Irish Kilts


Figure 1.--The kilts worn by Irish dancers have little similarity to the kilts worn by the Gaelic people of Ireland. Note the shawl worn over the sholder.

HBC has little real historical information on Irish kilts, as oposed to Scottish kilts which appears to have been much, more extensively covered in the historical literature. I plan to pursue historical information, but if visitors to this site have some historical information, I would greatly appreciate any insights you could share. One source suggests considerable similarity between the kilts worn by the Galeic people of Ireland and Scotland until the 16th century. The kilts worn by Irish pipers and dancers appear to have little relationship to the actual kilts worn by the Gaelic people of Ireland. The current Irish kilt appears to be a copy of the short kilt fashioned by an Englishman in the 18th century and embraced by a generation of romantic poets and authors and even Queen Victoria herself. Unlike Scotland there appears to have been no real revival of kilt wearing in Ireland beyond ceremonial occasiins or ethnic events. The British Army did adopt a kilt uniform for some Irish units.

Celtic/Gaelic Kilts

There are historical drawings of kilted celtic warriors. They appear to have worn mustard color kilts, often descibed as "saffron". Authors describe the about the Lein-croich at length. Other authors decribe kilt-like garments. One author describes "... one of the oldest garments peculiar to the Celts. This was called the Lein-croich, or saffron-coloured shirt, which was dyed of ayellow colour from that plant. This vestment resembled a very ample belted plaid ofsaffron-coloured linen, being fastened round the middle..." Many authors provide contradictory material. This author, for example, in the same paragraph, tells us that the Lein-croich is a shirt and then he tells us it is a belted plaid. Surely, it cannot be both at the same time. Furthermore, both the belted plaid and the saffron shirt are late-period garments (16th and 17th centuries, respectively). There is nodocumentation that the Celts ever wore eitherand therefore, the statement that this is "one of the oldest garments peculiar to the Celts" is entirelyflawed. Please see "Man'sLéine" and "TheEvolution of the Kilt" and "Letterto Chivalry Sports" for a further discussion.

Although it cannot be stated that the Highlanders did not wear mustard-coloured belted plaids, they most certainly were not made of linen which would provide none of the weather protection for which the(woolen) plaid was worn. Indeed, plaide is the Gaelic word for blanket or rug. And in the dampand cold Highlands, why would one have a blanket or rug of linen?

Another author uses the term "mustard-coloured" rather than"saffron-coloured." His alternate choice of spice name is for the sake of accuracy. It has beensubstantiated by Henry Foster McClintock in his great sourcework, Old Irish and HighlandDress, among others, that the spice saffron does not dye linen a yellowish brown, but rather a pureyellow colour. The léinte depicted in colour by Lucas de Heere are all pure yellow. Therefore,the modern "saffron" kilts worn by Irish pipers have no basis in history. Indeed, the Irish neverwore the belted plaid or any garment resembling a kilt (for a discussion on the lack of an "Irish kilt" see "Letterto Tir na nOg").

Another word on the use of saffron as a dye.  Saffron is an expensivespice that does not grow in either Scotland or Ireland.  However,a similar colour dye can be made from Sticta crocata or Solorinacrocea, lichens common in both lands.  The frequent statementby contemporary writers that the saffron shirt was the garb of "personsof distinction" has never been substantiated by native sources.  However,in that the head of every household in Gaelic culture is deemed a King(Rígh), every person in these cultures is either the son,daughter, or cousin of a King and therefore noble...and therefore entitledto wear saffron.  Perhaps the foreign writers did not realize that ALL Gaels are "persons of distinction."

The historical discussions of Irish and Scottish kilts generally refer to adult male warriors. Less information is available on how children or women dressed.

Medievil Irish Dress

Men had two different styles of clothing to wear, based on social class. There is a possibility of athird, but sources claim that it may have actually been a modification of one of the other two. Léine-and-Brat: The léine (pronounced "LEY-nuh") was a linen tunic of sorts, while the brat (pronounced "brawt") corresponds to a cloak or mantle.
Inar-and-Trius: The inar (pronounced "EYE-nar") was a jacket, while the trius (pronounced "trews") were pants or shorts. This outfit would occasionally include a brat as well.
Kilt: There is one indication mentioned in McClintock that Irish Celts of pre-Norman times*might* have worn a small kilt. It is a damaged stone carving of Cain and Abel, and itshows a man wearing a skirt-like garment with no upper body covering. However, thecarving is too worn to make out exact details, and it may be a representation of a loincloth,or, a man wearing a léine with a very wide neck opening which is pulled down so that theupper half of the garment skirts his legs like the lower (a way to keep cool in hot weather).The general consensus of researchers and re-creationalists both is that the kilt evolved wellafter the fifth century and those interested in this period should avoid wearing one.

