Traditional Irish Clothing

Proinsias Mac Fhionnghaile CIOM 

There are many strands of Irish culture that have received the appropriate attention from historians and writers down through the centuries. These include music, dance, poetry, the Irish language, sport etc. However, the study of traditional Irish clothing has received very little attention. This lack of understanding, or perhaps of interest, is astounding when we consider that the available information, such as written accounts, stone carvings and drawn or painted images, are all very consistent. This leaves us with no doubt as to what the Irish wore.

To begin with, I would like to detail what precisely is meant by ‘traditional Irish clothing’. By this we mean the last native, or aboriginal, styles worn by the Irish. The English set out on a path to destroy all remnants of ‘Irishness’, which included clothing. This, after hundreds of years, they succeeded in doing in the early to mid 1600’s. It is this period when we see the fall of traditional Irish dress. Various English Government acts set out to destroy Irish clothing (1) and especially the colour yellow which was the main colour used. To many, it seems strange that an apparent warlike race like the Irish would dress in yellow but the evidence is so strong that it is almost impossible to argue the case for any other colour being used on the main garment called the Léine. By the mid 17th century, the traditional clothing of the Irish had disappeared. This was the result of a series of English political manoeuvres (2,3) which saw the ancient Gaelic dress replaced by poor quality variations of sombre English dress (4).

Certain items that do not feature from this period, are much later and are of foreign introduction, include Aran sweaters, kilts and Irish dancing costumes. These items are not part of true Irish traditions. Aran sweaters were introduced by Scottish and Guernsey fisherman at the end of the 1800’s. The history of Aran knitwear only dates back to circa 1890 (5,6) when the Congested Districts Board sought ways to improve the fishing industry on the islands. Their records show that fishermen and their wives came from various parts of Britain, most notably from Scotland and Guernsey, to help train islanders in better fishing and processing techniques. The Aran islanders came into contact with Guernsey knits, hence the Gaelic word geansaí ‘jumper, sweater’, a borrowing from the word Guernsey. Scottish fishermen also introduced their own style of knitted sweaters (7).

TA similar story can be told about the kilt which never caught on among the Irish. The controversial subject of Irish kilts has to be addressed. From all the available historical sources, there is no evidence that the Irish ever wore a kilt (8). The overwhelming evidence is in favour of the Léine. It is time to put to bed the notion that the Irish ever wore kilts. Tartan was indeed common in Ireland and used on their Brats (cloaks) and Triúbhas (trews). The Irish certainly wore tartan and there are many historical references to tartan in Ireland...but no kilt. The Gaelic League, a social and cultural organisation founded in 1893, tried to introduce the kilt as an Irish garment in the 1890’s and the early years of the twentieth century, but failed miserably. The Gaelic League, unable to source proper information on traditional Irish dress, based their ideals solely on the premise that the Irish must have worn something similar to their Gaelic brothers in Scotland, even though the Scottish kilt has no medieval pedigree! Irish dancing costumes, as we know them today, are even more recent. These garish unflattering outfits have no place in traditional Irish garb. These fluorescent ‘mini-skirts’ are a sixties and seventies invention. They are as out of place as the curly wigs and spray tan which accompanies them! The Kinsale Cloak is older but unlikely to have been worn as far back as the 17th century. We certainly have no evidence for it before the early 1800’s (9). The Kinsale is more than likely a development from the early 1800’s based on incoming fashions. Many European countries had hooded cloaks and they were indeed a fashion icon. The main suspect is the Cardinal Cloak which became popular through Europe and England in the late 1700’s. It had a hood and was uniformly red, as were the early Kinsale Cloaks (10).

So, what did the Irish wear? The answer to that is simple. The main garment, worn by both sexes and by children was the Léine (11) which is pronounced ‘laynuh’. The medieval spelling was often Léinidh (12) (pronounced ‘layny’). The Léine appears time and time again in our historical sources, from the earliest pre-Christian accounts(13,14) down to the mid 17th century (15). Firstly we shall discuss the male version as well as associated items of clothing.

The Léine is an ankle length linen tunic coloured yellow. Historical sources often describe this colour as saffron but this must not be confused with the raw orange colour of saffron, for when it is used as a dyestuff the resultant colour is always yellow. The Léine was loose fitting and a wool belt was wrapped around the body to hold the garment tight to the body. The fabric was then pulled up through the belt to the desired finished length which was usually about knee length (16). The lifted excess material was then allowed to hang loose all around the body, resulting in a bag like mass all around the waist. Finally, the Léine had long baggy sleeves which again were allowed to simply hang down. This unusual style of sleeve opens around the bend in the arm area and closes at the wrist.

The wool belt worn with the Léine was known as a Crios (pronounced Kriss). It was usually three metres in length, of tablet weave construction (17). To wear the Crios, the wearer would hold one end close to the body and breathe in while quickly wrapping the belt around the body. When the other end was reached, it was simply tucked into the wrapped fabric. Then the wearer would exhale resulting in the fibres of the wool to close in on each other thus holding the belt secure. No ties, no knots, no clasps, no hooks! The Léine and the Crios was the minimum that a man would wear.

