Emerald Isle

Shields of Irish Legend

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Ulster Cycle

In olden Ireland, your true shield was not your spirit

War and the arts of war much occupied the people of Ireland, who became renowned for their skill with weapons and in the ways of battle. They fought one another and the many invaders who came to this land, earning not only fame for their arms and the swords and spears they carried, but for their shields as well!

Some of the most legended shields that protected Irish warriors included Derg-Druimnech, which means “red backed”. It was a golden shield carried by Domhnall Breac, king of the northlands kingdom of Dal Riada which stretched between Ireland and Scotland. When this fierce king came to blows with the hero Conall Cearnach, the hero threw a deadly javelin right at the king.

This passed through three shields raised by his followers to protect him, before thudding solidly into red-backed itself! Not even then was the king kept fully safe, for he took a wound from the spear, but it would have been far worse had he been less protected. He and his men then went on to win the battle.

Ochain or Acéin, which meant the Moaner, was another celebrated Gaelic shield. None other than Conchobar Mac Nessa lifted this shield, of which it was said that “four rims of gold were round it.” It moaned a warning whenever its bearer was in danger, and the three chief waves of the oceans around Ireland, whose names were Tuaithe, Cliodhna, and Rudraidhe, would roar in answer.

He loaned the shield to his son Fiachra, who led the attack on the Red Branch Hostel, but when the attack didn’t go well, Ochain moaned a warning, bringing Conchobar to the rescue of his lad.

But of them all, none reached the heights of famed ascended to by Cú Chulainn’s Shield, magic in the making and magic in the wielding.

Not wanting to be found looking less than their best on the field of battle, the men of Ulster made a law which said they each had to have a silver shield, but the design on each shield should be different.

Cú Chulainn was training in the far north with Scáthach when he heard about this new law, and he marvelled at the beauty of the shields being made for the warriors who lived nearby.

So he took himself off to the master shield maker whose name was Mac Endge, and demanded not only a new shield, but one that was fairer and different from that of any other warrior in Ireland or Scotland.

The master Mac Endge insisted he was tired out and that his skill had all been used up making the shields for everyone else, and that it was a creative process in any case and not to be rushed.

Well I’ll tell you, the Hound was having none of it!

“I swear by the edge of my death-dealing blade and the venomous barbs of the Gae Bolg that you’ll make my shield or offer your explanations to my weapons!”

Flustered by this threat and unused to such dealing, Mac Endge held up his hands and said he had the protection of King Conchobar himself.

“Go to him then,” said Cú Chulainn, “and it will change nothing.”

Off he strutted leaving the master of shields in a state of depression. For how was he to come up with something new after designing everything under the sun and moon for the armies of Ulster?

Then he noticed something out of the corner of his eye and turned to behold a strange man sitting with his feet dangling down from the chimney hole, holding a great two-pronged bronze fork in one hand! The man had seen the whole business and agreed solemnly that the outlook wasn’t great.

“Well I know it and know it well!” said Mac Endge, running his hands through the few hairs left on his head and looking after where the Cú had departed “I’m a dead man for sure,” he despaired.

The man hopped down and Mac Endge felt a chill run across him that had nothing to do with the weather, for there was something uncanny going on here.

“Sweep your hearth and spread the ashes from the fireplace to the depth of a man’s foot on the floor here.”

Puzzled but willing to try anything at this stage, the shieldmaker did as he was bid, then the man stepped forward and jabbed one prong of his fork into the deep ashes, then swirled it around and about, moving it up and down to make beautiful designs of a type never seen before.

The name of the fork was Lúathrinde, which means a point brought swiftly, or a point brought from the ashes, and the man said

“If I were Mac Endge, this is how I would engrave, for his is how Dubdetba makes shields”

Then Mac Endge jumped for he knew he was dealing with one of the sidhe, but his eyes drank greedily of the designs on the floor and when he looked up, the visitor was gone. And so the design called Lúathrinde, the first of what we call La Téne art, was shaped into the front of Cú Chulainn’s shield, which was itself called Dubhán or Blackie.

And none finer in strength or beauty was there in all the land.

The house of Mac Endge may have been close to the spot marked on the map below!

Further Tales from the Ulster Cycle

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