militant organizations such as Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

The first surge has already been written about at length in the newly published book, Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland. It is the second wave, about which little has been written to date, that this article is concerned with.


During the 1890s, a few noted individuals became instrumental in confluence of the Gaelic Revival and the militant New Nationalism. Among the most prominent of these were Sir Roger Casement, Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse, Countess Markievicz, and Eoin MacNeill. The Gaelic revival may be briefly defined as the late-nineteenth-century national revival of interest in the Irish language and in old Irish Gaelic culture–which included folklore, sports, music, literature, and other arts. Pearse and MacNeill were especially noted leaders of both the Gaelic revival and militant revolutionary organizations.

Members of the Gaelic Revival: pipers from county Cork. An Claidheamh Soluis, April 18, 1914.

Indeed, the attempt to re-popularize the Irish language was considered to be related to the martial arts, as can be seen in the following passage, which appeared in the pages of the nationalist journal An Claidheamh Soluis on February 4, 1915:

Our duty is to guard the great gift [the Irish language] and preserve it. When a man is fighting for his life he must use the best weapon at his command. If he have not a machine gun or rifle or automatic pistol, then a blunderbuss is good. If he possess no firearms, a sword or pike is useful, and a bata or stone may disable the enemy and help to gain breathing space…The Irish language army is reduced, if not to the bata and the stone, to the conditions of guerilla warfare.

Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916) was at the forefront of the Irish militant circles which brought about the 1916 Easter Rising. In 1911, the Dublin-born Casement was made a knight for his humanitarian efforts on behalf of the Amazonian Indians. Such exploits gained him the notice and admiration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who based the character of Lord John Roxton in The Lost World on Casement, and who defended him till the very end. Casement would eventually be stripped of his knighthood due to his Irish revolutionary activity, and hanged. Prior to that, however, he was instrumental in the publication of the first handbook of the Fianna Éireann, an Irish nationalist youth organization founded in 1909. For this handbook, Casement wrote an essay on “Chivalry” which referenced ancient Irish history and mythology, and which compared Irish martial culture to that of the Japanese:

Fianna Éireann badge, with pike on sunburst. Source: National Museum of Ireland.

Na Fianna Eireann, long before Christianity came to our island revealed in their conduct the very virtues that Christian chivalry, in later ages, inculcated as essential to the order of knighthood. So, too, “Bushido” inspired in the Japanese a spirit of sacrifice, of daring and of unselfish devotion to chief and clan that in our day has made the armies of the Mikado more powerful than the mighty hosts of imperial Russia…a nation can only retain its chivalry by retaining its nationality; and it destroys this when it assails the national life of another people. It is because Ireland is guiltless in this, above all other lands, that we may hope to revive in her, as national life revives, the guiding impulse of her earlier years. (p. 76)

The Fianna Handbook also included an article by Patrick Pearse, and a series of illustrated bayonet exercises. Although, being targeted at youth, these exercises did not delve into the nuances of hand-to-hand combat, they nevertheless are indicative of an interest in the subject of martial education.

A specimen of Fianna weaponry resides in the National Museum of Ireland. This dagger was made to the design of Liam Mellows (1892-1922), a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Volunteers, who would go on to participate in the Easter Rising and War of Independence. The dagger was made by James Lynam, a Fenian blacksmith of Athlone. The intent was that it could be carried in the stocking of the Fianna Éireann uniform, and used in the manner of a sgian dubh. It is not currently known how prevalent such daggers may have been.

Fianna Éireann dagger made by James Lynam. Source: National Museum of Ireland.

A number of photographs taken during this period show members of the Fianna Éireann posing with bayonets, sheathed at the hip in the manner of daggers:



The Irish Volunteers (in Irish, Óglaigh na hÉireann), also known as the Irish Volunteer Army, was a military organization established in 1913 by Irish nationalists. The Volunteers included members of the Gaelic League, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Sinn Féin, and, secretly, the Irish Republican Brotherhood. It was the forerunner of what would become the Irish Republican Army.

Noted leaders among the Volunteers included Roger Casement, Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse, and Eoin MacNeill (1867-1945)—a professor of early and medieval history at University College Dublin, and a secret member of the I.R.B.. In 1914, MacNeill was put in charge as editor of the the Volunteers’ official organ, An tÓglách, or, The Irish Volunteer, which aimed to provide guidance and to further develop the movement. Within the pages of this rare publication are to be found some of the most interesting and detailed methods of hand-to-hand combat propounded by early twentieth century Irish revolutionaries.

