Dress and Personal Adornment

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Composed from the Book of Kells



SECTION 1. The Person and the Toilet.

Letter M
arks of Aristocracy.—An oval face, broad above and narrow below, golden hair, fair skin, white, delicate, and well formed hands, with slender tapering fingers: these were considered by the ancient Irish as marking the type of beauty and aristocracy. Among the higher classes the finger-nails were kept carefully cut and rounded: and beautiful nails are often mentioned with commendation. It was considered shameful for a man of position to have rough unkempt nails. Crimson-coloured fingernails were greatly admired. In the Tain a young lady is described as having, among other marks of beauty, "regular, circular, crimson nails"; and ladies sometimes dyed them this colour. Deirdre, uttering a lament for the sons of Usna, says:—"I sleep no more, and I shall not crimson my nails: no joy shall ever again come upon my mind."

Ladies often dyed the eyebrows black with the juice of some sort of berry. We have already seen (p. 148) that the Irish missionary monks sometimes painted or dyed their eyelids black. An entry in Cormac's Glossary plainly indicates that the blush of the cheeks was sometimes heightened by a colouring matter obtained from a plant named ruam. The ruam was the alder: but the sprigs and berries of the elder tree were applied to the same purpose. Among Greek and Roman ladies the practice was very general of painting the cheeks, eyebrows, and other parts of the face.

The Hair.—Both men and women wore the hair long, and commonly flowing down on the back and shoulders—a custom noticed by Cambrensis. The hair was combed daily after a bath. The heroes of the Fena of Erin, before sitting down to their dinner after a hard day's hunting, always took a bath and carefully combed their long hair.

Among the higher classes in very early times great care was bestowed on the hair; its regulation constituted quite an art; and it was dressed up in several ways. Very often the long hair of men, as well as of women, was elaborately curled. Conall Cernach's hair, as described in the story of Da Derga, flowed down his back, and was done up in "hooks and plaits and swordlets." The accuracy of this and other similar descriptions is fully borne out by the most unquestionable authority of all, namely, the figures in the early illuminated manuscripts and on the shrines and high crosses of later ages. In nearly all the figures of the Book of Kells, for example (seventh or eighth century), the hair is combed and dressed with the utmost care, so beautifully adjusted indeed that it could have been done only by skilled professional hairdressers, and must have occupied much time. Whether in case of men or women, it hangs down both behind and at the sides, and is commonly divided the whole way, as well as all over the head, into slender fillets or locks, which sometimes hang down to the eyes in front.

Bronze figures of ecclesiastics on Shrine of St. Maidoc

FIG. 111. Bronze figures of ecclesiastics on the Shrine of St. Maidoc about the thirteenth century. (From Miss Stokes's Early Christian Art).

In the seventh and eighth centuries this elaborate arrangement of the hair must have been universal among the higher classes: for the artist who drew the figures in the Book of Kells has represented the hair of nearly all of them dressed and curled in the manner described. The two figures given here, both ecclesiastics from the shrine of St. Maidoc, thirteenth century, show how men had the hair and beard dressed, which is seen still better in the figure of the Evangelist at page 387, below. I do not find mentioned anywhere that the Irish dyed their hair, as was the custom among the Greeks and Romans.

For women, very long hair has been in Ireland always considered a mark of beauty. This admiration has come down to the present; for you constantly find mentioned in the Irish popular songs of our own day, a maiden "with golden hair that swept the dew off the grass"—or some such expression.

Ancient Irish ornamented combs

FIGS. 112, 113, & 114. Ancient Irish ornamented Combs, of bone, now in the National Museum. Figure 112 is 10 inches long. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

Combs.—From what precedes it will be understood that combs were in general use with men as well as with women: and many specimens—some made of bone, some of horn—some plain, some ornamented—have been found in lisses, crannoges, and such like places. The comb—Irish cir [keer]—is, as we might expect, often mentioned in ancient Irish writings.

The Beard.—The men were as particular about the beard as about the hair. The common Irish names for the beard were ulcha and féasóg [faissoge], of which the last is still in use. The fashion of wearing the beard varied. Sometimes it was considered becoming to have it long and forked, and gradually narrowed to two points below. Sometimes—as shown in many ancient figures—it falls down in a single mass; while in a few it is cut rectangularly not unlike Assyrian beards. Nearly all have a mustache, in most cases curled up and pointed at the ends as we often see now. In some there is a mustache without a beard: and a few others have the whole face bare. In many the beard is carefully divided into slender twisted fillets, as described above, for the hair. Kings and chiefs had barbers in their service to attend to all this.

Bronze cutting instrument, believed to be a razor

FIG. 115. Bronze cutting instrument, believed to be a Razor: all one piece, 3 1/2 inches long; two edges very thin, hard, and sharp. In National Museum, where there are others like it. (From Wilde's Catalogue.).

The beard that grew on the upper lip, when the lower part of the face was shaved, was called crombéol ('stoopmouth'), pron. crommail, what we now designate a mustache. That the ancient Irish used a razor (in Irish alt or altan) is proved by the fact that it is mentioned in our very oldest documents—such, for instance, as Cormac's Glossary and the eighth-century Milan Glosses—and in such a way as shows it to have been a very familiar article.

The Bath.—Bathing was very usual, at least among the upper classes, and baths and the use of baths are constantly mentioned in the old tales and other writings. The bath was a large tub or vat usually called dabach [dauvagh]. In the better class of lay houses a bath was considered a necessary article. There was a bath for the use of visitors in the guest-house of every monastery; and we are told in the law books that every brewy had in his house a bathing-vessel. Kings and chiefs were in the habit of bathing and anointing themselves with oil and precious sweet-scented herbs. So Ulysses bathes and anoints himself with olive oil after being shipwrecked on the coast of Phaeacea. As the people had a full bath some time down late in the day, they did not bathe in the morning, but merely washed their hands; for which purpose they generally went out immediately after rising and dressing, to some well or stream near the house. This practice is constantly referred to. In both washing and bathing they used soap (sleic, pron. slake).

Small Toilet Articles.—Mirrors of polished metal must have been common from very early times, for they are often mentioned; generally by one or the other of the two names, scathán [skahan] and scadarc [sky-ark].

The great antiquity of the article is shown by its mention in the Zeuss Glosses, where the old form scaterc is derived from scáth-derc, 'shadow-seeing,' or a 'shadow see-er.'

Gold box

FIG. 116. Gold box: 2 3/4 inches across: found in a grave. Probably belonging to a lady's toilet. (From Wilde's Catalogue.).

From scáth [skaw], 'a shadow,' is also derived the other name scáthan, which is merely a diminutive form. Small articles of the toilet, and especially combs, were kept by women in a little bag which they carried about with them, called a ciorbholg [keerwolg], i.e. 'comb-bag' (cior, 'a comb,' and holg, 'a bag').

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