A Chapter on Irish Costume

From the Illustrated Dublin Journal, No. 4, September 28, 1861

FROM fig-leaves to crinoline — what a transition! From the groves of Eden to the halls of Hyam — what a range! Yet such is the capacity of the history of dress. Civilization is written down in its latest phase in the cut of the newest coat; and the most recent tribute of art and science, and taste, to progress, is exhibited in the last “love of a bonnet.” How few have ever considered what a world of thought is condensed in a tailor’s shop, or the showroom of a modiste: yet, from the wearing of nothing to the enduement of inexpressibles-from a mat to a milliner, is the matter of the difference of six thousand years! We do not know anything over which a tender paterfamilias should find more sentiment of sympathy, than memories of the days of primal clothing-or rather, of no clothing at all. The joys of progress — the exultation of civilization — can hardly compensate him betimes for the pay of a tailor’s bill, the remorseful woe of a draper’s account, whilst it adds an additional modicum of pain to his existence to think when giving away a bride from his progeny of numerous girls, that a trousseau for the fairest of fair beings was once obtainable from a tree, and that nature was of old regarded as the most appropriate provider of the accompanying dejeuner.

“Eheu! quantum meminisse olim juvabit.”

Apples may be bitter by the Dead Sea shore, but the fruits of civilization for such a thinker must be much more bitter. Blessed must the greenwood be in his sight when he revolves the uses to which it was wont to be applied, and we can imagine the afflicted soul preferring — in his depth of trial — the fashion of Adam to the fashion of Browne and Payne, and thinking that after all Eve was more tasteful than Eugenie.

Still, to go back to habits of blessed innocence like these, involves a necessity for the ardent paterfamilias who should desire it, that he would wish himself some five thousand nine hundred and odd years dead, according to the modern duration of human life; or if he purposes its enjoyment in those latter days of grace, the thing can be accomplished by emigration. There are still portions of the world under British dominion, where there is a disdain of all tailoring dexterity prevailing to an extent which would fill Buckmaster with disgust; and there are portions of the world where Britain has never been heard of, enjoying the same condition of unconscious happiness. In those regions of unclothed humanity, persons of the most undoubted quality require only slippers to be considered in full dress for the most fashionable evening party; and society of the first water can enjoy a promenade with no other superfluity of costume than an umbrella. But the regions where this ancient state of things is regnant still, have their drawbacks. Instead of playful trout sporting in meandering rivers, jocose crocodiles frolic on their banks; and for gentle sheep, browsing on the green, a roaring lion goes about seeking eatables of uncooked flesh, in what Jeames would call a “permiscuous” manner. Those little differences between the condition of the wearers of clothes, and the modern wearers of as little garments as possible, would be quite sufficient to deter the most ardent economists from the districts where there is no prejudice for wearables existing, and where every body is perfectly free to follow his own fashion in the manner which pleases him.

For us, who look at dress with a philosophic glance, there is a world of instructive detail in the cut of a coat, or in its material. The first fashion of such matters was a “pretty thing” in skins, we take it. On ancient vases of Greek and Roman art Hercules is represented wearing a lion’s skin, which is tied round his neck by the fore paws, the head forming a cap; the remaining portion hanging like a mantle. From the same sources we learn that Hyppolita, who was a queen, and consequently the pink of fashion in her kingdom, delighted in a garment of leopard’s hide, and for a bonnet had adopted the skin of a smaller animal. Like her sex, fond of ornament, she considered, according to the portrait to which we are indebted for our knowledge of the lady, that the pendant legs of the animal were most becoming, and so we find them hanging upon each side of her head. In the statues of Isis and Osiris, we find a vast improvement on such rude attempts at clothing, as is indicated by the delineations to which we have here alluded. A robe of linen close fitting to the bust, but more loosely clinging around the limbs, represents the costume of the elite, we have no doubt, of the cities of the Pharaohs. Around the legs, above the ankle, are represented ornaments of precious metal.

In Denon’s book of Egyptian antiquities, there are sketches given of those old-world people, in which we catch an idea of their head-dress, which was not much different in design from one of those skull-caps which are familiar to any one who has seen them worn by adult female inmates in our workhouses. So that, no doubt, the ancient fashion, in which dusky princesses were proud in the stately halls of Luxor or Karnak, has fallen down to be despised, even of the dwellers in the abodes of poverty. There is hardly a doubt that the same material, linen, was the article used in both, for woollens were forbidden to be worn by the ancient Egyptian laws. It might be interesting to trace from this point the progress and complications of clothing, from the Egyptian through the Greek and Roman civilizations, and so down to our own times; but for such a dissertation we should not have space, nor probably would our readers have interest. A more agreeable subject for our consideration is the variation of the same matter in Ireland.

