Some of the oldest descriptions of military helmets in Irish literature can be found in the earliest versions of the Táin Bó Cúailnge (“Cattle-raid of Cooley”), perhaps the most famous epic in the mytho-historical tradition of Medieval Ireland. The oldest surviving copy of the story, known to modern scholars as Recension I, is split between two partial but related texts contained in the Leabhar na hUidhre or Leabhar na Bó Doinne (“Book of the Dun Cow”), an 11th to early 12th century manuscript, and the Leabhar Buí Leacáin (“Yellow Book of Lecan”), a 14th century manuscript. Despite the seemingly late dates of creation both of these documents are written in the characteristically terse vocabulary of Old Irish, passages of which go back to at least the 8th century, with snippets of later Middle Irish and Hiberno-Latin text interspersed throughout. The second version of the tale is found in the Leabhar na Nuachongbhála or Leabhar Laighneach (“Book of Leinster”) and is a more florid and narratively concise expansion of the older recension coupled with some alternative sources of its own, largely using Middle Irish orthography.
On the matter of military headgear, below is the relevant extracts from the Táin Bó Cúailnge Recension 1 (1976) by Cecile O’Rahilly, the most popular academic translation of the earliest manuscripts, though one made slightly obsolete in places by more recent scholarly interpretations.
Then the charioteer arose and put on his warlike outfit for chariot-driving. Of this outfit which he donned was his smooth tunic of skins, which was light and airy, supple and filmy, stitched and of deerskin, which did not hinder the movement of his arms outside. Over that he put on his overmantle black as raven’s feathers. Simon Magus had made it for Darius King of the Romans, and Darius had given it to Conchobar and Conchobar had given it to Cú Chulainn who gave it to his charioteer. This charioteer now put on his helmet, crested, flat- surfaced, rectangular with variety of every colour and form, and reaching pass the middle of his shoulders. This was an adornment to him and was not an encumbrance. His hand brought to his brow the circlet, red-yellow like a red- gold plate of refined gold smelted over the edge of an anvil, which was a sign of his charioteer status to distinguish him from his master. In his right hand he took the long spancel of his horses and his ornamented goad. In his left he grasped the thongs to check his horses, that is, the reins of his horses which controlled his driving. Then he put on his horses their iron inlaid armour, covering them from forehead to forehand and set with little spears and sharp points and lances and hard points, and every wheel of the chariot was closely studded with points, and every corner and edge, every end and front of the chariot lacerated as it passed.
Then the champion and warrior, the marshalled fence of battle of all the men of earth who was Cú Chulainn, put on his battle-array of fighting and contest and strife. Of that battle-array which he put on were the twenty-seven shirts, waxed, board-like, compact, which used to be bound with strings and ropes and thongs next to his fair body that his mind and understanding might not be deranged whenever his rage should come upon him. Outside these he put on his hero’s battle-girdle of hard leather, tough and tanned, made from the choicest part of seven yearling ox-hides which covered him from the thin part of his side to the thick part of his armpit. He wore it to repel spears and points and darts and lances and arrows, for they used to glance from it as if they had struck on stone or rock or horn. Then he put on his apron of filmy silk with its border of variegated white gold against the soft lower part of his body. Outside his apron of filmy silk he put on his dark apron of pliable brown leather made from the choicest part of four yearling ox-hides with his battle-girdle of cows’ hides about it. Then the royal hero took up his weapons of battle and contest and strife. Of these weapons were his eight small swords together with his ivory-hilted bright-faced sword. He took his eight little spears with his five-pronged spear. He took his eight little javelins with his ivory-handled javelin. He took his eight little darts together with his deil chliss. He took his eight shields together with his curved dark-red shield into the boss of which a show boar would fit, with its sharp, keen razor-like rim all around it, so sharp and keen and razor-like that it would cut a hair against the current. Whenever the warrior did the ‘edge-feat’ with it, he would slash alike with shield or spear or sword. Then he put on his head his crested war-helmet of battle and strife and conflict. From it was uttered the shout of a hundred warriors with a long-drawn-out cry from every corner and angle of it. For there used to cry from it alike goblins and sprites, spirits of the glen and demons of the air before him and above him and around him wherever he went, prophesying the shedding of the blood of warriors and champions. He cast around him his protective cloak made of raiment from Tír Tairngire, brought to him from his teacher of wizardry.
And here is a very similar description of the same scene from the later version in the Book of Leinster (1967), also by the talented translator Cecile O’Rahilly, though again with the same caveats.
