Thursday, April 05, 2012

Q&A With Claíomh’s Dave Swift – Living History By the ‘Sword’

Claíomh members in action.
Claíomh (meaning 'sword' in the Gaelic) is a military 'living history' group based in Ireland reenacting Late Medieval and Early Modern history spanning the 8th to the 17th centuries, from the first Viking raid of Ireland to the Cromwellian Wars. The 11-year-old group was co-founded by former archaeologist Dave Swift, who in its early years, with fellow history devotees, managed to present at a handful of events. Since then, having lost his previous job in Ireland’s recession several years ago, Swift has focused on generating revenue from Claiomh for himself and his colleagues, appearing in many events every year.

Claíomh uses only the highest quality reconstructed artifacts, and many of their reproduced weapons are based upon the unique originals kept in the national collections of both jurisdictions -- North and South – in Ireland. All period clothing and footwear is faithfully based upon surviving remnants of original woolen and leather garments that have been preserved at various Irish bog sites such as Killery (County Sligo) and Dungiven (County Derry). Belinda Evangelista,’s preservation editor, recently caught up with Swift between gigs.  What is the largest reenactment you have staged?

Dave Swift
Swift: Well, first thing to say is that we are not particularly interested in reenactment per se – as in the modern sport of tip-chasing with blunted weapons – that is not our product. Our preferred mediums for live shows are in HEMA (historical European martial arts) inspired choreographies, demonstrations/lectures on Irish history and general military and non-combative living history focusing on the promotion of Ireland’s archaeological record. As such, our events are normally staffed by between one and eight persons – so are not on a particularly big scale. Our regular clients, such as the National Museum of Ireland and the Office of Public Works, are more interested in quality, not quantity.

Having said that, I have been to many large reenactments as a participant in the past – the sorts of events where participant numbers can reach into their thousands, e.g., Tewkesbury in England or the Fotevikens Museum Summer Market in Sweden. To the best of my memory, the biggest Irish re-enactment in Ireland that I was involved in would have been the Battle of Ferns in 1995, or maybe the Battle of Athy in 1996, but even then there would have been less than 200 combatants on the field. Actually, it is in film work that you get the really big numbers – CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) can still get a run for its money.  Did the group start out as a business?

Swift: Prior to 2001 we operated on a voluntary basis and learnt the tricks of our trade on that journey. Then when Claíomh was founded that year we were getting just about three to four, maybe five events a year, and these were now official paying events from a government body so obviously we promptly got set up in a tax-compliant manner. Having only a few gigs a year was actually a situation that suited me at that time as I was then gainfully employed as a field archaeologist full-time. As a result, the Claíomh business – such as it was – operated more or less as a sideline to my more conventional career. However, due to the all-too-familiar reason of the economic recession of recent times, my archaeology career met with an abrupt end around October 2008 – as it did for many of my colleagues here in Ireland too. For my own part, I was keen to remain working within the heritage sector and at that, in Ireland. I have been lucky enough to be able to do that to some extent, at least via my interpretive work with Claíomh.  What do you use as your source documentation?

Swift: From the practical view of recreating military and traditional life in Late Medieval and Early Modern Ireland, source material comes in various formats. The main three of these formats could be categorized as the archaeological record, contemporary illustration and the historical written-record. Of these, archaeology is the most important but the other two are absolutely vital, as well, and all are necessarily interrelated due to the general paucity of evidence.

To strictly answer your question -- with regard to primary documentation -- we would look at such resources as the various Annals of Ireland, for example, The Four Masters, Annals of Ulster, Annals of Inisfallen, Annals of Connacht, et cetera, contemporary English writers like Richard Stanihurst, Barnaby Rich, Henry Sidney, Josias Bodley, et cetera, and other miscellaneous sources, including Giraldus Cambrensis and Captain Cuellar. The Calendar of State Papers relating to Ireland are also hugely important in relation to our study of Ireland in the age of Tudor conquest and plantation. Icelandic Sagas such as Orkneyinga Saga, Njal’s Saga and Laxdaela Saga contain interesting angles on Ireland in the Viking Age. Heroic medieval poems such as Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh,  “Triumphs of Turlough,” can provide valuable insights into the military equipment of the Gaelic nobleman. Each piece of evidence is useful based on its own merits and is tailored to the locality or theme of the project at hand. Obviously a lot of the above has to be taken with a large pinch of salt – sometimes a sack full …

