Of the Character, Customs, and Habits of this People (The Irish)

From `The Topography of Ireland' by Silvester Giraldus Cambrensis, 1187

Edited by Thomas Wright, 1863

I HAVE considered it not superfluous to give a short account of the condition of this nation, both bodily and mentally; I mean their state of cultivation, both interior and exterior. This people are not tenderly nursed from their birth, as others are; for besides the rude fare they receive from their parents, which is only just sufficient for their sustenance, as to the rest, almost all is left to nature. They are not placed in cradles, or swathed, nor are their tender limbs either fomented by constant bathings, or adjusted with art. For the midwives make no use of warm water, nor raise their noses, nor depress the face, nor stretch the legs; but nature alone, with very slight aids from art, disposes and adjusts the limbs to which she has given birth, just as she pleases. As if to prove that what she is able to form she does not cease to shape also, she gives growth and proportions to these people, until they arrive at perfect vigour, tall and handsome in person, and with agreeable and ruddy countenances. But although they are richly endowed with the gifts of nature, their want of civilization, shown both in their dress and mental culture, makes them a barbarous people. For they wear but little woollen, and nearly all they use is black, that being the colour of the sheep in this country. Their clothes are also made after a barbarous fashion.

Their custom is to wear small, close-fitting hoods, hanging below the shoulders a cubit's length, and generally made of parti-coloured strips sewn together. Under these, they use woollen rugs instead of cloaks, with breeches and hose of one piece, or hose and breeches joined together, which are usually dyed of some colour.[1] Likewise, in riding, they neither use saddles, nor boots, nor spurs, but only carry a rod in their hand, having a crook at the upper end, with which they both urge forward and guide their horses. They use reins which serve the purpose both of a bridle and a, bit, and do not prevent the horses from feeding, as they always live on grass. Moreover, they go to battle without armour, considering it a burthen, and esteeming it brave and honourable to fight without it.

But they are armed with three kinds of weapons: namely, short spears, and two darts; in which they follow the customs of the Basclenses (Basques); and they also carry heavy battle-axes of iron, exceedingly well wrought and tempered. These they borrowed from the Norwegians and Ostmen,[2] of whom we shall speak hereafter. But in striking with the battle-axe they use only one hand, instead of both, clasping the haft firmly, and raising it above the head, so as to direct the blow with such force that neither the helmets which protect our heads, nor the platting of the coat of mail which defends the rest of our bodies, can resist the stroke. Thus it has happened, in my own time, that one blow of the axe has cut off a knight's thigh, although it was incased in iron, the thigh and leg falling on one side of his horse, and the body of the dying horseman on the other. When other weapons fail, they hurl stones against the enemy in battle with such quickness and dexterity, that they do more execution than the slingers of any other nation.

The Irish are a rude people, subsisting on the produce of their cattle only, and living themselves like beasts—a people that has not yet departed from the primitive habits of pastoral life. In the common course of things, mankind progresses from the forest to the field, from the field to the town, and to the social condition of citizens;[3] but this nation, holding agricultural labour in contempt, and little covering the wealth of towns, as well as being exceedingly averse to civil institutions—lead the same life their fathers did in the woods and open pastures, neither willing to abandon their old habits or learn anything new. They, therefore, only make patches of tillage; their pastures are short of herbage; cultivation is very rare, and there is scarcely any land sown. This want of tilled fields arises from the neglect of those who should cultivate them; for there are large tracts which are naturally fertile and productive. The whole habits of the people are contrary to agricultural pursuits, so that the rich glebe is barren for want of husbandmen, the fields demanding labour which is not forthcoming.

Very few sorts of fruit-trees are found in this country, a defect arising not from the nature of the soil, but from want of industry in planting them; for the lazy husbandman does not take the trouble to plant the foreign sorts which would grow very well here. There are four kinds of trees indigenous in Britain which are wanting here. Two of them are fruit-bearing trees, the chesnut and beech; the other two, the arulus[4] and the box, though they bear no fruit, are serviceable for making cups and handles. Tews, with their bitter sap, are more frequently to be found in this country than in any other I have visited; but you will see them principally in old cemeteries and sacred places, where they were planted in ancient times by the hands of holy men, to give them what ornament and beauty they could.[5] The forests of Ireland also abound with fir-trees, producing frankincense and incense.[6] There are also veins of various kinds of metals ramifying in the bowels of the earth, which, from the same idle habits, are not worked and turned to account. Even gold, which the people require in large quantities, and still covet in a way that speaks their Spanish origin, is brought here by the merchants who traverse the ocean for the purposes of commerce. They neither employ themselves in the manufacture of flax or wool, or in any kind of trade or mechanical art; but abandoning themselves to idleness, and immersed in sloth, their greatest delight is to be exempt from toil, their richest possession the enjoyment of liberty.

