On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish

Some Thoughts on Eugene O’Curry’s On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish

There are a few problems with taking the pronouncements of noted antiquarian, Eugene O’Curry, at their word.

The first problem is the language barrier.

Even though O’Curry writes in English, it is not American English. Some of the terms he uses are not the same words that modern Americans would use to describe the same thing.

Examples. Frock?

The second problem is his inconsitency.

O’Curry’s translations are not precise or consistent. At one moment he translates the word “leinidh” as shirt and another time, kilt. He makes some justification for this in his text, but even he does not keep to his own rules. It is true that spelling is not “period”. But O’Curry often translates a word that is spelled the same way with a different meaning in two different instances. It seems that O’Curry uses whichever translation serves his purpose best.

The next problem is the period in which it was written.

O’Curry delivered these lectures in 1860. One hundred and forty years can change perceptions quite a lot. O’Curry lived in an era when “noted antiquarians’” sources were never questioned and their postulates never challenged. He also lived in a time when the Greek and Roman cultures were seen as the only “civilized” (and therefore, desirable) ones in the ancient world. Therefore, O’Curry’s attempts to make the ancient Irish emulate Rome cannot be trusted to be true.

The fourth problem is the date of his sources.

Can what O’Curry describes accurately be called “the ancient Irish”? The earliest of the sources he quotes dates to the sixth century. Granted, it is a story of more ancient times, but the clothing described may have been the clothing of the recorders of the tale, not the tale’s characters themselves. After all, if you were the transcriber, living in 6th century Ireland where newly imported silk from Byzantium was the height of luxury, would you describe the King as wearing flax? It is a similar situation as renaissance painters attiring biblical saints in the garb of their own century. To us, it would be strange to see Mary the Mother of God wearing a Halston gown. But the renaissance painters were trying to communicate the splendor of the holy people to a largely illiterate audience. Perhaps that is what the recorders of the ancient Irish tales were trying to do with their descriptions. Therefore, we can only use these tales as a source for the clothing of the people during the century in which the tale was written down, not of the century to which it refers.

© 2000, 2003 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.