*** national kilt styles Ireland chronology

Irish Kilts: Chronology

Irish kilts
Figure 1.--This is an undated studio portrait, but the paper frrame suggests it was taken anout 1910. The boy is unidentifed, but looks to be about 10 years old. He wears a military-styled jacket, muted tartan kilt, and sporran. The boy is unidentified, The portrait is signef Wm. L. Allison, N. Belfast. The address 13 Donegall Square. I think that is the photographer. At the time the portrait was taken there was not yet a political division between northern and southern Ireland.

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.

Ancient Celts

One of the major conflicts of ancient times was that between the Romans and the people of northern Europe, the Celts. The Celts did not have a written language and thus written accounts of the Celtic people come from the Romans. The attire of the Celts attracted comments from various Roman authors. The Celtic manner was to abandon all clothing except for weaponry and the rare item of armour and attack naked. A tactic which disconcerted the Romans even at their zenith of empire! [Freemantle] One of the aspects of Celtic life repeated by the Romans is how Celtic men and boys wore trouser-like garments. This seemed barbaric to the Romans who soldiers wore skirts and whose men wore togas of various styles. It was the Celts who populated the British Isles and Ireland. The Guales who peopled what is now modern France and the British Isles were Celtic peoples. The Guales in what is now modern France were conquered by Ceasar in the 1st century BC. The Guales of modern England were conquered by the Romans in the 1st century AD. The British Celts during the next few centuries were largely Romanized. The Romans were unable to subdue the Picts and other peoples of northern Britain. The Irish Celts were left untouched by the Romans.

Early Medieval Era

With the departure of the Romans from Britain (409 AD). Germnanic invaders (Angles and Saxons) in the early 5th century, no longer restrained by the Romans, overwealmed Roman Britain. The Celts were driven to the fringe of Britain, Wales and Cornwall. Although driven from much of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, the Celts constituted most of the population of Ireland. Up until this time, the northern British Isles (north of Hadrian's Wall), was dominated by the Picts. As a result of the Saxon invasions, what is noew modern Scotland, becomes increasingly popuklated by Celtic peopkles. Celtic Britons retreating from the Saxon invasions settled in Caledonia between the Firth of Clyde and the Solway Firth which eventually collaseses in to the Kingdom of Strathclyde. To the north at the beginning of the 6th century, Celtic invaders from Ireland establish the Kingdom of Dalriada. Trish kingdom of Dalriada established in the 5th century AD, by an Irish tribe in Western Scotland, was called by the native Picts 'Scots'. The was the first use of the term. They Irish at the time of the invasion were recorded as wearing the kilt. Medieval Scotland is largely an amalgem of Celts (Strathclyde and Dalrida) and the Picts. (For more details see the Medieval Scottish history page.) It is at this time that the kilt which was worn in Ireland becomes increasingly prevalent in Scotand. There is a old saying in Ireland that it gave Scotland the kilt and the bagpipes and the Scots still haven't got the joke. [Freemantle]

10th Century

It was commented upon by the Irish commander of joint Irish and Scots' forces at the vanquishing of the Vikings in the 10th and 11th centuries how much their dress had chamnged since they conquered what them became known as Scotland. [Freemantle] The kilt was the great kilt (the shaped or belted plaid). The short kilt was an English invention of the 18th century.

16th Century

The English discouraged in kilt in Ireland at the noose's end. In 1546 Henry VIII by Act Of Parliament (still strictly law) forbade the wearing of kilts upon pain of death in Ireland. Unlike the shortlived ban in Scotlamnd, which never carried an automatic death penalty, it was a ban that lasted and strictly speaking still does! Scotland was a separate sovereign country at this time and never felt the Tudor sword against its' highland dress, though most Scottish kings forbade the wearing of the kilt in their presence. [Freemantle] A October 1562 discription by Camdem on Shane O'Neill and his warriors referred to long hair/saffron leines/fur mantles.

17th-18th Centuries

I have little informarion on kilts in Ireland during the 17th, and 18th centuries. During the English Civil War, Scottish leader the Earl of Montrose at the battle of Kilsyth in 1645 instructed his warriors, mosty Irish, to put away their plaids and not their tunics to fight.

19th Century

Kilts do not appear to have become a symbol of Irish nationality the garment became in Scotland. The authors and poets who helped create the romantic history of Scotland in the late-18th and early-19th century did not do the same for Ireland. (These writers influenced a young Princess Victoria and many others in England.) The kilts worn by Irish pipers and dancers appear to have little relationship to the actual kilts worn by the historic 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 occasions or ethnic events. The British Army did adopt a kilt uniform for some Irish units. We are not sure sure when this occured, butsome Irish units in World War I did wear kilts. The kilts we see in the photographic record in Ireland seem to be mostly Scottish kilts worn by boys of the Protestant Accendency. At the time it was fashionable for well-to-do English boys to wear Scottish kilts when dressing up--a style popularized by Queen Victoria.

20th Century

We do not think that Irish boys in modern times wore kilts to any extent, although admitedly I have been able to collect little information on the subject. At least in urban areas they seemed to have dressed much as British boys. This may have been somewhat different in Ulster because of the Scottish influence there. Irish boys do not appear to have kilts in the 19th Century and early 20th Century, many boys, especially those living in rural areas, wore flannel dresses. These dresses were not kilts associated with Celtic warrioirs, but rather were dresses designed to confuse the farries which according to folklore would steal male children. I'm not sure when this began, but was a common practice in the early 19th century and while it declined in the 19th Century, was still the fashion in some areas until after World War I (1914-18). Kilts were worn by military groups, both Irish units in the British Army. As for wearing plaid into battle, the kilt was taken out of operational use after the War, as the hem used to freeze in the trenches and cut into the backs of the knees of those wearing them. [Freemantle] The kilt continued to be worn for ceremonial purposes in drum and piope bands. Irish ethnic dancers also wore kiklts. Irish dance through most of the 20th century was a little noticed element of Irish culture. It was popularized in the late 20th century by River Dance, but in River Dance and other theatrical productions, the male dancers wore long black pants rather than kilts.


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


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