On top of that he usually wore a large sub semi-circular cloak known as a Brat. The Brat was usually of wool (18), but linen and leather were also used. Despite English opinions of the Irish and their ‘barbaric’ way of dressing, they could not help but admire the practicalities of the Brat. It was even suggested that English soldiers be attired in Irish Brats to fight against the Irish and the Irish weather! The English Captain-General Thomas Lee reported from Ireland in 1600 (19) on the advantages of the Irish Brat. English cynicism towards the Brat in Ireland did not stop the Brat becoming a fashion item among the English in England, and indeed, throughout Europe! The 16th century port records show a large quantity of Irish Brats being shipped to England and the Continent on a regular basis. (20) This trade continued well into the next century (21,22).

The Brat was adorned with rows of decorative fringing all along its borders. The straight edge of the sub semi-circle was worn over the head and shoulders and this region had even more fringing, usually longer too. It was a long laborious task to attach the fringing but it certainly added to the warmth factor (23) The Brat usually reached down as far as the ankles but could be as short as the waist, depending on the wishes of the wearer and of course the weather. Occasionally a garment called an Ionar (pronounced inner) was worn. It was an unusual style of very short jacket with open sleeves (24). The open sleeve was cut away on the inner side of the arm leaving only a flap hanging down on the outer arm. This was necessary to accommodate the large hanging sleeves of the Léine. The Ionar was usually made of wool and perhaps sometimes of leather. It was decorated with wool piping and sometimes with fringing.

Another form of jacket or coat was the Cóta Mór (pronounced coe-tuh more). This translates as ‘big coat, great coat’. The Cóta Mór was also designed to be worn over the Léine, evident by the opened sleeves to accommodate the hanging sleeves of the Léine. However, unlike the Ionar that has complete cutaway inner sleeves, the Cóta Mór still retained a full sleeve, though capable of opening up for the Léine sleeve. The openings are situated at the back of the arm. The positioning at the back of the arm may appear at first puzzling, but makes perfect sense when worn walking through driving wind and rain. If the buttoning were at the front or even on the inner side, the wind and rain would easily get in.

Triúbhas (pronounced trews) were also worn on occasion and made of wool. In winter they could be worn underneath the Léine but sometimes they were worn instead of the Léine (25). This became more common towards the end of our period when the English attack on the Irish growing of linen was taking effect. Again, like most Irish styles, the Triúbhas were not straightforward. The lower portions from the thigh down, were tight to the leg. This was achieved by cutting the material on the bias. This increased the stretchability of the fabric. The top half was looser and not cut on the bias. This was achieved by making the Triúbhas with two pieces of fabric. The bottom of the leg continued into the shoe giving the impression of a pair of stockings.

The Irish were fond of going barefoot but this must not be judged as a sign of poverty. However, shoes called as Bróga (pronounced broe-guh) were worn, and a few styles are known. The modern English word ‘brogue’ comes from the singular Bróg. The most common style consisted of one piece of leather wrapped around the foot with minimal shaping and a leather thong pierced through a series of holes around the front of the foot to hold it all together (26).

Hats were also worn on occasion, although the Irish generally preferred to go bareheaded. Two main types were worn, the Bairéad and the Bioraid. The first derives from Gaelic barr meaning ‘top, summit’, the second from Gaelic bior ‘point’. The Bairéad (pronounced barraid) is interesting. It has been known since the 16th century and is similar to the French béret. This style was a common peasant head-covering across many parts of Europe including Ireland. However, it was not until 1835 that the hat received the name beret on the Continent. In this year it was first recorded as a word to describe the hat in France. It clearly derives from Latin birretum. Interestingly, the Irish word Bairéad has been known much earlier. The second style, the Bioraid (pronounced birr-idge) is taller and more conical in appearance. It has been called a Scythian Cap by some writers due to its similarity.

The Irish were fond of going barefoot but this must not be judged as a sign of poverty. However, shoes called as Bróga (pronounced broe-guh) were worn, and a few styles are known. The modern English word ‘brogue’ comes from the singular Bróg. The most common style consisted of one piece of leather wrapped around the foot with minimal shaping and a leather thong pierced through a series of holes around the front of the foot to hold it all together (26).

The author - Proinsias Mac Fhionnghaile CIOM

As with the male outfit, Irish women also wore the Léine. This has been so since the earliest times. However, there are some important differences between the male and female form. Firstly, it would seem that the female version was often white instead of yellow. Why this should be and how frequent it was, we cannot say. There are three excellent 16th century coloured images of Irish women and in all cases their Léinte are white. Yellow Léinte were also worn by women as we have written sources describing such (27). The sleeve openings on the female version were also smaller, being nothing more than a hole big enough to put the hand through. Why they should differ, we cannot say. Finally, the female version was always worn at full length.