The methods of bayonet use presented in An tÓglách have their foundation and inspiration from mainland European techniques, as well as from British Army experience, which many Irish soldiers-turned-revolutionaries had obtained. And yet, there are many peculiarities in these methods well worth examining. Moreover, the approach taken by the writers of An tÓglách is one that is distinctly “Irish”—that is, modified to suit the particular landscapes and conditions of Ireland. This can be most clearly seen in the focus on “Hedge Fighting,” found throughout such martial writings, and which often mentioned the use of the pike:

Irish Volunteer, Jan 15, 1916.

It is also clear, in perusing these passages, that Irish revolutionaries were interested in looking back at the past—both for romantic and practical reasons. As one writer explained,

“The best available weapon may be the magazine rifle with bayonet, a rifle without a bayonet, a bayonet without a rifle, an automatic pistol, a common revolver, an old ’98 pike, and anything from that down to a pointed stick or a catapult, provided it can be handled so as to put the man on the other side out of action. While you are waiting for a present of a machine gun with ammunition for a whole campaign, get the thing you can get now, and exercise yourself with it till you feel sure that you can make the other man afraid of you.” – The Irish Volunteer, Vol. 2, No. 27.

Or, as another wrote,

“If it is contended that the rifle is better than the sword in a bayonet-charge, there is no reason why officers should not carry a half-pike or partisan, as they did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries…When the enemy is close at hand his revolver and pike should be a sufficient defence, if he knows how to use them.” – Irish Volunteer, March 25, 1916.

The Irish Volunteers were thereby ordered to immerse themselves in “physical culture” and to train in a variety of close-quarter combat methods; we find, for instance, the following prescribed in early 1916:

“If you can get a hall or house of sufficient size you should meet for indoor work once night every week, and for outdoor work every second Sunday…In addition to drill, Bayonet and pike fighting…if desired you can have physical drill, gymnastics, boxing, singlesticks, and so on.” Irish Volunteer, February 5, 1916.

A mounted leaflet in the possession of the National Museum of Ireland, entitled Equipment – Fianna Fail – The Irish Volunteers, Leaflet A-1, outlined the prescribed kit for Volunteers and Officers in 1914. Regarding weapons, the Volunteers were to be armed with the following:


As to arms: rifle, with sling and cleaning outift; 100 rounds of ammunition, with bandolier or ammunition pouches to hold same; bayonet, with scabbard, frog and belt; strong knife or slasher.

Indeed, so keen was the interest in the martial methods utilized by Irish revolutionaries of the past, that–most impressively–several obscure treatises from previous centuries, evidently gleaned from old library shelves, were printed among the pages of the Irish Volunteer for the benefit of its readers. Such treatises included the Plan of Review for the Volunteer Corps which 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, 1915).

Irish Volunteer bayonet drill – 1st prize winners: Part of A Company, 4th Battalion, Dublin Brigade, at a tournament held at St. Enda’s College on September 5, 1915.



Bayonet drill was a common feature of Irish Volunteer exercise. Various essays and articles in An tÓglách advocate its use in both the conventional sense, as well as in the manner of a club or (detached) dagger. An official and fully detailed method of bayonet combat, by F.P. Mullin, was published in the journal, intended for all recruits. This method can be read in full by clicking on this link.

In addition to the foregoing, numerous “hints” on the use of the bayonet, such as the following, were also published in the pages of An tÓglách:

“There are very few countries in the world in which bayonet fighting would play so large a part in warfare as in Ireland, and consequently instruction in the use of the bayonet should be a prominent aspect of the training of the Irish Volunteers. This will naturally include instruction in the actual bayonet exercises and in bayonet fencing, which must be taught by an instructor; but there are also a great number of useful hints to be picked up without actual practical demonstration.

“Thus it is easy to explain the easiest way to carry the rifle with the bayonet fixed when running forward in a change. It should be held with both hands in front of the body—left just inside the sling, right at the small of the stock—in the position of Port Arms. The weight feels least in this position, and from it one can easily assume the attack. If you try running with the rifle in this position you will at once see how easily it comes.

Irish Volunteer, Dec. 11, 1915.