Brat and Léine

A brat was an indispensable garment to any Irish-Celtic man of rank. During the pre-Normantimes, it was a rectangle of wool without hood or sleeves, that was pinned on around the neck atone shoulder. It was long and wide enough to double as a blanket when sleeping outdoors.According to McClintock, the four corners of the brat may have been decorated with functionalloops to fit the pins through (presumably to avoid separating the wool fibers of the mantle). Itcould be draped and folded a number of ways depending on what the wearer was going to beoccupied with - worn long and sweeping during casual times, or draped and folded whenfreedom of movement was required. When looking to make a brat, purchase wool or wool-blends that are checked, striped, or plaid. A brat was more than a source of warmth to a Celtic man - it was a showpiece to display their wealth and the sewing skills of their women (wife, slaves, household women). Brats would often be fringed and trimmed with fancy stitching and were almost universally woven in colorful patterns of some sort (either variegated with stripes or plaid patterns, or solid colors edged with other bright colors).

The male léine was commonly worn by noble Celts - kings, chieftains, and wealthy warriors. Variations existed to indicate that poor Celts either did not wear it, or, wore a modified version. The léine was properly a long garment made of rectangles of linen sewn and pinned together. It seemed to share a common root with the Roman tunica or Greek chiton, and like these garments would be pinned closed at the shoulders and lack sleeves. Sleeved léinte probably existed as well, and would have an even-width sleeve down to the wrist. Men wearing léinte would commonly wear them to about knee-length, but cut to the calves or ankles and then pulled up through the belt to shorten the overall length. It could also simply be cut short to display the legs. Just as the brat would be decorated by fringing and adding bright borders, the léine would be decorated as well. Tapestry-woven patterns and various needlework techniques are mentioned in literature, and decorations from knee to ankle are mentioned. Tablet-woven borders have been found universally throughout European (Celtic and non-Celtic cultures) and are pictured in Irish works such as the Book of Kells.

A sleeveless léine would most often be designed as a "tunica". This is derived from Roman styles, and was modified and worn by many European cultures of the time. The basic differences would be in accessories and needlework. The shoulders should be fastened closed by folding over from back to front, fitting together, and then pinning. Folding the corners been described to me as similar to folding an envelope closed, only with bothsides. The best direction to align bar-style pins or fibulae is parallel to the ground. This distributes the pull and weight of the garment evenly. Also, make sure the points are in (toward face) to avoid catching on an outer garment or someone else's garment as they hug you. The basic form of a léine with sleeves would be two evenly-sized rectangles sewn up each side with openings left for the neck and sleeves. Then smaller rectangles formed into tubes would be sewn to the side openings to form sleeves. Last, the edges of the open neckline would be folded in and hemmed to create a reinforced opening. This is the most simple way to form the garment, however, some care must be taken to reinforce the armhole seams (and it feels somewhat constricting around the arm until the garment is worn a time or two).

A second option is to make a "T-Tunic". This style of léine requires more cutting. The sleeves and body of the garment are cut from the same fabric and the open areas are sewn together where appropriate. The neckline of the T-Tunic may be finished like the basic garment described above.

Inar and Trius

The other form of male period garb is the inar and trius combination. The inar was a jacket ofsorts that was cut like a modern bathrobe; it was often made of patterned (checked, striped, and plaid) wool. In sources found throughout Ireland, it is universally pictured as a garment worn by common soldiers. Paired with the inar would be trius-- pants that were worn from just above the knee to full-length. There are even pictured and written examples of "stirrup"-styles with ankle loops designed to fit around the sole of the foot to keep the pants in place. Not much information on inar and trius are provided in the McClintock book. I'm still searching for other works that would provide more information. A few possibilities can be extrapolated from what was said in McClintock, as well as visual representations of the garments. The following statements are my own interpretations, and will be modified as I learn more. Since the inar and trius were worn by common soldiers, they most likely would lack much in the way of extra decoration outside of the initial weaving. So, while you could use plaid or striped fabric to make them, fancy needlework should probably be avoided. Or, if it is ornamented, it should be with woolen rather than silk or metallic threads. Common sense should be combined with authenticity.

