Ireland currently has the lowest forest cover in western Europe, a dramatic contrast to when our environment once was covered in woodland. By the seventeenth century much of this had disappeared, yet until that time Irish forests were the envy of Europe and a marker of Irish identity. The word ‘Gael’ as in ‘Gaelic’ is said to be derived from meaning ‘forest people’ (Koch, 2004) and Irish people were noted their high regard for trees*. That, at the height of the brutal Elizabethan reconquest, a time when Irish identity was actively being supressed, Irish rebels sought refuge and claimed association with the forests is significant. This article will focus on these 'woodkerne', and how their association with the rapidly declining Irish forests ultimately fuelled their demise.
Figure 1: Gallowglass with woodkerne in the background by Marc Grunert
By the late sixteenth century, the term ‘woodkerne’ came to be used snipingly by the English to mean Native-Irish. At this time, the subject of Ireland consumed the English more than even their wars with Spain or the Netherlands (MacGregor, 2012). Their plans to subdue Ireland was thwarted by the Gaelic lords and rebels who were powerful outside the Pale. They were exemplified by the image of the Irish woodkerne, a type of bogeyman to the Elizabethans (MacGregor, 2012).
Professional mercenaries: Woodkerne had started out as being ‘kern’: a type of foot soldier available for hire to anyone: English, Irish, whomever paid them to fight. But as the conquest of Ireland accelerated to become more murky and difficult, they were associated with Irish rebellion and became ‘woodkerne’: feral and animal-like savages who dwelt in the woods and bogs, where many of them were said to hide out.
But kern had not always had a bad image. For centuries they had been known as light infantrymen, their lack of heavy armour meant they were fast and light footed. They were considered excellent for skirmishing and their local knowledge of the land made them valuable scouts. They would launch surprise attacks, harry their prey and then retreat quickly into the woods. Although they would accrue an uncivilised image, many came from relatively privileged parts of Irish society (Cannan, 2011) and considered their profession as proof of status and honour.
Figure 2 Rory Oge, a kern and defeated rebel is shown in the forest with wolves, depicted by John Derricke (1581).
Naked soldiers: Their tactics, armour and skills meant they were highly effective fighters in the boggy, forested landscape of Ireland. Like all Irish soldiers they were renowned for being lightly armed, and lightly dressed. Long established stories that stretch to Antiquity of Irish warriors going into battle ‘naked’ should be taken to refer to their lack of conventional armour rather than actual nudity. Kern typically wore a heavy cloak over a loose tunic and a short coat. They were barelegged and usually barefoot as footwear would have been a hindrance when navigating the land.
“They return backe to the wood, from whence they came before” (Derricke, 1581).
Forest Fighters: Their services were valued by the English who appreciated their local knowledge and essentially used them as counter-insurgency experts (Cannan, 2011). But the woodkerne switched sides often when the money was right, and when they joined Irish rebellions in the late sixteenth century they became especially despised by the English. The Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598 saw the Irish earn a powerful victory (Cannan, 2011) and the kern now became known as treacherous ‘woodkerne’: symbolic of the lack of full conquest in Ireland, always lurking in the woods, awaiting their opportunity to strike. When rebellion broke out in the later sixteenth century they ‘came out of the woods’ to take part and became ‘the archetype of the nightmarishly elusive, indigenous forest fighter’ (MacGregor, 2012).
Figure 3: Albrecht Durer, 1521, Irish soldiers.
Anti-fashion: The woodkerne looked suitably menacing too: the archaic way they dressed and wore their hair showed they were immune to ‘civilization’. Rather than worry about keeping up with the latest Renaissance fashion the Irish seemed to wear their outmodedness defiantly, as a marker of Irish identity. A great example of this is the ‘glib’: the on-trend hairstyle amongst the native Irish during the 16th century and much associated with woodkerne.