“When arriving opposite the hostile line choose your opponent and attack him vigorously in whatever way seems to give the best opening. If you miss your attack and he is not in a position to counter-attack close and grapple with him if you are a bigger man; if not, resume the attack with your bayonet at the first chance.

“As a rule thrust low at the body; the face is a smaller mark and the chest is protected by the bones. If you disable your own antagonist look round to see if you cannot help one of your comrades. They should also come to your aid if you are hard pressed.

“If fighting a mounted man keep on his left or near side. He must then use his sword across his bridle arm, where his reach is much shorter and his parries much weaker. If he tries to ride you down, thrust at his horse and then attack him if the horse gets out of hand, as will probably be the case.

Rifle drill in Irish. From the Irish Volunteer, Dec. 25, 1915.

“When awaiting an enemy at night the best way is to kneel with your weapon in readiness. Then when the opponent’s figure is outlined against the background and he is near enough, spring up and lunge hard at the middle of the body.

“Always disentangle your bayonet at once—you will probably be attacked by a second man after you have disabled the first. Set your left foot on the body and pull: then you are ready to get on guard at once.

“Always attack whenever possible and attack fiercely. Bayonet fighting is not a game: it is brutal business, to be finished as soon as possible. But see to it that it finishes with your side on top.” – Supplement to the Irish Volunteer, Dec 26, 1914.

“Always attack: should an attack fail, follow it up with a second before your opponent can attack: keep him on the defensive. If you have to defend for a time, always be on the look-out for a chance to resume the offensive.

“Always cast a hasty glance round with a view to secure the best footing.

“In personal combat watch your opponent’s eyes if you can see them plainly. If you can’t, watch the movements of his weapon or body: this will mostly be the case in night attacks.

“Keep the body well covered and attack vigorously. Keep your point as nearly as possible in the line of attack. The less the piece if moved up, down, or to either side, the readier you are for attack or defence.

Members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army, armed with bayonets, inside the General Post Office, Dublin, 1916.

“Always watch for a chance to attack your opponent’s left hand: it is the nearest to you.

“The butt is used for close, sudden attacks.

“Against a man on foot armed with a sword, be careful he doesn’t grasp the muzzle of your piece. He will try his hardest to get past the bayonet. Attack him with short, stabbing thrusts, and keep him beyond striking distance of his weapon.

“Against odds a small party of men can fight to best advantage by grouping themselves so as to prevent their being attacked from behind.” – Irish Volunteer, Sept 4, 1915.


“At close quarters the rifle—even without the bayonet fixed—is a formidable weapon in the hands of a soldier who knows how to use it. A shot-gun is practically as good a weapon as the rifle in the same conditions.

“There are two ways in which the butt of the rifle or shot-gun can be used. In the first the weapon is held as if for bayonet combat, the right hand at the small of the stock, the left just inside the sling of the rifle or mid-way on the barrel in the case of a shot-gun. A terrific blow can be delivered by holding the left hand in front of the junction of the neck and left shoulder and smashing up the butt by straightening the right arm; the muzzle of the piece then points back over the left shoulder, and the butt crashes into the opponent’s face. The same blow may be delivered at the pit of the stomach: a single glance will show which of the two points of attack promises best.

“The second form of attack is by swinging the piece like a club. Grasp the barrel firmly with both hands—hands together—about six inches from the muzzle: swing it up over the right shoulder so that the butt is a little behind the line of the shoulder. Don’t bring it back very far or you’ll lose control and the weapon will put a dead weight on your wrists. The arms should not be fully straightened. Smash the rifle down on your opponent’s head. In this case the head is the point of attack because if your rifle drops too far you lose control.

“There is just a single case where you could select another point of attack. If your opponent is on a slight height over you—for instance, a man on a blank thrusting at you—you will probably be able to break his leg by a smashing blow near the knee. The solider who knows these few points is a formidable enemy even after his ammunition is all fired away, and even if he has no bayonet at all.” – Irish Volunteer, December 12, 1914.


M1871 sword bayonet as used by members of the Irish Volunteers.

“A Military Causerie.

“When the soldier jumps down into a trench full of enemies—as he must do when charging unless he remains above to be shot—he is no longer able to use rifle or bayonet to advantage. He is like a man in a close crowd, who cannot draw back his weapon so as to make it effective. Accordingly we read of men taking off the bayonet to use it by hand, and also of men resorting to their fists. Everything points to the advisability of a short knife or dirk being at instant command when the jump into the trench is made. And this is not for thrusting forward, as in striking a blow, but for back-handed action, the arm being swung with the blade projecting—a dagger action, in fact, which is much the quickest and most effective way of dealing with an enemy who is close up to you. The mode of use would be to have it out just before jumping into the trench, and to swing it into the face of the nearest man, and as rapidly as possible into the faces of as many men as can be reached—no stabbing at the body. The purpose should be to “flabbergast” your man more than merely to wound. A jab in the face is the best way of getting in first, which is everything in a hand-to-hand struggle, and a most disconcerting injury.—Well, boys, why not get a few knives?” – Irish Volunteer, February 26, 1916.

Another article published in the Volunteer considered similar advice from an Australian report:

“Another recommendation was that the pike-head should be detachable so as to be capable of being used as a dagger upon occasion…For more than a year past Headquarters have pointed out a general similarity between modern trench warfare and fighting in an intersected country like Ireland.” – Irish Volunteer, Jan 15, 1916.



Irish Volunteer, Oct. 24, 1914.

Perhaps no weapon has been more associated with Irish military history than the pike. The arm 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. 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.

British soldier with Irish pikes captured during the Easter Rising. The Great War Newspaper, 1916.

Later, too, the weapon would continue to see limited use during the Easter Rising of 1916, as well as in the Irish War of Independence and Irish Civil War. According to an article by Lar Joye,

Pikes used in 1916, National Museum of Ireland.

“On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, a small group of Irish Citizen Army soldiers under Captain Seán Connolly…attacked the centre of British administration in Ireland—Dublin Castle…The insurgents, despite being few and poorly armed, succeeded in taking the guardroom but failed to take control of the castle, leaving this pike behind when they retreated….This pike represents the reality for nationalists throughout the period from 1912 to 1922—the lack of modern weapons. During the nineteenth century the pike had become the definitive symbol of Irish revolt, especially after the 1798 Rebellion, and it was recommended in 1914 that Irish Volunteers who could not afford to buy or procure a rifle should use a pike as a substitute.” (History Ireland)

Pike use during the Irish War of Independence was also recounted by IRA veteran James J. Comerford in the exceedingly rare My Kilkenny I.R.A. Days: 1916-22 (Dinan Pub. Co., 1980). In the pages of his memoir, Comerford recounted that the volunteers of Muckalee parish “made pikes–patterned after the ’98 Wexford pikes.” He further related:

“Handles for the pikes were scarce. Expected to be six or seven feet in length, they were difficult to obtain in places outside of timber saw mills in towns. Shovel handles, sprong and fork handles could be had easily, but these were too short for Pikes. In actual combat, where lives would be at stake, a six foot pike handle gave the Irish Volunteer a chance in hand to hand fighting to outreach the English Soldier with his Rifle and Bayonet on close combat conditions. It gave the Irish volunteer some time to see the whites of the English Soldier’s eyes when he was parrying with him while waiting for an opportunity to thrust his pike into the Soldier’s body. Killing or wounding was the name of the game in Bayonet and Pike fighting.” (p. 102)

Comerford continues to recount specific instances of pike use in several other sections of his book (see pages 100-104, 187, 215, 772-775).

Kilmurry Volunteers carry pikes through the streets of Cork with hundreds of others in the city’s 1916 St Patrick’s Day parade. Source: Niall Murray’s blog.

Following is a selection of instructions and “hints” on pike use which appeared in the Irish Volunteer. The author of the first piece is none other than Séamas Ó hAodha (James J. Hughes)–a noted member of the Gaelic League, the secretary of Cumann na nGael, and an intelligence officer under Michael Collins.

“The suggestion that the pike should be revived in our day as an arm for the Volunteers has had a mixed reception. The most frequent objection is that it is not a modern weapon, and that it is no substitute for the magazine rifle and bayonet. On the other hand, it is fairly well agreed by all that, for man-to-man fighting, the pike would be superior on the grounds of lightness, handiness and length to its shorter, heavier, and clumsier rival. Many who admit this advantage are afraid of the ridicule its appearance in the 20th century would surely elicit from the adorers of modernism. The only substantial objection seems to be that pikemen as such could be easily slaughtered from a distance by an enemy armed with the rifle, it being impossible for a man to use a modern rifle and a pike at the same time.