Irish Tartans

Tartans are normally associated with Scotland. We note that boys who do Irish dancing normally wore solid kilts, although a few boys wore tartans. (Girls ding Irish dance never wear tartn.) There are in fact Irish tartans. Unlike Scotland where there are family tartans, Irish tartans are more commonly county and district tartans. Experts report that the Irish tartans are thortically inspired by each individual County with soft warm colours. There are also a few Irish family tatterns. It is difficult at this time to dertermin when Irish tartans fort appeared. We do know that the Celts had a well developed weaving technology. This continued even when the Celts were pushed to the fringes of Europe, places like Scotlands, Wales and Ireland. The oldest known Irish tartans were discovered in an Irish peat bog during the 1960s. Textiles do not preserve well in the wet Irish climate. Thus few textiles survive from the medieval era. An exception is textiles preserved in bog remains. The earliest is known as the "Ulster District Tartan" which may date the early to mid 1600s. Some believethat it may have been worn by the O’Cahans of Antrim. A reconstruction of this tartan in displayed in the Ulster Museum in Belfast. Despite the stong socition of tartans with cotland, some experts believe that in the late middle ages, ‘tartans’ or ‘proto-tartans’ appeared in Ireland before Scotland. The Irish belted plaid (an early kilt-like garment) was a solid saffron-yellow garment accoring to most historians. This is why saffron kilts are often worn by Irish pipe bands and Itish dancers. he Celts from the erliest times were noted for the use of color in their clothing. Early historical desciptions indicate that the Celts wore multi-colored woven cloth. This included pants-loke garments called "breacan". (The Celtic word breacan is the root word for breaches or pants in the English language. At the time the Celts did not wear kilts.) Weaving colored patterns is more complicated than solid color pattern. Thus the nore colors involved the great the difficulty and thus cost of weving. Thus the number of colors in breacan or other garments reflected the rank or status. Ancient kings might wear garments with seven colors, the druids (priests) six, and nobles four. One account by a Martin indicates that tartans appear to have been used to identify people on a regional basis. There is no sourse which indicates that tartans were adopted by families. Martin specifically states that the inhabitants of the various Irish islands did not dress identically and that the setts (patterns) and colors of tartans varied among islands. Gradually the tartans most common in any island or district became accepted as a regional tartan. [Dwelly] Another source describes a multi-colored dress worn by the ancient celts. He reports that "Breacan an fhe/ilidh", a belted plaid, consisted of 12 ve yards of tartan, worn round the waist, obliquely across the breast and over the left shoulder, and partly descending backwards. Keating like other authors reports that the number od colors refected status. Slaves wore clothes made on only one color, peasants two, soldiers or young novels three, a brughaidh (land-owner) four, a district chief five, and an ollamh and King and Queen six. [MacLennan] There are in modern Ireland very few Irish family tartans. This contrasts sharply with Scotland where there are hundreds of established family patterns. As a result, most Irish people who wear tartan clothing, commonly wear the tartan of the Irish county with which they are associated. Some of these Irish family tartans are believed to be of of ancient origin. Many others are of modern origins. Here it is difficult to determin just when many tartans originated. The earliest study assessing Irish along with the better studied Scottish tartans was published in 1880. [Clan Originaux]

Chronology

Following the kilt in Ireland involves a thorough background in Irish history. Actually the kilt and other clothing trends is usefully in assessing influences for eras in which there are few written sources. Our chronological information on Irish kilts is somewhat limited. There are two especially interesting questions. First, is how did ancient Celtic peoples who were known to wear trouser-like garments, in contrast to the Roman skirts, become in the Medieval era known for wearing kilts. Second, how did the kilt which was in the Roman/early Medieval era more coomon in Ireland than the north of the British Isles become more associated with Scotland than Ireland. The kilt today is occassoinally wrn in Ireland, but it is not nearly as accepted as in Scotland, not is it a symbol of the Irish nation as it is in Scotland. This is in part because the English were more effective in rooting supressing the kilt in Ireland than they were in Scotland.

Flannel Dresses

Irish boys were commonly outfitted in dresses until they were 12 or 13 years old. This practice was most common in rural areas, but it was not unknown in towns. Folk lore warned mothers to hide their boys from the "faries," so they were dressed as girls, usually in long flannel dresses. I have little information on these flannel dresses. Much of the information described below is derived solely from an examination of the available photographic images. Please let me know if you have any additional information or note anything in the photographs.

Firbolgs

The sporran is generally seen to be worn with Scottish kilts. Many boys, especially Irish dancers do not wear them. Some sources say that the Irish also wore leather bags called firbolgs.

Regional Trends

We have been unable to find much information on regional kilt trends in Ireland. The kilt itself is not nearly as important in Ireland as in Scotland. Some reports suggest that kilts appear to have been worn by boys on the on the Aran Islands into the 1930s. The Aran Islands are a group of three small islands located in Galway Bay along the western coast of Ireland. They apper, however to have been the flannel dresses boys wore in the more traditional areas of Ireland until after World War I.


