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Forum Index > Historical Arms Talk > Irish dirk vs. Ballock dagger? Reply to topic
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Ruel A. Macaraeg





Joined: 25 Aug 2003

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PostPosted: Sun 18 Jul, 2004 7:28 am    Post subject: Irish dirk vs. Ballock dagger?         Reply with quote

It's generally agreed that the Scottish dirk evolved from the contintenal ballock/kidney dagger, but with the Irish dirks I've seen the relationship is less apparent. What exactly is the historical connection between these three knives? Did the Irish dirk evolve:

* Independently of the ballock?
* Parallel with the Scottish dirk from the ballock? or
* Directly from the Scottish version?
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Felix Wang




Location: Fresno, CA
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PostPosted: Sun 18 Jul, 2004 7:52 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Interesting question. I have no specific knowledge of the skene / scian used by the Irish, but from what I have heard, it was long, single-edged, and the primary sidearm of the kern. It sounds rather like a sax, of the narrower build. As far as I know, it existed before the Scottish dirk, and even before the ballock dagger; so an independent origin seems most likely.
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Ruel A. Macaraeg





Joined: 25 Aug 2003

Posts: 306

PostPosted: Mon 19 Jul, 2004 1:12 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks Felix,

Yes, that's the gut feeling I get as well -- that the Irish knife at least looks more like a long saex than either a ballock or Scottish dirk. Do we know if it was gripped blade down ("icepick") like a ballock, or blade up like a short sword?
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Peter Johnsson
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PostPosted: Mon 19 Jul, 2004 2:57 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Ruel,

Interesting question.
I do not know what the Irish knife looks like. Could you post a picture or a drawing?
Perhaps it belongs to another family rather than the Ballock daggers?
It would be interesting to see an example.

Best
peter
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Ruel A. Macaraeg





Joined: 25 Aug 2003

Posts: 306

PostPosted: Mon 19 Jul, 2004 10:14 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Peter! Here is one made by your colleague Eric McHugh at Albion, with its description:



Skein Beag www.albionarmorers.com/ inhouse/eric.htm

Eric drew his inspiration for this knife from his research on Irish fighting knives in the National Museum of Ireland and from his research on the Viking scramasax. The blade is hand-forged W2 (a high-carbon steel). It is hollow ground and polished to a smooth satin finish. The blade is quite light and fast; it features a thickened tip section that reduces the tip's vulnerability during thrusting. The grip is made of walnut burl and the fittings are bronze. This knife is very sharp. A simple leather sheath is included.

Specifications:
Overall Length: 14"
Blade length: 9 5/8"
Weight: 4 oz.
Width at the guard: 7/8"


As you can see, he made an implicit connection with Viking knives, which is what got my question going. I had always assumed that the similarity in name to the Scottish knife (skein / sgian) also indicated shared origins, without really looking into it. Yet now that the possibility of separate origins arises, it does seem that the Irish ones are different from Scottish or Continental blades in a very fundamental way. Ballocks and Scottish dirks seem to be more thrusters than cutters, while saexes and Irish skeins (to me at least) to balance thrusting and cutting capabilities more evenly.

Some other Irish skeins can be seen at the Irish Arms product page (The picture won't directly link). http://www.irisharms.ie/product.htm

Keep up the good work!
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Craig Johnson
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PostPosted: Tue 20 Jul, 2004 9:08 am    Post subject: Knives         Reply with quote

Hello Ruel

The knives that are being described appear in many different variations throughout the entire ancient and medieval periods and the entire european context. In fact the knives of the common man have quite a variety of types but they have a tendency to be universal almost in their diffusion. It is more a pool of knife types that the more specific styles "Scottish Dirks", " Ballock Knives", "Landesknecht Daggers" and such rise out of at different times when the decoration and styles become specific and exaggerated in a specific local. It can become misleading to identify common types with an ethnic origin to closely, this was a common fault of many 19th C works on arms and armor.

The Irish fighting knives are definitely a style popular in their time frame but they are also very similar to knives from very early in the migration period all the way through to the industrial age and from Ireland to Russia and from the far north to the Med.

I would classify them definitely in the straight bladed drop point style knives that include the Sax and similar types of items.

Best
Craig
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David McElrea




Location: Canada
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PostPosted: Tue 20 Jul, 2004 4:28 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Ruel and all,

"Scian"/"Sgian" etc is simply the Gaelic for "knife". In the linguistic sense the Scottish dirk and Irish knife are related, but I would think that there was a fairly direct line of descent from the sax in the case of the Irish knife.

From contemporary illustrations it is interesting to note that there seems to be quite a bit of variation in size for these knives. Below you will see an illustration depicting a party of kerne going on a raid. Their sgians are very long indeed, assuming some accuracy on the part of the artist (who, it should be noted was no fan of the Irish). These knives could possibly be seen as a poorer man's sword. As such, I expect they might be fairly naturally wielded as one would a short-sword. On the other hand, one could also hold them in the "ice-pick" manner. I have enclosed another picture that illustrates this. This is of an Irish mercenary holding a long-knife in an aggressive stance. It is not clear to me whether this is the traditional Irish skein or not (it looks like it could be double-edged), but as a long-knife of some sort, it shows the range of possibilities.

Yours,

David



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Ruel A. Macaraeg





Joined: 25 Aug 2003

Posts: 306

PostPosted: Tue 20 Jul, 2004 8:38 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Craig and David,

Thanks for these very informative comments. It seems my original question is unanswerable, then, insofar as any answer would entail giving the Irish term skein greater precision than it ever actually had. Broadly defined, it could, as Craig said, simply imply the class of large drop-point knives that were distributed across Europe and beyond; but trying to define it more narrowly may force us to arbitrarily overlook important features that relate it to its wider historic context.

David, one thing I noticed in your first picture was the suspension system for the Kerns' skeins, which have two straps attached to the belt. This is also how saexs were worn in earlier times by Norse and Anglo-Saxons, right? Images of Scottish dirks I've seen always show a single strap; this might further indicate a closer evolutionary attribution of the skein from the saex, or at least a greater affinity.
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Felix Wang




Location: Fresno, CA
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PostPosted: Thu 22 Jul, 2004 6:17 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Oddly enough, the typical suspension for a sax or seax was horizontal, along the belt. Apparently the sharp edge was the up side of the blade, to keep from slicing the sheath. I am not sure how it could be rapidly drawn in this manner, but it seems to be the case.
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David McElrea




Location: Canada
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PostPosted: Fri 23 Jul, 2004 12:15 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Ruel,

Sorry for the delayed response-- I'm in Canada right now and not able to go online quite as much as I have been in the habit of doing at home.

The suspension system shown in the first plate is interesting, isn't it? Not what one would expect from a knif, but then these are long knives. With respect to the suspension of the sax, most of the reproductions I have seen show the horizontal suspension as described by Felix-- I don't know enough about that particular subject to comment on the authenticity of the suspension, though.

Cheers,

David
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Ruel A. Macaraeg





Joined: 25 Aug 2003

Posts: 306

PostPosted: Sun 25 Jul, 2004 3:20 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi guys (been out of the crib lately myself),

Saex scabbards do always seem to be shown hanging horizontally in modern reconstructions. On the other hand, these skein scabbards, while double-strapped, appear to be suspended much like medieval European sword belts. An example from Peter Johnsson:



The straps here support the scabbard from different sides, while those on saex scabbards come off the same side.



I guess, then, they're not as similar as I first thought...

* David,

Don't know if you'll be in Quebec while in Canada, but when I was there in March the Museum had an exhibit on metal in Medieval Europe, which had several displays of swords and armor. Worth checking out if it's still showing. Cool
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