“Superiority in fighting is extremely valuable in view of the large proportion of recent battles where the issue has been decided with cold steel. There is no reason why this superiority should not be at once gained by the Irish Volunteers without any corresponding disadvantage when in the Mauser automatic pistol we have a first class weapon of fire, sighted to 1,000 yards, with which our pikemen could be equipped and thereby rendered equally formidable at a distance….One hundred pikemen armed with Mauser auto pistols could be attached to every battalion and would be the most modern and efficient arm in Europe when properly trained.

“These two weapons are eminently suited to the Irish temperament and the topography of the country. The thousands of trained hurlers through the country would be magnificent material for pikemen, trained in a body, foot and eye, for their work. The broken nature of the surface in Ireland would make a range of more than 1,000 yards rare for engagements. We would thus have combined in the pike corps all that is most efficient in steel and bullet. A point or two not to be forgotten may be mentioned. Pikes can be made at once locally and for a few shillings…The fact that 100 men in a battalion carried pikes would not prevent the remaining 900 from carrying bayonets; in other words, the pike would not replace the bayonet; it would supplement it. Let those light-brained people who believe that to conform sheepishly in everything to the accepted notions of the day is to be most progressive and efficient enjoy their laugh to their heart’s content at the expense of the pikemen. If ten or twenty thousand Volunteers can be armed in a few weeks with the most perfect in-fighting weapon known, their strength as an army will be immensely increased (pending a fuller supply of rifles.) If in addition these men carry the most deadly of modern firearms, we will then be in the very vanguard of military progress.


– Irish Volunteer, August 8, 1914

Eire, November 6, 1914.


“Our Volunteers are possibly not fully informed about the numerous occasions on which battles have been won by hand-to-hand fighting. It is a matter of history that not once nor twice but many times disciplined forces armed with modern rifles have been wiped out by a rush of spearmen. It is a great mistake to suppose that these cases were accidental, as is often heard. They were not. Like any other military manoeuvre, the rush of spearmen succeeded when the conditions favoured it, and failed when the conditions were against it. [Continues to cite anecdotes from history of British failures in Eygpt and Sudan.]

“The lessons of these fierce encounters in the Sudan are well worth pondering. It should be borne in mind, too, that the bodies of spearmen concerned were very large and consequently difficult to handle. The task of a small body fighting a corresponding body of regular troops would be much simpler.

“The Volunteers as a whole do not seem to realize the great importance of hand-to-hand fighting. There is no reason for this, because Headquarters has urged the need for training in this particular branch of the soldier’s business often enough, both in orders and in the official organ. It cannot be too forcibly impressed upon our men that there is no more important point than this, for many reasons.

“The temperament of the Irishman causes him to excel in close fighting. He is essentially an attacker, and is active in body and quick in mind. His ready presence of mind enables him to defend his life in the quick, sudden exchanges that occur constantly in the bayonet combat. There is no need to lay any additional stress on this point: the present European war has furnished numerous incidents proving that the same aptitude exists now in as great a degree as it ever did.

“Again, it should be borne in mind that the ground in Ireland is very suitable for this style of fighting. “Close country—close fighting:” this is an invariable rule. Just as on the veldt in South Africa long-range shooting was customary, so in Ireland a main reliance would always be the bayonet.” – Irish Volunteer, July 3, 1915.

“Certain of the Volunteer officers favour the adoption of the pike as the best arm for the officers and sergeants, and a very strong case can be made out for it. First of all it is desirable that, if possible, the officer should have a distinctive weapon: it is a badge of authority on parade, and on service points him out as the man to look to for guidance. The objection that in battle it draws the hostile fire upon him is not so strong in Ireland, where good cover is everywhere obtainable, as elsewhere.

“In particular there is the objection to uniform armament among the Volunteers. The officer armed with a rifle—especially if better than an average shot, as many Volunteer officers are—is sorely tempted to devote his attention to picking off some of the enemy. Instead his aim should he to direct the fire of his own men. It is poor fire-control for one picked shot to ‘snipe’ half-a-dozen while the 30 odd men under him fire into the ground twenty yards to their front.

