Antiquities of Ireland (Irish Costume)

Irish costume seems, in fact, to have been half-Oriental, half-Northern, like the compound race that peopled the island. The trews were the same as the Germanic braccae; while the tunic was Albanian, and the mantle Eastern; as well as the high, conical head-dress, which is identical in form with the Persian cap of the present day. On this subject Sir William Wilde remarks—

"Every day's observation and research bring to light new; affinities with early Irish costume. In the great French work, 'Herculaneum et Pompeii,' there is a battle scene, copied from a mosaic at Pompeii, in which the arms and dress of the combatants are almost identical with those of ancient Ireland. The vanquished wear tight-fitting trousers, close tunics, several of which are plaided, and cloaks with the hood coming over the head precisely like the Irish cochall. The chief figures wear torques round the neck, and bracelets on the wrists, and the hood is retained in its place by a narrow frontlet, apparently of gold. The colours of the garments are also peculiarly Irish. In some, the cloak is yellow; the mantle, dark red; and the tunic, purple bordered with white; the latter spangled with triple stars of gold, precisely after the fashion figured in the 'Book of Kells.' The chariot in which the principal figure stands resembles some figured on our ancient crosses, and the charioteer wears a pointed cap, green tunic, and tartan vest. All the vanquished wear beards, and their hoods envelop their chins."

The study of ancient costume has especial interest for the historian, as the culture, civilization, and commercial relations of a people can be readily deduced from it; and in the numerous and curious illustrations of the catalogue, taken from ancient records, illuminated manuscripts, and the ancient crosses and sepulchral monuments of the country, everything has been brought together that could throw light on this obscure subject. One most remarkable illustration is a full-length portrait of Dermot M'Morrough, king of Leinster, taken from an illuminated copy of Giraldus Cambrensis in the possession of Sir Thomas Philips, which portrait was very probably drawn from the life.

From all that is known on the subject, it would appear that linen and cloth of every degree of fineness, according to the rank of the wearer, were the principal materials used in ancient Irish dress. No remains of silk garments have been discovered; nor do the historical records, as far as we are aware, make any mention of silk being employed in personal wear. It is remarkable also, that while a traditional belief exists that linen has been known from time immemorial to Ireland, yet the Academy does not possess a single specimen of ancient linen. The linen shirts worn at the time of the Norman Invasion are said to have been of immense size, and dyed a saffron colour. But there is undeniable proof, that the tartan, or cloth of divers colours, which we are accustomed to associate only with Scotland, was worn universally in Ireland in ancient times. Portions of tartans are preserved in the Museum, and probably each grade of rank and clan possessed a characteristic plaid as well as a special dress. A love of variegated and glowing colours, and a tendency to gorgeous decoration, seem to have been always instinctive to the Irish nature.

The female dress of Ireland at a period subsequent to the barbaric age is also illustrated not from conjecture, but from actual observation; for in 1843 a complete female antique dress was discovered many feet below the surface in a bog (these museums of Nature, where she stores up and preserves her specimens of antique life with a care and perfection that no mortal curator can ever hope to equal), and is now to be seen in the Academy's museum.

It consists of a boddice with a long waist, open in front, and attached to a full plaited skirt; which, like the Albanian fustanell, consists of several narrow gored breadths, gathered into small plaits at top, and spreading into a broad quilling at the bottom; each plait being stitched on the inside to preserve the form.

The bottom of the skirt measures twenty-two and a half feet in circumference, and there are ninety-two plaits, most elaborately arranged, so that the joining of each of the narrow breadths should fall within a plait. The material is of a brown woollen cloth.

No pictorial representations exists of female costume earlier than the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries but from the sculptured effigies on tombs, we find it consisted of either a flowing robe and veil, or of the plaited skirt and tight boddice already described, while the head-dress varied according to the fashion of the day.

The subject of personal decoration is perfectly illustrated in the Museum; the Academy possessing one of the largest collections in Europe, beginning at the first rude effort at adornment of the barbaric age, up to the rich golden ornaments of a later, though still pre-historic period.

It is not pleasant to national pride, after feeding on the gorgeous fables of our earliest annalists, to contemplate the primitive Irishman fastening his mantle of untanned deerskin with a fish-bone or a thorn, as we know the Germans did in the time of Tacitus; yet, unhappily, antiquarian research will not allow us to doubt the fact of the simple savageness of the first colonists. But when the intellect of the rude man stirred within him, he began to carve the bones of the animals he killed into articles of ornament and use. Thus the slender bones of fowls were fashioned into cloak pins, especially the leg bone, where the natural enlargement at one end suggested the form, and afforded surface for artistic display. From this first rude essay of the child-man can be traced the continuous development of his ideas in decorative art, from the carving of bones to the casting of metal, up to the most elaborate working in enamel, gold, and precious stones. Our Museum is rich in these objects, containing more than five hundred specimens. Pins, fibulae,* and brooches having been discovered in Ireland in immense quantities and variety, some of which are unsurpassed for beauty of design and workmanship.

"In these articles," Sir William remarks, "the process of development is displayed in a most remarkable manner; for, from the simple unadorned pin or spike of copper, bronze or brass (the metallic representation of the thorn), to the most elaborately wrought ring-brooch of precious metal, the patterns of which are now used by our modern jewellers—every stage of art, both in form and handicraft, is clearly defined, not one single link is wanting. In the first stage all the artist's powers were lavished on the decoration of the pin itself, or in the development of the head, which was enlarged and decorated into every possible shape and conceivable pattern. When it was almost impossible to improve the head, a ring or loop was added, passed through a hole in the neck. In the next stage, the ring was doubled, or many rings added. Finally, the ring was enlarged, flattened out, decorated, enamelled, covered with filigree, and jewelled, until, in those magnificent specimens of silver and gold found in Ireland of late years, it reached a degree of perfection which modern art can with difficulty imitate."


* This word "fibulae" is a heathenish and imported term, quite foreign to the Irish tongue. There is no other word known in the Irish language to designate a brooch, be it of bone or be it of gold, than Dealg, which signifies a thorn.