Then the charioteer arose and put on his hero’s outfit for chariot-driving. Of the outfit for chariot-driving which he put on was his smooth tunic of skins, which was light and airy, supple and of fine texture, stitched and of deerskin, which did not hinder the movements of his arms outside. Over that he put on his outer mantle black as raven’s feathers – Simon Magus had made it for the King of the Romans, and Darius gave it to Conchobor and Conchobor gave it to Cú Chulainn who gave it to his charioteer. The same charioteer now put on his helmet, crested, flat-surfaced, four-cornered, with variety of every colour and form, and reaching pass the middle of his shoulders. This was an adornment to him and was not an encumbrance. His hand brought to his brow the circlet of red-yellow like a red-gold plate of refined gold smelted over the edge of an anvil, as a sign of his charioteering, to distinguish him from his master. In his right hand he took the long spancel of his horses and his ornamented goad. In his left he grasped the thongs to check his horses, that is, the reins of his horses, to control his driving.
Then he put on his horses the iron inlaid breastplates which covered them from forehead to forehand, set with little spears and sharp points and lances and hard points, so that every wheel of the chariot was closely studded with points and every corner and edge, every end and front of that chariot lacerated in its passage. Then he cast a spell of protection over his horses and over his companion so that they were not visible to anyone in the camp, yet everyone in the camp was visible to them. It was right that he should cast this spell, for on that day the charioteer had three great gifts of charioteering, to wit, leim dar boilg, foscul n-díriuch and immorchor n-delind.
Then the champion and warrior, the marshalled fence of battle of all the men of earth who was Cú Chulainn, put on his battle-array of fighting and contest and strife which he put on were the twenty-seven tunics worn next to his skin, waxed, board- like, compact, which were bound with strings and ropes and thongs close to his fair skin, that his mind and understanding might not be deranged when his rage should come upon him. Over that outside he put his hero’s battle-girdle of hard leather, tough and tanned, made from the best part of seven ox-hides of yearlings, which covered him from the thin part of his side to the thick part of his arm-pit; he used to wear it to repel spears and points and darts and lances and arrows, for they glanced from it as it they had struck against stone or rock or horn. Then he put on his apron of filmy silk with its border of variegated white gold, against the soft lower part of his body. Outside his apron of filmy silk he put on his dark apron of pliable brown leather made from the choicest part of four yearling ox-hides with his battle-girdle of cows’ skin about it. Then the royal hero took up his weapons of battle and contest and strife. Of these weapons of battle were these: he took his ivory-hilted, bright-faced sword with his eight little swords; he took his five-pronged spear with his eight little spears; he took his javelin with his eight little javelins; he took his deil chliss with his eight little darts. He took his eight shields with his curved, dark-red shield into the boss of which a show-boar could fit, with its very sharp, razor-like, keen rim all around it which would cut a hair against the stream, so sharp and razor-like and keen it was. When the warrior did the “edge-feat” with it, he would cut alike with his shield or his spear or his sword. Then he put on his head his crested war- helmet of battle and strife and conflict, from which was uttered the shout of a hundred warriors with a long-drawn-out cry from every corner and angle of it. For there used to cry from it alike goblins and sprites, spirits of the glen and demons of the air, before him and above him and around him, wherever he went, prophesying the shedding of the blood of warriors and champions. There was cast over him his protective dress of raiment from Tír Tairngire brought to him from Manannán mac Lir, from the King of Tír na Sorcha.
However the second recension also includes the below account of the reluctant armed clash between the hero of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the youthful warrior Cú Chulainn, and his doomed foster-brother Feardhia.
Then Fer Diad rose early on the morrow and came alone to the ford of combat, for he knew that this was the decisive day of the fight, and he knew too that one of them would fall in the fight that day or that both would fall. Then before Cú Chulainn came to meet him, he put on his battle equipment. Of that battle equipment was his filmy satin apron with its border of variegated gold which he wore next to his fair skin. Outside that he put on his apron of supple brown leather, and outside that a great stone as big as a millstone, and outside that stone, through fear and dread of the ga bulga that day, he put his strong, deep, iron apron made of smelted iron. On his head he put his crested helmet of battle which was adorned with forty carbuncle-gems, studded with red enamel and crystal and carbuncle and brilliant stones reaching past the middle of his shoulders from the eastern world. In his right hand he took his fierce, strong spear. He set at his left side his curved battle-sword with its golden hilt and guards of red gold. On the arching slope of his back he put his huge, enormous fair shield with its fifty bosses into each boss of which a show boar could fit, not to speak of the great central boss of red gold. That day Fer Diad exhibited many and wonderful and brilliant feats of arms which he had not learned from anyone before that, neither from foster mother nor foster father, not from Scáthach nor Úathach nor Aífe, but he invented them himself on that day to oppose Cú Chulainn.
