Dress and Costume in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XVIII....continued

2. Dress.

Materials.—Woollen and linen clothes formed the dress of the great mass of the people. Both were produced at home; and elsewhere in this book the mode of manufacturing them will be described.

Silk and satin, which were of course imported, were much worn among the higher classes, and we find both constantly noticed in our literature.

The flags and banners used with armies were usually made of silk or satin. The ordinary word for silk was sida [sheeda]; and for satin, sról [srole].

The furs of animals, such as seals, otters, badgers, foxes, &c., were much used for capes and jackets, and for the edgings of various garments, so that skins of all the various kinds were valuable. They formed, too, an important item of everyday traffic, and they were also exported.

In 1861, a cape was found in a bog at Derrykeighan in Antrim, six feet beneath the surface, made altogether of otter-skins.

“The workmanship of the sewing”—says Mr. Robert Mac Adam, a distinguished Belfast antiquary, who gives an account of it—“is wonderfully beautiful and regular: and the several parts are joined so as not to disturb the fur, so that from the outside it looks as if formed of one piece.”

In Scotland the tartan is much used—a sort of cloth, generally of wool, sometimes silk—plaided or cross-barred in various colours; of which both the material and the name originated in Ireland.

The original Gaelic name is tuartan, as we find it used several times, both in the Senchus Mór, and in the glosses on it, where tuartan is defined to be a sort of material “containing cloth of every colour.”

Colours.—The ancient Irish loved bright colours. In this respect they resembled many other nations of antiquity—as well indeed as of the present day; and they illustrated Ruskin's saying (speaking of poppies):—

“Whenever men are noble they love bright colour, … and bright colour is given to them in sky, sea, flowers, and living creatures.”

The Irish love of colour expressed itself in all parts of their raiment: and in chapter xxii., sect. 3, below, it will be shown that they well understood the art of dyeing.

Everywhere in our ancient literature we find dress-colours mentioned. In the Ulster army, as described in the Tain, was one company with various-coloured mantles:—

“some with red cloaks; others with light blue cloaks; others with deep blue cloaks; others with green, or blay, or white, or yellow cloaks, bright and fluttering about them: and there is a young red-freckled lad, with a crimson cloak in their midst.”

Any number of such quotations might be given.

The several articles of dress on one person were usually coloured differently. Even the single outer cloak was often striped, spotted, or chequered in various colours.

King Domnall, in the seventh century, on one occasion sent a many-coloured tunic to his foster-son Prince Congal: like Joseph's coat of many colours.

We are told in our legendary history that exact regulations for the wearing of colours by the different ranks of people were made by King Tigernmas [Teernmas] and by his successor, many centuries before the Christian era:—a slave was to be dressed in clothes of one colour; a peasant or farmer in two; and so on up to a king and queen and an ollave of any sort: all of whom were privileged to wear six.

At the present day green is universally regarded as the national colour: but this is a very modern innovation, and as a matter of fact the ancient Irish had no national colour.

Classification of Upper Garments.—The upper garments worn by men were of a variety of forms and had many names: besides which, fashions of course changed as time went on, though, as I think, very slowly.

Moreover, the several names were often loosely applied, like the English words “coat,” “mantle,” “frock,” &c.; so that it is often impossible to fix exact limitations.

But the articles themselves were somewhat less vague than their names: and, so far as they can be reduced to order, the upper garments of men may be said to have been mainly of four classes:—

1. A large cloak, generally without sleeves, varying in length, but commonly covering the whole person from the shoulders down.

2. A short tight-fitting coat or jacket with sleeves, but with no collar.

3. A cape for the shoulders, commonly, but not always, carrying a hood to cover the head.

4. A sort of petticoat, the same as the present Highland kilt. There was nothing to correspond with our waistcoat.

Sometimes only one of those was used, viz. either the outer mantle or the short frock—with of course in all cases the under and nether clothing; but often two were worn together; sometimes three; and occasionally the whole four.

1. Loose Upper Garment.—The long cloak assumed many shapes: sometimes it was a formless mantle down to the knees; but more often it was a loose though shaped cloak reaching to the ankles.

This last was so generally worn by men in out-door life that it was considered characteristic of the Irish.

It had frequently a fringed or shaggy border, round the neck and down the whole way on both edges, in front; and its material was according to the rank or means of the wearer.

Among the higher classes it was of fine cloth edged with silk or satin or other costly material.