“This would not be a new departure, either. In the English Army up to and during the Peninsular War all leaders of sections carried a pike, or halbert, as it was called. The idea was precisely the same—increased facilities of fire-direction; and that the custom was not detrimental to military efficiency is evident from the success of the English Army at that time, when it was better than ever before or since. The new custom could be introduced by the officers carrying pikes when route marching.” – Supplement to the Irish Volunteer, Feb. 27, 1915.

“DISPOSITION or a Small Force on the Defensive.”


Advertisement for pikes in Eire, Nov. 7, 1914.

“There remains to be considered the question of supports. It may happen that the fire of the firing-line is not by itself sufficent to repel the attack, and that a counter-attack may prove necessary. For this, the dependence must be upon the supports, who should be held in a distinct body. Experience in Flanders has proved that the best method of action by the support is as follows:—

“They are posted as near the firing-line as circumstances allow, and when advancing do not fire at all, but rely on the bayonet.

“This again is a point of special interest to the Volunteers. From the nature of the case it has been found advisable to arm a certain proportion of the men with pikes; and these, evidently, are the men to form the supports. They are posted within easy rushing distance—say 50 yards or less: they are fresh, and have the advantage of surprise in their attack. In such a case their action should be instantly and speedily effective. All that is needed is proper foresight in deciding on the direction of the attack. It should always be delivered against a flank if possible.

“This will often be decided by the following circumstance. Frequently in a combat of this nature the assailant will expose a flank: in fact, for every separate field he advances across he exposes two flanks—and he is powerless to avoid this. Hedges and fences running parallel to the direction of the advance and perpendicular to the line of the defender’s position inevitably split up his front into fragments. Consequently it will often be possible to select the point of counter-attack well ahead and take suitable measures for the disposal of the supports accordingly.

“It will form a very instructive exercise for the commanders of Volunteer corps to carry out a defence on lines like those indicated—the attacking force being imaginary. Half the corps with rifles form the firing-line, and the other half with pikes the supports. The point is that if proper use is made of the enclosed nature of the country a force half armed with pikes can be considered as fully armed. At all events, that is the experience of the French and German armies.”

– Irish Volunteer, August 7, 1915.


“It might easily happen that pikemen would be required to hold some point such as a bridge, barricade, or the like against a body of horsemen, and naturally in such a case their success would depend entirely upon their individual readiness and skill-at-arms.

Irish Volunteer, Oct. 24, 1914.

“In such encounters it would often happen that the charging horsemen would be to some extent protected by their horses from a direct attack, and in this case the proper method is to attack the horse first and then the rider when he loses control.

“The most obvious point of attack and the nearest to hand is the chest, but this is not at all the best way. First of all, if the horse is so hard stricken as to be brought down, he falls forward on to the weapon and forces it from the pikeman’s grasp; and at the same time the rider—if any sort of a horseman—can slide easily out of the saddle, and while doing so whip out his carbine and do considerable damage. On the other hand, if the horse is only slightly wounded and not brought down he plunges madly forward and throws the opposing ranks into confusion, in which case the pikemen are speedily ridden over by succeeding troopers.

“But suppose the pikeman on the contrary thrusts at the head or neck—preferably the nose. In that case the horse rears at once and the rider is hard set to keep in his seat. In this case the pike is disengaged and the pikeman is very well places for a thrust at the horseman before the latter can recover control. In addition the horse swerving round now disorganizes his own ranks and not those of the pikemen. Accordingly, the invariable rule is: When attacking a horse thrust at the head. Naturally this applies in the case of a man armed with rifle and bayonet with the same force, except that his weapon being shorter is a trifle easier to disengage.” – Irish Volunteer, July 3, 1915.



Cutting exercises shown in Manual of the Sword.

The sword received less attention in Volunteer literature than the pike or bayonet. However, a few references can be found. We know that militant Irish publications advocated training in the use of the “singlestick” (Irish Volunteer, Feb. 5, 1916), which was the training weapon for the saber or broadsword. Likewise, the sword was a prescribed sidearm for Volunteer Officers.  A 1914 leaflet, entitled Fianna Fail – The Irish Volunteers, now in the possession of the National Museum of Ireland, declared,

The following are the articles prescribed by Headquarters for the personal equipment of Vounteers on field service…


As to arms: automatic pistol, or revolver, with ammunition for same, in lieu of rifle; sword, sword bayonet, or short lance.