These descriptions of war gear, while fantastical and in places distorted by carefully chosen poetical wording, have long been assumed to contain kernels of historical truth about pre-Viking military equipment in Early Christian Ireland. Given the relative paucity of iron ore in the country and the ubiquity of cattle, the combination of hide or leather with linen to create some form of layered body armour suited to the Medieval Irish way of warfare, a largely aristocratic affair where the emphasis on speed and mobility was balanced by laws and treaties within and between territories regulating the use of violence, seems logical enough. Even if the archaeological evidence is scant.
The existence of metal helmets on the other hand presents more of a problem given the relative lack of mineral resources and the absence of historical finds on the island. Especially as any quantities of iron significant enough to be smithied into military headgear would almost certainly have been used instead to create far more valuable edged weapons, whether the plentiful spear-heads or the rarer sword blades found in the archaeological record of the Irish late prehistoric and early historical centuries CE (the latter weapon being a slightly diminutive version of two Roman sword-types: the thrusting spatha and the slashing or cutting gladius).
It should also be noted that while Irish monastic scribes borrowed heavily from Classical and Biblical sources in their tentative absorption of indigenous oral traditions into the new and evangelical literary culture of Christianity, most explicitly in Gaelic translations of Latin and Greek tales, no exact parallels exist from those texts for the descriptions featured in the very earliest Irish manuscripts. And something about the native stories smack of verisimilitude, even if later compliers of the Táin Bó may have been transcribing by rote from far older books or even unwritten legends, the latter with possible roots in the late pre-Christian era.
When we look to known examples of European military headgear in the years 600-700 CE, the earliest period of the written – as opposed to the possible spoken – composition of the Táin Bó, some obvious candidates come to mind, notably the class of Late Roman “ridge helmets” that sprang into popularity across Europe during the latter half of the 3rd century CE and remained in use under various guises until the 5th century (and maybe as far as the 7th). These helms seem to have been derived from the Sasanian Empire at the far end of the eastern Mediterranean several decades earlier, displacing the distinctive Imperial Gallic and Italic helmets that Roman legionaries are better known for in modern popular culture.
The reasons for this are complex, emerging from a confluence of political, military, economic and cultural pressures facing the Western Empire during the twilight years of Rome. But whatever the case, the ubiquity of ridge-style helmets is astonishing and would be a fitting inspiration for the headgear described in the Táin Bó Cúailgne and elsewhere, particularly as they were in use during the centuries when Irish interactions with the Roman-occupied territories were at their height. If the booty-seeking king Niall naoi nGialla son of Eochaidh Muighmheadón did indeed exist in the 5th century CE, ridge helmets are what his Romano-British opponents would have been wearing.
In terms of the construction, the majority of Late Roman ridge helmets consisted of two or four iron plates held together by a circular metal base ring to form a concave dome with a prominent central metal ridge (hence the name) running from the front of the helm to the back, providing structure and rigidity. To this basic shape was added metal side-guards or flaps, usually narrow and with ear holes in the case of “light” variants or broader and without ear holes in the case of “heavier” ones (the latter were frequently distinguished by the addition of metal nasal protectors). These wide cheek-guards along with a movable rear neck-guard were held in place with adjustable leather and metal-buckled straps, the front plates also having straps to tie them under the wearer’s chin. And as with similar headgear in the later Middle Ages, some form of leather webbing or linen padding was likely placed in the hollow upper bowl of the helmet to provide a better fit on the head and to absorb impacts.
Regardless of the type, ridge helmets were often decorated with inscriptions and patterns, sometimes using sliver or gold plating and insets of semi-precious stones, as well as sporting elaborate crests of horse-hair, feathers or metal attached to the concave ridge. Modern historians often see the excessively individualised and flamboyant nature of late Roman war gear as a reflection of the very different ethno-cultural makeup of the Western Empire in its final decades of existence.
Taking the above descriptions and comparing them to the oldest textual depictions of helmets in early Medieval (or even late pre-Christian) Ireland it is not entirely unreasonable to speculate that high status ridge-style helmets may have been present in the country, either in the form of local copies or examples acquired through trade or plunder from overseas. In particular, the reference to the charioteer Lao (Laogh) and his helmet with its rear neck-plate “…reaching pass the middle of his shoulders” is very redolent of the late Roman helmet type. As is Feardhia’s helm studded with “…red enamel and crystal and carbuncle and brilliant stones”.
However it should be emphasised that such head protection would have been the exception rather than the rule until well into the era of Scandinavian incursions in the 8th and 9th centuries when Viking and Continental-style equipment became more common. Which is perhaps why the image of these remarkable and unusual items of armour survived for so long and so intact in the Irish narrative tradition.