Beginning with the accounts which are cotemporaneous with the Norman invasion, we find that the Irish people were different in their manner of dress from any other nation of Europe. The Romans had left much of their mode of costume mingled with the manner of dress adopted by every other nation; but in Ireland the Romans had never exercised any influence, as never having conquered it, or attempted even to do so. Geraldus Cambrensis has given, in his most unfriendly tone, a description of the dress of the Irish in his time. From his account we gather that they wore their woollen clothes mostly black, because the sheep of the country were principally of that colour. They wore a large mantle, in some instances, called a canabhas, or filleadh. More generally used were mantles of a moderate size, closely hooded, which spread over the shoulders, and reached below the elbow. Those garments were composed of small pieces of parti-coloured cloth, varied and regulated according to the rank of the wearer. Beneath the mantle the rest of the body was enveloped in “woollen fallins,” or phalanges, instead of a cloak; or else breeches and stockings were worn, generally of a piece, and usually dyed of some colour.

The great majority of the people wore no covering upon their heads, but permitted the hair to grow in such a manner that it became matted, and was capable of resisting a powerful blow, according to the testimony of the English annalists; but in this point of neglect of using a head-dress we think that their veracity is not to be trusted, for the fact that the canabhas had a hood formed upon it, is evident enough that it was used for a covering for the head; and historical record informs us that, for long after the period of the Norman invasion of Ireland, the hood of a cloak was the head-dress usually adopted in the most civilized nation of the times. Such was the costume of the ancient Irish, termed a barbarous manner of dress by Gerald the Cambrian. There is other evidence to show that the Irish people were not only not barbarous in their fashion of costume, but even tasteful in it to a degree. Linen, which was a rarity in most countries at the time, was more generally worn than in any other nation in Europe. Trinkets and jewellery, of exquisite finish, were in use amongst the higher classes. In the ninth century there are records to show that the native princes wore pearls behind their ears.

King Brian, on being created Ard Righ, offered a collar of gold upon the altar at Armagh, many a year before Malachy won that — celebrated in song — which he tore from the pirate Viking. Modern fashion has gone back through the intervening centuries, to take as the model for an ornament of dress, the design of some Celtic workman in this Irish land. British royalty has estimated the Tara brooch as an exquisite production of art, worthy to grace the first personage in the wealthiest court in the world. Yet, centuries before the Norman raid, such clasps gathered the folds of saffron tunic and canabhas around the form of Irishman and maiden. Righ and Tanist wore them before yet Patrick stood at Tara, to quench the light of idolatrous worship for ever in our land. It is only reasonable to believe that a people, amongst whom such tasteful and costly ornaments were by no means rare, would not have been at the cost of such skill in the manufacture and modelling of an appendage to a costume, which was itself barbarous and ungraceful. Upon this point the prejudices of the foreigner, Barry, led him into a description, which hardly bears the test of trial by collateral facts.

The Irish excelled in the manufacture of woollens, and the production of their looms was so highly prized in England that an act was passed in the twenty-eighth year of Edward III. exempting it from duty. Anent Irish frieze — Stanihurst, many a year subsequent to this, in testimony of its valuable qualities, gives witness of the high estimation in which he held it, and tells, in his quaint old manner, an anecdote which we reproduce:—

“As they distil,” he says, “the best aqua vitae in Waterford, so they spin the choicest rug in Ireland. A friend of mine being of late demeurant in London, and the weather, by reason of a hard hoar frost, being somewhat nipping, repaired to Paris, garden clad in one of those Waterford rugs. The mastiffs had no sooner espied him but, deeming he had been a bear, would fain have baited him, and, were it not that the dogs were partly muzzled, and partly chained, he doubted not but that he should have been well tugged in his Irish rug; whereupon he solemnly vowed never to see beare baitings in any such need.”

But one of the most curious facts ever recorded is that in relation to native Irish costume. The English settlers had no sooner become domiciled amongst the people than they adopted the Irish dress, which we take to be an invincible argument in favour of its propriety, gracefulness, and tasteful arrangement. When we consider that those imitators of Irish fashions were men whose conduct towards the natives, upon every possible occasion, was a testimony of unrelenting animosity; we must come to the conclusion that it was out of no love towards Irish customs, or no desire to temporise with their neighbours, which caused them to take such a step. Thus, then, there only remains the conclusion, that they found this Irish manner of dress the most pleasing and most convenient. Nothing would seem to have been able to induce them to adopt any other. From this arose the legislation on the subject, which was rigidly enforced upon all occasions where its provisions could be carried out with success; and, notwithstanding this, during three hundred years that legislation could effect but little, the people still clung to the customs of their forefathers, and even the strangers who sojourned amongst them adopted those old Celtic modes of clothing.