Figure 2.--Boys at Irish step dancing competitions wear colorful kilt costumes, but they appear to have little relationship to any actual historical costumes. Unlike Scottish Highland dancers, the Irish dancers almost always wear solid-colored kilts.

Ceremonial Usage

Most Americans, Irish, and Brits will be at least vaguely aware of the Irish kilt because of a variety of events at which it is worn:
Pipe bands: Irish pipe bands that frequently participate in parades and special events. Virtually any large American city has at least one Irish pipe band. Pipe bands in America are often associated with the police force because of the many Irish Americans who became policemen. he uniform of these pipeband look much like Scottish bands except that the kilt is a solid color, often saffron, rather than plaid.
Fraternal orders: Some groupd like the Ulster Apprentice boys wear a kilt uniform.
Dance costumes: Boys participating in Irish dancing competitions often wear a costume consisting of a brightly colored jacket, sash over the back, a kilt of contrasting color, and colored knee socks, sometimes matching the jacket or kilt. Oher boys wear long black trousers. The kilts worn by the dancers are colorful, but appear to be modern reincarnations of the kilt and bare little resemblance to actual historical garments.
School uniform: Irish schools apear to have less commonly incorportated the kilts as part of their school uniform as is common in Scotland. One Irish secondary uniform required kilts as a school uniform, but they were Scottish-style plaid kilts and this does not appear to have been a common fashion. Many Irish schools, however, do have kilted pipe bands.
Scouts: Irish Scouts do not normally wear kilts. An Irish Scouter, however, reports that they are entitled to wear a saffron kilt (as do the Irish Defence Forces) as part of the uniform. It's not as common as in Scotland, but it is done. A green kilt is also allowed, but apparently the Scouts who wear kilkts always choose safron for some reason. Usually a decision is made at Group or Contingent level that only one colour may be worn and it's always been Saffron. This is not done unless permission is given by the association. When travelling abroad, it is usual for members of the Irish Contingent to wear a saffron kilt, especially if attending a World Jamboree, as part of the Uniform. The Chief Scout (the head of the association) in 2002 is rarely seen out of a kilt. Unlike Scotland where Cubs have worn kilts, in Ireland only the Scouts have worn kilts, never the Cubs or younger Beaver sections.
Weddings: Ring bearers and adults at weddings in Scotland, England, and America have sometimes dressed in Scottish kilts. This does not seem to have been the case with Irish kilts.

Kilt Suits

Small boys in Ireland do not seem to have worn kilt suits after the Victorian revival of the kilt in the mid 1800s. This appears to have been primarily an American fashion.

Comments

A HBC reader writes, "I found you information on kilts somewhat flawed. The Irish kilts that we wear today are most definitely fashioned on what the ancients wore. It is a knee length, pleated solid colored garment that is wrapped around the body. Durer a German artist made the most detailed picture of Irish warriors and without a doubt it shows a wrapped leine. However it does not show if the wrapped garment is fashioned as a whole or separated. Though their are depictions of warriors on crosses that show a separated garment. Also the Scots wore linen leine's or kilts well into the 16000's. They stopped using linen not because of the weather but because of the Elizabethan wars in Ireland. It was at this point that the leine's of the Irish started to change more to a fitted garment, instead of the long flowing leine's. The weather in Scotland has been the same for thousands of years. All of a sudden the Scots don't realize that they live in a wet climate. They would have used linen if they could. The Brat was always made out of wool. There is only one colored painting in the world of Irish warriors, by DeHere. Who is to say of any other actual saffron that was used. It would be almost impossible to get the same coloring. To date I have seen many different types of saffron kilts and all vary in color. Their is evidence that Ireland did indeed plant their own saffron. But they also imported it from Spain. The Scots in reference to the belted brat was a low class garment and was made out of lack of linen from Ireland. Ireland was a huge supplier of linen to Scotland. From the belted plaid you get the Scots modern kilt of tar tan design, with thanks to the British military. Today their are many tar tans of both Scottish, Irish and anything one can think of. However the solid colored kilts do represent the old Irish and Scottish tradition, especially the Irish." [O'Connor]

Sources

Dwelly. "Breacan," Gaelic Dictionary (1901).

Freemantle, Clive. E-mail, November 11, 2003.

MacLennan "Breacan," Gaelic Dictionary (1925).

O'Connor, Michael. E-mail, June 6, 2003.

Clan Originaux (J. Claude Fres et Cie.: Paris, France, 1880).






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Created: March 15, 1999
Last updated: 6:39 PM 10/12/2010