The word kern is an anglicisation of the Middle Irish word ceithern [kʲeθʲern] or ceithrenn meaning a collection of persons, particularly fighting men. An individual member is a ceithernach. The word may derive from a conjectural proto-Celtic word *keternā, ultimately from an Indo-European root meaning a chain. Kern was adopted into English as a term for a Gaelic soldier in medieval Ireland and as cateran, meaning Highland marauder, bandit. The term ceithernach is also used in modern Irish for a chess pawn.
Kerns notably accompanied bands of the mercenary Gallóglaigh as their light infantry forces, where the Gallowglass filled the need for heavy infantry. This two-tier "army" structure though should not be taken to reflect earlier Irish armies prior to the Norman invasions, as there were more locally trained soldiers filling various roles prior to this. The Gallowglass largely replaced the other forms of infantry though, as more Irish began to train to imitate them, creating Gallowglass of purely Irish origin.
Earlier, the Ceithernn would have consisted of myriad militia-type infantry, and possibly light horse, most likely remembered later in the "horse boys" that accompanied Gallowglass and fought as light cavalry. They would be armed from common stock or by what they owned themselves, and filled out numerous portions of an army, probably forming the vast bulk of most Gaelic forces. In the mid sixteenth century Shane O'Neill was known to have armed his peasantry and Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, outfitted many of his Ceithernn with contemporary battle dress and weapons and drilled them as a professional force, complete with experienced captains and modern weapons.
Like many Gaels historically, Kerns often found themselves on multiple sides of conflicts; for example, the native Irish forces of the Norman-English in Ireland would have had levies of Kerns in them. As a result, they also found themselves fighting upon distant shores in Europe where they were famous as ferocious light infantrymen. Indeed, Desmond Seward is eloquent when he describes the Kerns in France:
The Prior and many of his men were killed. The kern had made a strong impression by their outlandish dress and their ferocity, riding back from raids with severed heads dangling from their bareback ponies. There were other Irishmen who, led by the Butler family, made a small but effective contribution to the Lancastrian war effort in France. The fourth earl of Ormonde—Fra' Thomas was his bastard son—had been on Clarence's chevauchee in 1412 and also took part in the siege of Rouen. Two more of his sons, Sir John and Sir James Butler (later the fifth Earl) were to be noted captains under Bedford and Old Talbot in the 1430s and 1440s. Besides a long-haired, moustachioed, saffron cloaked, barefooted 'tail' of javelin men and axe- and claymore-wielding gallowglasses, these Anglo-Irish chieftains would have brought more conventionally armed daoine uaisle (gentlemen) recruited from their relations.
- Military equipment and tactics
There is little evidence to suggest that the kern wore armour, though this point is disputed. They may have sported some form of light armour, perhaps nothing more than a leather coat but they almost certainly did not wear chainmail as there is no evidence that the extensive iron-working industry required to facilitate it existed in Ireland at the time. Kerns were light troops who relied on speed and mobility, often utilising lightning strike tactics as a force-multiplier to engage much larger formations. In the words of one writer, they were, "lighter and lustier than [English soldiers] in travail and footmanship". The dart was the weapon of choice for the kern, the bow never achieving popularity in the country. Kerns were of great use in the warfare that revolved around cattle raiding in Ireland at the time. Their role was to herd captured cattle away from the enemy territory and to support heavier troops such as the gallowglass. When confronted by English style regiments, the kern would follow enemy troops on their march route, firing on them with darts, javelins, and stones from slings. Occasionally, provided the terrain and timing was right, kerns would move in for close combat. If their opponents broke and ran, they could easily be run down by the swift kern; if the enemy soldiers stood firm they would simply retreat into difficult terrain to renew their harassment later. On occasions where they were pursued into the more difficult terrain of bogs or woods, the hunters risked becoming the hunted as the kern could double back and eliminate isolated groups.
Native Irish displaced by the Anglo-Norman invasion, operated as bandits in the forests of Ireland where they were known as "wood kerns" or Cethern Coille. They were such a threat to the new settlers that a law was passed in 1297 requiring lords of the woods to keep the roads clear of fallen and growing trees, to make it harder for wood kerns to launch their attacks.
Notably kerns appear in Shakespeare's Macbeth:
- The merciless Macdonwald--
- Worthy to be a rebel, for to that
- The multiplying villanies of nature
- Do swarm upon him—from the western isles
- Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied;
- Mark, king of Scotland, mark:
- No sooner justice had with valour arm'd
- Compell'd these skipping kerns to trust their heels,
- But the Norweyan lord surveying vantage,
- With furbish'd arms and new supplies of men
- Began a fresh assault.
- I cannot strike at wretched kerns, whose arms
- Are hired to bear their staves: either thou, Macbeth,
- Or else my sword with an unbatter'd edge
- I sheathe again undeeded.
- Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (eDIL), column 107; www.dil.ie
- MacBain, A. Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language (Stirling: E. Mackay, 1911: reissued Glasgow: Gairm 1982)
- The noted Irish military historian G. A. Hayes-McCoy, in his article on Irish military tactics, gives a detailed discussion on their training and tactics.
G. A. Hayes-McCoy, "Strategy and Tactics in Irish Warfare, 1593-160", Irish Historical Studies; No. 7, Vol. 2, 1941, pp. 255–279.
- Similarly, the kerns are mentioned in Seán Ó Domhnaill's 1946 article on warfare in sixteenth century Ireland.
Seán Ó Domhnaill', "Warfare in Sixteenth Century Ireland", Irish Historical Studies, No. 5, 1946–1947, pp. 29–54.
- Donald Seward, The Hundred Years War: the English in France 1337 – 1453; pp. 174–175
- Simms, "Warfare in the medieval Gaelic lordships", p. 104; Cal. Carew MSS, v, p.83
- Montgomery, William; Hill, George (1869). The Montgomery manuscripts: (1603–1706). J. Cleeland. p. 60.
- Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 1 and Act 5