Over the Léine, women wore a dress called a Gúna (pronounced goonuh). The Gúna was made of wool and reached to ankle length. It had a tight bodice which only came as high as the ribs under the breast. This made the breast stick out but some support was offered from the Léine which hung outward over the top. The section from the waist down consisted of a heavily pleated skirt which gave warmth to the wearer. The Gúna, like the male Ionar, also had open sleeves. However, pictorial evidence shows that the Gúna sleeves were narrower than those found on the Ionar. The Gúna sleeves, both from pictorial evidence and written evidence, had rows of decorative silver buttons and/or usker (coloured glass beads). No accounts or images suggest that males partook in this type of decoration. The workmanship involved in producing a Gúna was immense.

Females also wore shoes on occasion. They were simple flat soled affairs, similar to modern ballet pumps or court shoes. They may have worn the simple type as found on males They also wore the Brat and we see no evidence that they differed from male examples apart say for length. Unmarried females wore their hair long, usually to the waist or longer. The hair was generally tied into plaits but could also be left to hang free. Sometimes a simple delicate fillet of wool, linen, leather or gold was worn on the head. Married women always covered their hair in public. The most common style of head covering for married women was the Linen Roll/Rolla Lín (pronounced rulluh leen). The traditional fabrics used by the Irish were linen and wool, and these two fabrics made up the vast majority of their wardrobe. Both linen and wool have been made in Ireland since the earliest times (28). Leather formed the third part of Irish traditional clothing, found in shoes, hats, ionars and Brats. There is no evidence of silk, satin or cotton used by the native Irish. Many early sources mention garments that were silk-like or satin-like, but this simply meant smooth high quality linen fabrics. Knitting was also absent and only appears after the fall of Gaelic Era.

16th Century Rolla Lín Headdress

With the main components outlined above, we should now discuss colours. The evidence is again clear that the Léine was always dyed yellow, or shades on that spectrum from white, cream to a brownish yellow. To achieve a pure yellow, the linen must first be sun-bleached to a high standard. The linen is then a white colour perfect for dying yellow. Many plants achieve a yellow colour including gorse petals, saffron, yellow wood sorrel flowers, yellow ochre, dandelion flowers, broom flowers and Parmelia Caperata aka orchill (29). A still common Irish plant is Ragwort, known in Gaelic as Buachaillín Buidhe ‘the little yellow boy’, it too gives a lovely yellow colour. However, the primary sources may have been weld which was much more abundant in Ireland in the past. The Gaelic for weld is Buidhe Mór which means, very appropriately ‘big yellow’. Talking of weld, J.C. Walker said in 1788...”the yellow thus obtained is bright and lasting.” The addition to the dye bath of onion skins and even rhubarb leaves, intensifies the yellow colour (30). So, as you can see, the Irish had a wide choice of plants to choose from to obtain the desired yellow colour (31).

In its natural state, linen is a light brown/beige colour. It is conceivable that some may have worn undyed Léinte (pronounced lain-chuh, the plural of Léine). Women and the religious are known to have worn white Léinte. Some men, because of poverty or a lack of available dyestuff, may also have had white Léinte. If one decided to dye a Léine that was not fully sun-bleached (a sort of oatmeal colour)with yellow dye, the resultant colour is a soft light green. Again, this must have happened occasionally, say if someone was in a hurry and had not let the linen bleach fully. Although shades ranging from white, light beige, cream, light green must have been worn, the vast majority wore pure yellow and the colour yellow is recorded time and time again. As for other garments such as the Brat and Triúbhas, every colour was used. The Irish had no understanding of ‘colour matching’ and we know that it was common to see a man wearing a yellow Léine, pink Ionar and blue Brat, or some other arrangement of colours which may seen garish to the modern eye. All available evidence shows a highly colourful society in Ireland, contrasted with the sombre colours worn by English peasantry.

16th Century Irish Dress

Finally, I would like to add that the traditional clothing of the Scottish Highlander was the same. This may surprise those of Scots ancestry who have romantic notions of Highlanders skipping through the heather in 16th century Scotland dressed in short kilts ( we shall not mention Braveheart). The evidence is clear that the Highlanders also wore the yellow Léine. It was only after the demise of the Gaelic linen industry by the early 1600’s, causing the slow death of the Léine, that the Scottish Highlanders took their sub semi-circular Brat and adapted it into the Féilleadh Mór/Great Kilt. Therefore, this was not a natural change but an enforced one. It would still be another hundred and fifty years before the Féilleadh Beag/Small Kilt would appear. Laurent Vital, Secretary for the Burgundian State, writing in 1518 clearly stated, in regards to Irish dress, that...”The inhabitants are very strangely and singularly costumed” (32), which confirms that the Irish all dressed similarly, in other words, the Léine, Ionar and Brat for men and the Léine, Gúna and Brat for women.

The author with Irish President, Michael Higgins, and Clans of Ireland's Gearóid Ó Ceallaigh

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