The glib involved the hair at the side of the head cut short, while at the front and top it grew long, with a long fringe falling over the face (Moriarty, 2013). This had the effect of semi-obscuring the face and, as it was like a horse’s mane, added a further ‘beastly’ demeanour. Two of Renaissance culture’s stars were involved in commentary on the ‘look’ of the kern: William Shakespeare refers to kerns as being ‘rug headed’ referring to the close-cut, carpet-like aspect of the glib style. Albrecht Dürer drew some from life (looking gloriously shifty and likely muttering in Gaelic) when he having spotted them at a port on the Continent. Because it was a marker for Irish sedition the glib was banned by the English: such Irish identity was associated with savagery and lack of civility and had to be stamped out, nonetheless many woodkerne continued to proudly wear it.
Figure 4: Angus MacBride, Scottish Gallowglass and Irish woodkerne.
Throughout the history of colonization, the narrative goes that the natives are beast-like and unable to govern themselves, providing justification for the colonizer to step in to remedy the situation by providing responsible governance. The vast Irish forests now became targets, as they represented the wildness of a country that must be tamed. They offered shelter to the last vestiges of Irish savagery and became obstacles to colonization; their destruction was beneficial on practical and symbolic levels to the English. The forests were hiding places to woodkerne, and other rebels and miscreants as well as wolves. The forest environment itself could be used as a weapon by them; if hostile forces tried to enter the territory, the practice of ‘plashing’ or using the woodland cover for ambush, and traps with sharpened branches were used to ruthless effect.
Far left: Fig 5: Captain Thomas Lee as a woodkerne by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636), Tate Gallery, London
Centre and Right, Fig 5 and 6: Illustrations show Irish kerns by Angus MacBride.
Increasing deforestation along with great number of executions meant many woodkerne went abroad to serve foreign masters. By the seventeenth century around 90% of forests in Ireland were destroyed (Whelan, Aalen, & Stout, 1997). The English saw Irish forests as a timber supply (particularly for shipbuilding) extracting large quantities of wood. Many are quick to point out that some Gaelic chiefs sold off and exploited this natural resource just as enthusiastically, but not for the same security and symbolic reasons as the English did. By the 1650s the woodkerne ‘threat’ was more or less over and by the mid-eighteenth century the destruction of most the last of the ancient forests of Ireland was complete.
For a while the woodkerne represented what it was to be truly Irish according to foreigners, however negatively. Uncivilised, feral, ultraviolent, scary but also extremely efficient and highly connected to the natural environment, they sought sanctuary from the woodland and turned these vast dark areas into terrifying blurred space and no-go areas for encroaching outsiders. The woodkerne were aware of their terrifying reputation and revelled in it, but their time ran out. When the forests were cleared so too were they, and with them the last vestiges of Irish identity with the ancient woodland.
This blogpost is a from a feature length article written by me on the topic. For more on Irish forests and contemporary woodcraft please see the book See The Wood From The Trees written by me and Dermot O’Donovan, published by Artisan House (2018).
*Trees had been worshipped; the Ogham alphabet and Old Irish poetry was influenced by trees while Brehon Laws included harsh penalties for the destruction of certain tree types.
Cannan, F. (2011, Jan/Feb). ‘Hags of hell’: Late Medieval Irish Kern. History Ireland, pp. 35-40.
Derricke, J. (1581). The Image of Ireland. London.
Koch, J. T. (2004). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopaedia. ISBN 9781851094400.
MacGregor, N. (2012). Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects. London: Penguin.
Moriarty, C. (2013, 08 08). 16th Century Irish Hipsters. Retrieved from Irish Archaeology: http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/08/16th-century-irish-hipsters/
Murray, S. (2010, 08 06). The Robin Hood Of Laois. Retrieved from Laois People: https://www.laoispeople.ie/the-robin-hood-of-laois/
Tait, C. (2015, Nov 16). Civilising the hairy savage in 16th century Ireland. Retrieved from Wellcome Library Blog: http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2015/11/civilising-the-hairy-savage-in-16th-century-ireland/
Whelan, K., Aalen, F., & Stout, M. (1997). Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape. Cork: Cork University Press.