This people, then, is truly barbarous, being not only barbarous in their dress, but suffering their hair and beards (barbis) to grow enormously in an uncouth manner, just like the modern fashion recently introduced;[7] indeed, all their habits are barbarisms. But habits are formed by mutual intercourse; and as this people inhabit a country so remote from the rest of the world, and lying at its furthest extremity, forming, as it were, another world, and are thus secluded from civilized nations, they learn nothing, and practise nothing but the barbarism in which they are born and bred, and which sticks to them like a second nature. Whatever natural gifts they possess are excellent, in whatever requires industry they are worthless.


[1] Seu braccis caligatis, seu caligis braccalis. The account given by Giraldus of the ancient dress of the Irish, in a language which supplied no equivalent terms, is necessarily obscure; but, connecting it with other sources of information, we find that it consisted of the following articles: --1. What our author calls caputium, was a sort of bonnet and hood, protecting not only the head, but the neck and shoulders from the weather. It was of a conical form, and probably made of the same sort of stuff as the mantle. 2. The cloak or mantle; to describe which Giraldus has framed the Latin word phalingium, from the Irish falach, which signifies a rug or covering of any sort. This cloak had a fringed border sown or wove down the edges. It was worn almost as low as the ancles, and was usually made of frieze, or some such coarse material. It was worn by the higher classes of the same fashion, but of better quality, according to their rank and means; and was sometimes made of the finest cloth, with a silken or woollen fringe, and of scarlet or other colours. Many rows of the shag, or fringe, were sown on the upper part of the mantle, partly for ornament and partly to defend the neck from the cold; and along the edges ran a narrow fringe of the same texture as the outward garment. 3. The covering for the lower part of the body, the thighs and legs, consisted of close breeches, with hose or stockings made in one, or sewn to them. It was a garment common to the Celtic nations, and is often mentioned by Roman writers. One of the provinces of Gaul had the name of Gallia Braccata from this distinguishing article of the native dress The word might be translated "trowsers" (Fr., trusser, to truss), or "trews," with which and the plaid, both used by the Scots, there seems to have been a great similarity in shape, material, and the particolour. The Irish were so much attached to this national costume, that, in order to break down the line of demarcation between the natives and the English settlers, they were forbidden to wear it by laws passed in the 5 Edw. IV., 10 Henry VII., and 28 Henry VIII, just as the distinguishing dress of the Scotch Highlanders was prohibited, in order to break the spirit of the clans, after their faithful adhesion to the Stuart princes had drawn upon them the severities of the English government. Griraldus might have added to the list of articles formerly worn by the Irish the brogues, made of dried skins, or half-tanned leather, and fastened with latchets, or thongs of the same material.

[2] "Danish battle-axes are usually mentioned in the old English and Frankish chronicles as excellent and dangerous weapons of attack. Nay, even from the distant Myklegaard, or Constantinople, where the northerners, under the name of Varangians, served for a long series of years as the Greek emperors' body-guards, stories have reached us of the particular kinds of battle axes which they wielded with such strength."—Worsaae's Danes in England, &c., p. 46.

[3] We have here the progress from the pastoral to the agricultural life, and social state, very justly described, and we find that the Irish in the time of Giraldus had not advanced beyond the earliest stage. This may have resulted in part from other causes besides the natural bent of the people. Britain owed the first rudiments of progress to the Roman civilization; other races were successively mingled with her population; and she had powerful kings, and a wealthy aristocracy, while Ireland was still parcelled out under a number of petty princes, and a prey to internal feuds.

[4] Other MSS. read alarus; but it is uncertain to what tree he alludes.

[5] See before, B. ii. c. 54,

[6] "Abundat et abiete sylvositas Hiberniae, thuris et incensi matre." Giraldus means, no doubt, the pinus sylvestris, which is also indigenous in Scotland, whence it has acquired its common name of the Scotch fir. He speaks somewhat poetically of its inflammable products in resin and pitch.

[7] Giraldus alludes probably to the fashion of wearing the hair and beard long, which came into vogue in the reign of Henry I., to the great scandal of the clergy; so that our author slily classes it with the barbarisms of an uncivilized race. See Orderic. Vital. vol. iii. p. 363-4, in Bohn's Antiq. Lib., and the notes.