Sometimes the whole cloak was of silk or satin; and it was commonly dyed in some bright colour, or more often—as we have said—striped or spotted with several colours.

In the numerous figures in the Book of Kells (seventh or eighth century) the over-garment is very common: sometimes it is represented full length, but often only as far as the knees or the middle of the thigh.

The large outer garment of whatever material was known by several names, according to shape, of which the most common was brat or bratt: which appears to have been a general term for any outer garment, and which is still in common use, though somewhat altered in meaning.

The word fallainn [folling] was applied to a loose cloak or mantle, reaching about to the knees: but it has nearly or altogether dropped out of use.

Angel, from the Book of Kells

FIG. 117. Representation of an Angel, showing the long narrow mantle described in text. (From the Book of Kells: Dr. Abbott's Reproductions).

A coarse loose wrap, either dyed or in the natural colour of the wool, was called a lummon.

Women had similar cloaks, called by the same names. They often wore a variously-coloured tunic down to the very feet, with many folds and much material—twenty or thirty yards—which was different from the bratt and from the hooded cloak mentioned below. Under this was a long gown or kirtle.

The long cloak worn by women had often a hood attached at top which commonly hung down on the back over the cloak, but which could be turned up so as to cover the head at any moment when wanted. This still continues in use among the countrywomen.

Evangelist, from the Book of Kells

FIG. 118. Representation of one of the Evangelists showing long narrow mantle, described in text. (From the Book of Kells: Dr. Abbott's Reproductions).

It is difficult or impossible to embrace all varieties of clothing in any formal classification: and as a matter of fact there was another article of full-covering dress worn in very early times by both men and women, hardly included in any of the preceding descriptions.

In the Book of Kells (seventh or eighth century) a large number of the figures, both of men and women, have the usual outside mantle generally reaching to about the knees, and under it a long narrow garment like a petticoat (but not a kilt), from the shoulders down to the insteps, widening towards the bottom, yet so narrow that it would obviously interfere with the free movement of the feet in quick walking.

I do not find this mentioned in the written records anywhere—at least so as to be recognisable; but it is depicted so often in the Book of Kells (figs. 117, 118) that it must have been in general use.

Distinct apparently from the preceding over-mantles was the loose-flowing tunic—worn over all —usually of linen dyed saffron, commonly called léine [2 syll.], which was in very general use and worn by men and women in outdoor life. This is noticed by Spenser as prevalent in his time (sixteenth century). It had many folds and plaits and much material—sometimes as much as thirty yards.

The outer covering of the general run of the peasantry was just one loose sleeved coat or mantle, generally of frieze, which covered them down to the ankles; and which they wore winter and summer.

2. Tight-fitting Upper Garments.—The tight-fitting sleeved upper garment was something like the present frock-coat; but it had no collar, and was much shorter, usually reaching to about the middle of the thigh, and often only a little below the hips; with a girdle at the waist. It was often called inar, but it had other names.

Persons are very often described as wearing this short coat with a brat or mantle over it.

The short coat is very well represented in the figures given on next page, which, however, belong to a comparatively late time, but serve to show how this garment held on in fashion.

Group on ancient book-cover of bone

FIG. 119. Group on ancient engraved book-cover of bone, showing costume: one with cymbals; and all engaged in some kind of dance. 14th or 15th century, (From Wilde's Catalogue).

3. Cape and Hood.—The short cape, with or without a hood, was called cocholl, corresponding in shape and name with the Gallo-Roman cucullus, English cowl: but this English word cowl is now often applied to a hood simply. This fashion continued long: Thomas Dineley (in 1675) observed that the men, in parts of Ireland, covered their heads with their cloaks.

4. The Kilt.—The Gaelic form of this name is celt [kelt], of which "kilt" is a phonetic rendering. The word occurs so seldom, and is used so vaguely, that we might find it difficult to identify the particular article it designates, if the Scotch had not retained both the article itself and its name: for the Highland kilt is the ancient Irish celt.

The kilt—commonly falling to the knees—is very frequently met with on the figures of manuscripts, shrines, and crosses, so that it must have been very much worn both by ecclesiastics and laymen.

Figures on the shrine of St. Manchan

FIG. 120. The figures on one face of the shrine of St Manchan (date, eleventh century). They diminish in size to the right to suit shape of panel (From Kilk. Archaeol. Journ.).

It appears in a very decided form in the eleventh-century illustration given here (fig. 120).

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