Ol' Twin-Swords: The Best Gaelic Dual-Wielders

Apr 2016
United Kingdom

As any twelve-year-old playing Skyrim or Halo 2 will inform you, dual-wielding is ‘the ****.’ They’re not wrong: a visible proportion of the population will lose their money and pants after seeing that two-sword twirl in the Game of Thrones trailer. But in real life, it’s incredibly difficult to pull off. It requires mastery of arms in both arms, extensive training, mental conditioning if you’re not naturally a southpaw with a mean right hook, and ultimately does no better job than a single sword - possibly a worse one. Only a certain kind of person could manage - or want - to accomplish it, and you’d need to be a special kind of certifiable to try it on a battlefield. Fortunately, martial mores of medieval Gaelic culture were a special kind of certifiable, and gave us these guys.

1) Domnall mac Ragnall

If anyone you love travels to McDonalds on late-night jollies, Domnall is who you can ultimately blame for their diabetes. As the eponymous ancestor of Clan Donald, his legacy lies entirely in discordant names and expanded waistlines. But he personally was an active man. He had a thing for blood sports - water falconry, hunting with hounds - and took things to the next level with a duel on a boat in which one wrong move meant a watery end. In the bout, lovingly recorded by a poet with severe Stockholm syndrome, he had two weapons: a scian, and a ‘half-spear’ (javelin).

A scian

Well, technically he had four weapons, because he had a targe (small circular shield) strapped to his sword-arm. Targes were often bossed, and sometimes spiked. The poet also calls his half-spear his ‘second,’ implying he’d tossed the first. Nothing is recorded of his opponent except that he ended up arse-backward, with the ‘belly of his [Domnall’s] challenge(r) on his back.’ We can safely assume that a) this poet was not a surgeon and b) Domnall knew how to use small weapons well. Gaelic duellists went hard or went home, and sometimes went hard without going home, if you catch my drift.

2) Eoin MacSuibhne

In contrast to Domnall, you can’t bill this strapping scion of a Hiberno-Scots mercenary for anything because he didn’t accomplish jack. Other than an attempt to reclaim an ancestral castle, of course. A poet called ‘Ártur Dall’ wrote an incitement in its honour, in which we see MacSuibhne wielding ‘two lances’ like the ‘fangs of a viper.’ ‘Lances’ probably means spears, particularly a kind of spear differentiated in contemporary lingo from the ‘half-spear’ we’ve seen: i.e. one not conducive to throwing. However there is a slim chance Eoin was wielding these things, the impressive bastard.

These things

Not that he stuck with them, because in the same poem we see he’s switched out one for a scian inlaid with gold and walrus ivory. In the same poem, we see a claidheamh mentioned, so can tell this sword was distinct from the longer arming swords of his men. Eoin seems a man out to impress, which shouldn’t be surprising considering he was clad in ‘flowing cloaks of [horrifically expensive] mail’ and ‘avoided no arrows.’ His attack on the castle was ultimately a washout, if it ever got off the ground, but that image will haunt panties forever.

3) Muirceartach mac Brian

Only, not as much as this guy. It’s time to step three centuries before Eoin and two before the Clown Prince of Cholesterol up there, to 1014: Brian Boruma, self-made emperor of the Irish, was leading a coalition of Gaelic kings and tuaithe to meet an opposite Scandinavian number at Clontarf. The battle was the best war movie never made, with vicious duels, horrific executions, a guy named Wolf, and a saintly king-emperor being brained by a huge Norse axeman (spoilers). Brian was very old and refused to fight on a holy day, so son Muirceartach took charge while he prayed for the souls of his men.

Muirceartach himself was at least fifty - given the age of his father - but rode into the van like Cotton Eye Joe on a white stallion. He, as you may have guessed, had two swords, inlaid with gold and ivory, and cut through fifty mailed Scandinavians - earning the epithet ‘Hector of the West.’ But this was not his moment of triumph. Amid the fray, he accosted Sigurd the Stout, jarl of Orkney, enemy forces supremo. Sigurd was not so stout on this occasion. With one sword, Muirceartach severed his helmet strap, and as it tumbled to the mud punched the other through his skull.

This caused a general rout of Ostmen in the area, and was arguably crucial to winning the battle. But Muirceartach’s own glory was not to last. Somewhere on what’s now a Dublin housing estate, he copped an unfortunate huscarl and was disembowelled. Of course, being himself, he’d thrust his second scian into his slayer’s sternum and ‘won’ in the sense that he didn’t die first. But without him - or his son Toirrdelbach, who chased a rout too far and drowned - Boruma’s High Kingship wasn’t to last. Ireland returned to fratricide like a dom to a spandex shop.

Clontarf, by Rafaella Caruso

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