Meanwhile, in Ireland: A Brief History of Ireland, as Told Through Clothing

Photo courtesy of Sabrina Moody and Zach Caflin

Photo courtesy of Sabrina Moody and Zach Caflin

Come along through time on this journey, beginning with the Celtic (Pronounced with a hard “C”) Iron Age, then continued with the early medieval era. From there we move into the Later Gaelic period, followed by the Conquest Days, the era of An Górta Mór (Pronounced Awn Gore+Tuh More) or The Great Hunger, then the Irish Independence Movement era, and finally concluding with Modern Day.

Firstly, let’s start with the Celtic Iron Age, which began in the 6th century BCE and concluded in the 5th century CE, with the arrival of Christianity. Before the arrival of Christianity, the people were pagan, following the way of the druids. The druids themselves were religious leaders, made up the legal system, were scientists, healers, ambassadors and advocates of and for the arts, etc.

Of the things to learn from the clothing of the Iron Age represented, it should first be noted that styles in Ireland, despite being relatively isolated from the rest of the world, found heavy influence in classical styles of the Greeks and later the Romans.

Many a Celt, in Ireland included, could be found in the Iron Age with these classically-inspired garments, especially the womenfolk or those dressing in what was deemed as feminine attire. Though often anyone of warrior status, and often women, though less commonly so, took up this position, would face combat shirtless.

It should be noted that, unlike many other cultures across Europe, Ireland has long had a uniquely equal view of men and women, and this can be seen in small things such as in hairstyles reported in contemporary reports. For example, both men and women would elaborately curl their hair with metal rods for any sort of special event, from the celebration of important festivals, to weddings, funerals, etc.

Likewise, hair color had significance as well. Those with dark or brown hair were said to be connected to the earth and to nature, while those with blonde hair were considered to have a divine sovereignty. Those with red hair were considered to be supernaturally blessed, which is a likely origin to the old wives’ tale of touching red hair for good luck. And those with white, grey, or silver hair were considered to bear great wisdom and knowledge and were to be respected. Similarly, one could tell a man’s position in society based on the length of his moustache or style of beard. For example, warriors kept their beards shorn clean but wore a moustache that was kept long. 

In many regards, jewellery was also of importance in Iron Age Irish culture, and Celtic culture as a whole as well. Particularly, gold was “all the rage” among the people, regardless of status, though the higher one was, the grander the pieces of gold they could adorn themselves with.

Torcs, a sort of C-shaped necklace, were particularly popular among both masculine and femininely dressing individuals, worn by warriors, druids, kings and queens, etc. alike. One could often tell the status of the individual based on their Torc, as the larger the Torc, the more wealth they likely had. These items were of importance; they would be adorned with various animals and symbols believed to grant protection for the wearer. For example, a Torc adorned with Raven was believed to grant the wearer the courage and strength of The Morrígan (Pronounced More+EE+Gun), and would have indicated the wearer to have likely been a warrior. Many a horde, a sacrificial burial of wealth done to appease the Aoi Sídhe (Pronounced EE Shee), or the faerie folk and the supernatural races of deities, has contained large and elaborate torcs made of gold, indicating their great significance. 

In the early 5th century CE, missionaries began arriving in Ireland, bringing a new religion and new ways of dressing.

The most famous of these missionaries was the Welsh Briton Saint Patrick, or in Irish Naomh Pádraig (Pronounced Neev Paw+drig). Contrary to popular belief, the color associated with Patrick has never been green, but rather was and remains to be blue, a color that in Ireland represents purity. It is likewise for this reason why the color an Irish bride would wear has traditionally been blue, rather than white. Additionally, in recent years, there has been an increasing move away from Saint Patrick as the head patron saint of Ireland, with Saint Brigid of Kildare, who was his apprentice and herself is of Irish birth, being promoted more and more as the “true patron of Ireland,” with her feast being Feb. 2. 

Similarly, with the arrival of Christianity, wearing symbols of this new faith began to grow in popularity. Trends of hairstyles from previous centuries continued into this new era and one can see from observing art, such as that in the illuminated manuscript the Book of Kells, the importance and symbolism behind certain styles and colors of hair (i.e. Jesus and his disciples are depicted with blonde curly hair and red beards).

The last thing to note about the trends in this era is the influences of the Norse folk who arrived in Ireland in 795 CE, and the Anglo Normans who arrived in 1066 CE, under William the Conqueror. They established such ports as Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, etc. and with them brought their culture and fashion trends. It was upon the arrival of the Norse that the famous “Celtic Knot” was first designed, integrating earlier patterns from Ireland with the Norse folks’ elaborate knotwork patterns. While the local Irish clans got along rather amicably with their Norse neighbours, this was less the case with the Anglo Normans who were quick to evict the Norse and establish stone fortresses, and with their conquest came the first signs of the forced anglicization to come. 