In the reign of Edward IV. an act was passed ordaining that Irishmen dwelling in the counties “Dublin, Myeth, Wrial, and Kildare,” shall go apparelled like Englishmen, and wear beards after the English manner, swear allegiance, and take English surnames. In the time of Henry VII., Sir Edward Poynings tried his hand at the fashions, by causing a statute to be passed entitled “A Statute for the Lords of the Parliament to wear robes,” Passing from this reign, we find this kind of fashionable legislation extending into the days of the eighth Henry, who issued an order for the better government of the town of Galway, dated April 28th, 1563, by which his Majesty’s lieges were ordered not to suffer the “hair of their heads to grow until it covered their ears, and that every of them do wear English caps. That no man, or man child, do wear no mantles in the streets, but cloaks, or gowns, coats, doublets, and hose, shaped after the English fashion, but made of the country cloth, or any other cloth it shall please them to buy.”

It would be tedious to pass over the various restrictions upon the dress of the Irish people; and so we will proceed from the attempts consequent on this kind of legislation to stifle the inherent attachment of the Irish for their native costume. In the reign of Elizabeth, Spenser writing from Kilcoleman, urges the abolition of the ancient dress. The mantle he terms “a fit house for an outlaw, a meet bed for a rebel, and an apt cloke for a thief.” Spenser might be a good poet, but if we judge from this paragraph of his penned opinions, he was not a charitable man. For the wearer, he speaks of the hood “as a house in all weathers,” and remarks that, “while the mantle enables him to go privily armed, being close hooded over the head, conceals his person from knowledge to any to whom he is endangered.” We shall not pursue the tirades and philippics of Spenser against the fashion of Irish dress; but shall observe that even he bears witness, in spite of his enmity, to its usefulness. From him we shall turn to another malcontent poet, who enrolled his detestation of Irish garb in the following lines. Derrick treats us to a satire on the subject:

“With skulls upon their powles,

Instead of civill cappes,

With speare in hand and sword by side

To bear offe afterclappes—

With jackettes long and large—

Which shroud simplicitie,

The spitefulle darts which they do beare

Implie iniquitie.

Their shirtes be very strange,

Not reaching paste the knee,

With pleates on pleates they pleated are

As thicke as pleates may be.

Whose sleives hang trailing downe

Almost unto the shoe;

And with a mantle commonlie,

The Irish kerne do goe.

And some, amongst the reste,

Do use another weede,

A coate, I weene, of strange device,

Which fancie first did breede;

His skirtes be very shorte,

With pleates set thicke about;

And Irish trouses, more to put

Their strange protractours out.”

From Derrick’s verses we go to detail further facts in this strange, eventful history. The court of Elizabeth once wondered at the costume of the “wild Irish.” Hugh O’Neill, prince of Tir-owen, appeared before her Majesty, surrounded by his galloglasses, armed with that legacy of the wars of their fathers with the fierce Vikingr, their ponderous battle-axe, nor hood nor helm upon their heads, with long hair flowing upon their shoulders. The annalist tells us that they were attired in shirts dyed with saffron, their sleeves large, their tunics short, and their cloaks shagged. How the courtly gallants and the good citizens of London must have marvelled at the strangely-dressed following of the Irish chieftain! The story of Irish costume is not long to relate from this date. The wars of the O’Neill were over, and O’Neill himself was in exile, before we come to any more legislation for dress in Ireland. Then, in the reign of James I., we have Lord Deputy Chichester “reforming our tailors’ bills.” He issued instructions to the Lord President and Council of Munster to punish all who should appear before him in the native garb; and also “to expel and cut off all glibbes.”

It would seem that this concluded any legislation against Irish costume, for which there no more existed a necessity. In the reign of Charles the First, Sir Henry Piers avers that the Irish costume was not to be seen any where in Ireland: and in this reign, and under those circumstances, an act was passed repealing all former enactments against Irish dress. This stretch of generosity was not followed by the revival of the national costume, and from that hour to the present the ancient dress of Ireland has never been worn by chief or kern-noble or serf! With what love the people clung to it, with what perseverance they preserved it, is indicated by the duration of their struggle against foreign fashions. The progress of manners, or the caprice of luxury, influenced the mode of dress in every other land, and in every other nation. The forms of Egypt have been transmitted by Grecian wanderers to their own land, and influenced the manner of costume. The refined Greek may have contributed to the Roman robes. The Roman may have imparted the gracefulness and beauty of the older civilizations to the modifications of dress in modern Europe; but the Irish nation has not accepted its costume from any other land of its own admiration or its own appreciation of its correctness.