An Irish Volunteer’s equipment, ca. 1913-1921. Source: Whyte’s Auctions.

Volunteer Officers were frequently photographed wearing their swords. The photograph below, courtesy of collector Conchúir O’Duilacháin, shows several Irish Volunteers with their swords. On the left is Edward Daly, the commandant of Dublin’s 1st Battalion during the Easter Rising of 1916, for his role in which he was later executed.

Photograph courtesy of collector Conchúir O’Duilacháin,

Following are images of an antique Irish Volunteer sword, courtesy of collector Derek Jones:

Irish Volunteer Officer’s sword. Photograph courtesy of collector Derek Jones.

Detail of hilt of Irish Volunteer Officer’s sword. Photograph courtesy of collector Derek Jones.

A rare manuscript on the use of the sword, simply entitled Manual of the Sword, was written between 1923 and 1925, and can be found in the former Papers of Colonel Padraig O’Connor (now in private hands). This treatise is only about ten pages long, and it has not been the good fortune of this author to have access to it. However, this text may have been the basis for the much longer Manual of the Sword, published by the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) in the years to come, and shown here. Although mostly treating of the ceremonial use of the sword, this booklet presumes a basic knowledge of fencing (for instance, the use of tierce and quarte) and includes “wrist exercises” utilizing circular cuts similar to the moulinets of classical fencing.

Irish Free State officer’s sword, ca. 1930. Source: Whyte’s Auctions.

“Sword drill under supervision of Capt Flanagan and Capt Nolan at McKee Barracks Dublin,” March 12, 1927.



During the initial outbreak of the revolution in 1916, the bayonet and pike saw use in various battles and skirmishes, including those which took place in Dublin on Easter Monday, April 24. The bayonet was also pivotal to the Volunteer’s victory at the battle of Ashbourne, which took place four days later on April 28, 1916:

“Following a five hour long gun battle it was a bayonet charge led by Richard Mulcahy which finally broke the moral of the RIC. However the bayonet was employed by the forces under Thomas Ashe’s command from the very start, earlier on the morning of the battle…” – Battle Of Ashbourne 1916, Commeration 2016

Despite their vast training in pike, bayonet, and hand-to-hand combat methods, however, the prime focus of the Irish Volunteers was always on marksmanship and firepower. In the years following the Easter Rising of 1916, the tactics of the Volunteers were thoroughly revised by Michael Collins, the Director of Intelligence for the Irish Republican Army. Determined to avoid the large-scale engagements which had resulted in massive military and civilian losses, Collins devised new guerrilla tactics relying almost exclusively on firearms, and embodied by ambush and hit-and-run tactics utilized by the I.R.A.’s “flying columns.”

Thus, in the end, hand-to-hand combat techniques did not play a pivotal or prominent role in the Irish War of Independence or Civil War, although such weapons and techniques were used to some degree (see, for instance, the anecdotes recounted in Tom Barry’s Guerilla Days In Ireland, and in Comerford’s My Kilkenny I.R.A. Days: 1916-22). Nevertheless, the prolific interest in these methods shown by the Volunteers provides interesting insight into the role of the martial arts in Irish history and culture.

In the years following the end of the Irish Civil War, the Irish Free State’s Department of Defence published a number of texts, often in both English and Irish, concerning the use of the bayonet, which possibly represent a continuity of the techniques utilized by Volunteers:

Bilingual Irish-English Free State text: Drill Arm le Muscaeid. Rialachain Forsai Cosanta (Baile Atha Cliath: Oifig an tSolathair).

Today, the Irish Defence Forces still include bayonet training among their curricula–though, by all appearances, these modern, extremely simplified techniques bear little resemblance to the more sophisticated, fencing-based methods used in Ireland during the early twentieth century.

The author would like to thank collectors Conchúir O’Duilacháin and Derek Jones for generously sharing their photographs of Irish militaria for inclusion in this article.

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.

Irish Swordsmanship is available in both paperback and hardcover editions from Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon EuropeBarnes & Noble, and other national and international retailers.

You can also read extracts, view images, and read articles pertaining to the book and its subject by visiting the book’s Facebook page.


  1. Pike-heads continued to be made by and for Irish Volunteers in Co Cork’s Macroom battalion area through 1918, at least

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