Some secondary sources are also worth mentioning -- first and foremost would be Gerald A. Hayes-McCoy -- his influence upon me and many of my contemporaries is incalculable. If I hadn’t read his infectious ‘Irish Battles’ at a young age, I may never have ended up in this line of business. The wonderful English swordsman and researcher Ewart Oakeshott is still, in my opinion, the best introduction on period arms and armour, and the late Mairead Dunlevy’s “Dress In Ireland” remains the most important single volume on Irish historic costume. Released in the 1990s, Gerry Embleton and John Howe’s groundbreaking “The Medieval Soldier” was another influence from a living history, and indeed, a photography, point of view.  What is your favorite reenactment scenario?

Swift: We don’t really do scenarios as such -- we tend to present the public with a warrior, or series of warriors, from Irish history and then give a detailed, head-to-toe narrative of their arms, clothing and equipment. We’re also keen on commemorative events such as anniversaries of battles, important events, or of notable people from Irish history but that wouldn’t normally entail a scenario as such. Being in the presence of a unique piece of Irish-built heritage is usually scenario enough for me!

The odd time when a client is looking for a scenario we would provide something of a mini-play. One example of this would be the “Chancing Your Arm” incident, which we conducted at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin last year for Heritage Week, where two of us played the parts of a FitzGerald of Kildare and a Butler of Ormond soldier -- representatives of the two great feuding Anglo-Irish families of the time. The incident ended up with one protagonist extending his arm to the other through a hole in the Chapter House door to shake hands thereby showing his good faith -- hence the term “chancing your arm.” … The door in question -- with hole -- still survives in the cathedral to this day. The original event took place in 1492 but is often overlooked in histories of the period due to the occurrence of a certain other event which took place across the pond.  Whom do you like to play?

Swift: Well, we cover a fair stretch of Irish history, so there is a fair bit of choice and there are benefits and disadvantages to them all, I think. I tend to generally prefer to interpret the later part of our remit, that is, the 16th and 17th centuries. Most particularly, I like to interpret the Gaelic Irish of the Nine Years War and 1640s eras or else Late Medieval galloglasses – the former for the cut of the jib and ease of wearing and the latter for the uncompromising two-handed weaponry, maille armour and undisputable attitude. I have enjoyed playing both of these roles in our short in-house films – and we hope to do more of these in the future. When playing any role, I prefer to play the part of a common rank-and-file soldier – as opposed to the role of an officer or a famous leader. It’s these unsung, forgotten and voiceless people who died on Irish battlefields that we want to bring to life most of all. Back to my ‘representing the typical’ philosophy …  Can audiences participate in some of your programs?

Swift: Yes, audiences can handle many of our reconstructions in a controlled environment so they can feel the weight and texture of artifacts, which they normally would only be able to look at in a museum. This approach is particularly popular with our schools program, which is primarily geared towards 7- to 12-year-olds.  What were you surprised to learn in your research?

Swift: There’s been many surprises – I think that’s one of the main things that keeps it interesting. Archaeology is unremitting in continually throwing new light on our subject, and I think it’s healthy the way that the archaeological record keeps the historical record on its toes. Historically, one thing that particularly surprised me when I initially studied the period was the proportion of Irish victories over Crown Forces during the Nine Years War (1594-1603) – three major victories to one loss. Of course, all of that was undone by the catastrophic loss at Kinsale on Christmas Eve in 1601, and naturally that’s the one battle of the campaign that everyone is aware of. I’m always surprised at the resourcefulness of the Irish leader Hugh O’Neill during those years – even after the Flight of the Earls in 1607.  What's the most unusual request you've received from clients?

Swift: I was once enlisted as a black knight to guard Santa’s grotto – does that count?

Contact: or phone Swift at 087-680 3432. For updates and more info, please visit

No comments: