The Irish in service to Spain

Ireland and Spain

Throughout history Ireland has shared a strong military tie with Spain. Many Irish served in the Spanish military in the 15th, 16th and up into the 18th century. Not only did the Irish serve as soldiers and mercenaries but often rose to leadership roles over entire regiments in the Spanish army.

It is Ireland’s close ties with Spain and the adaptation of Spanish military tactics and training that I wish to look at today, and that of the weapons and scenarios in which they would have been used.

Fighting for Spain.

The first Irish regiment in Spanish service was in 1587 when an Irish unit sent to the Netherlands defected to join the Spanish.

Ireland at the time was looked on by the Spanish as a natural ally against the English due to the civil war and the fact that Ireland was predominantly Roman Catholic. It was because of the rebellion and the fact that Irish fighting in Europe often defected to join the Spanish Military that Spain decided to give assistance to the embattled Irish in 1601 by sending an Armada. On September 2, 1601 thirty-three ships sailed to Ireland with a total of over 4,000 men under the command of Don Juan del Águila and Francisco de Toledo Tercios. Del Águila was in full command of the expedition as its Field Master.

The aim was to take the port of Cork, which was a key southern port of the island and hold for a larger Spanish landing. This later lead to the siege of Kinsale during which, Irish and Spanish forces fought against the invading English.

Use of the Rodela.

One of the most popular weapons used within the Spanish military was that of the rodela (round shield). It was used to great effect within the Spanish military. It achieved prominence due to the Spanish sword and buckler men who fought and defeated the famous Swiss pike square. They achieved this by using the Rodela to get under the unwieldy Swiss pike and fight their way through the Swiss formation. The rodela being a dome shaped round shield allowed for a very aggressive style of fighting. Its utility allowed it to be used as a primarily offensive weapon. Coupled with a military rapier (heavy single handed cut and thrust sword) the rodela allowed the soldier to tackle almost anything on the battlefield of the 16th and 17th century. Using both the sword and shield in unison allowed the soldier to dominate an opponent by aggressively gaining distance and leverage with the shield and counter cutting or thrusting with the sword.

This in turn can be done in reverse by using the sword to bind with the opponent’s weapon and using the shield to bludgeon the adversary.

The Pike.

The Spanish were known for their use of the pike and their formidable pike block or tercio. Without the use of fast loading projectile weapons, infantry were out marched by mounted cavalry. It was the use of the pike that gave the infantry soldier of the day their ability to counteract enemy cavalry.

The pike was the primary anti cavalry weapon of the day as well as putting up an extremely daunting task for other infantry units. Traditionally the pike had a length of over five meters and a tip that was between 25 and 50 cm long allowing it to be deployed on the battle field to counteract cavalry charges to great effect.

However the length of the pike meant it was quite hard to handle and often meant that if the opponent slips past the point of the pike they could quite easily make their way up and kill the pikeman as demonstrated to great effect by the Spanish sword and buckler menHOW?. This is why the pikeman also had a secondary weapon often in the form of the single handed military rapier. Pike blocks were also used by the Irish in service to the Spanish, However the Irish did at times adapt separate tactics by cutting the shaft of the pike down to a more manageable length in order to better their mobility across bogs and forests.

Single sword and dagger

If the pike failed to keep the enemy at bay the last resort was the sword. The single sword was accompanied with a companion weapon, often a dagger or buckler. Many Irish also rose in rank to command units under the Spanish banner. With each Irish soldier and commander receiving military training in the Spanish style.

The single sword was used to great effect throughout Europe. The utility of the single swords made it highly effective especially to a trained solder as Spanish Destros (fencers) where known to be some of the most feared. The swords true effectiveness came when coupled with another weapon in the offhand such as a dagger or Rodela. These combinations would have been used throughout the Spanish empire and also in the battle of Kinsale in Ireland.

The Irish themselves adopting the same tactics but also having a mix of traditional Irish Kherns.


Today the Spanish system of La Verderdra Destreza is once again being taught and promoted in Ireland. It is great to be able to look back on such history of two nations that are so heavily intertwined. Not only is Destreza a big part of Spanish history but it is also a big part of Ireland’s history.

Today Gray School of Arms is happy to bring these arts yet again to the attention of the public and to help promote Ireland’s rich history and those of our ancestors who fought throughout Europe.