By the 15th century, much of Eastern Ireland had become English controlled, a region known as The Pale. It was not uncommon for one walking in The Pale to find the “Tudor” style of dress; however, further west and to the south, Irish culture and thus its clothing, continued. It was in this era that the Léine (Pronounced Leen+Yuh) became popular, and worn on top was either a Shinrone (Pronounced Shin+Rohn+Yuh) for those following the feminine trends, or an Ionar (Pronounced Eye+Oh+Nar) vest for those following the masculine trends.

This era concluded rather violently with the end of the Tyrone Rebellion, also called the Nine Years’ War, and with it, the Flight of the Earls. The Flight of the Earls saw the forced exodus of 99 Irish lords who had been removed from their ancestral lands and stripped of their titles. This “Flight” marked the beginning of the end, and with it, a sharp change in how the people dressed as Anglo culture quickly became the enforced “norm”.

August of 1649 saw the arrival of Oliver Cromwell to Ireland, and with him came conditions that are hard to believe. English culture became the standard for existence, and anything beyond that was sought out and destroyed.

This was done primarily through the establishment of a series of Penal Laws designed to, in short, outlaw being Irish in Ireland. Land was taken from people who had lived there for centuries or more, and Cromwell established the “To Hell or to Connacht” policy that in short meant that a “Gaelic Irishman” was better off in Connacht where the land was the hardest to farm, or dead altogether. As such, many were forced to conform to the Anglo standards of living, including in dress.

It was during this era that yet another rebellion broke out. A branch of the Jacobite movement saw Ireland rebel in the Williamite Wars that sadly became one of many on the list of failed attempts to regain Ireland’s independence. With this, 14,000+ men and 10,000+ women and children were removed from Ireland and pushed into exile in France in what became known as The Flight of the Wild Geese, following their leader Patrick Sarsfield “Pádraig Sáirséal” (Paw+Drig Shar+shull).

Despite many being abolished in 1791, the Penal Laws established by Cromwell and those who followed, many remained in place and continued as such for over a century. The effects on the country were devastating, and even more so to the people. By the 1840s, the system had become so corrupt that whatever traces of the Gaelic Irish culture of the past that remained had largely been pushed to the west, in Connacht.

Still, it did remain, and among the folk trends that existed there, woollen garments were among the top. Especially prevalent were various cloaks and shawls, and the most notable of these were the styles of the Claddagh (Pronounced Klaw+duh), a fishing village just outside of Galway City that existed as a bubble of time passed.

Garments such as the “Galway Shawl” became a staple of the folk garments of Ireland, as did variations across other regions of the country. Additionally, perhaps the most notable thing to have come from the Claddagh is their famous rings featuring a crowned heart held by two hands that represent love, loyalty, and friendship. While having been first created a century and a half prior, it wasn’t until the migrations caused by the Great Hunger that they spread beyond the Claddagh itself. 

It was during this era that another failed attempt at rebellion, the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, during the height of the Great Hunger, saw the establishment of the Irish Tricolor for the first time, and where the association of Ireland with the color green likely came about. The Catholic population was represented on the Tricolor by green, whereas the orange represented the Protestants, chosen because of William of Orange who was husband of the Queen of England during the days of the Cromwellian Conquests. The white between them was meant to represent peace between the two parties. 

Then came the Independence Movement, and with it, the Gaelic Cultural Awakening.

This Gaelic Cultural Awakening, born out of the foundation of the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s first national theatre, at the start of the 20th century, also meant the recognition of many folk traditions that had nearly been lost, and among them was clothing. In cities such as Dublin, one often would dress the way the English would; however, slowly traditional styles from the deeper parts of the countryside began to return to popularity, as seen in the costumes used in the Abbey Theatre productions, such as the titular role of Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the spirit of Ireland personified who wore a Kinsale Cloak, the last remaining traditional variety of cloak in Ireland, as a part of her costume.

The Gaelic Cultural Awakening has continued to the present day, and with every passing year, more of the traditions of old have been restored. Among the folk styles of clothing that have resurfaced, things such as the Ruana shawl, named as such because of connections between regions of South America and Ireland, established because of the previous centuries of mass migration out of Ireland, have become incredibly popular.

Ruanas in Ireland reflect shawls worn throughout Irish history, the one garment that has survived over every other traditional style. Typically worn wrapped over one shoulder and pinned with a brooch, these garments are made of lamb’s wool and are typically woven in Ireland by local companies, upholding long-standing traditions. Likewise, garments once used primarily for practical reasons, such as the Aran jumpers, a woolen cable knit jumper, or sweater, once worn by fishermen to aid in braving the brutal and oftentimes frigid conditions of the Wild Atlantic Way, have now made their way into mainstream fashion for those dressing both masculinely and femininely.    

As time goes on, the traditions of old have begun to heal and with them, a re-emergence of fashion trends that tell stories in and of themselves. Storytelling has long been an important part of Irish culture, a part that was nearly lost forever, and yet it lived on. The silent stories told by the garments worn in folk dress tell some of the most harrowing, heartbreaking, and yet inspiring of these stories.