What is Traditional Irish Dress

RH301 – Shinrone Gown
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When we think of Irish Traditional Dress, we think of girls in celtic knotwork-covered dance frocks and a boys in solid coloured kilts. Or maybe we think of Men in Irish County Tartans and women wearing jumpers of green tweed. But do we ever ask ourselves what this clothing has to do with Ireland? The simple fact is that it has little if anything to do with the traditional clothing of the Irish people. In fact these outfits have more to do with fantasy and the traditional dress of Scotland than anything Irish.

The first problem comes in 1860 with the publication of Eugene O’Curry’s On The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish. Eugene O’Curry was a noted antiquarian of his time. But like others of his time, used few references to support his assertions. His work translating the ancient Irish legends is wonderful. But his translation of the word léine as “kilt” is problematic. The word léine signifes an upper-body garment such as a tunic or long shirt, not a lower body garment like a kilt. And there began the misappropriation of the kilt as Irish dress.

The second mistake in the assignment of Irish Traditional Dress comes with the publication of P.W. Joyce’s Social History of Ancient Ireland in 1903. Joyce accepted O’Curry’s translations without question, and there he made his mistake. However, these prominent authors were victims of a mistake in translation and cannot be blamed for making such an error.

The real misdirection comes in the early 20th century with the rise of Irish nationalism. Padraic Pearse was a fervent Irish Nationalist and went so far as to become a martyr for Irish Independence during the Easter Rising of 1916. On 26 October in 1900, he responded to a question put to him by James O’Kelly asking what should be the appropriate national costume for a Feis (Irish cultural festival) organised by the Gaelic League. In brief, Pearse responded:

RH303 – Kilcommon Outfit
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“…until this morning [I] could not get an opportunity of looking at the pair of trews in the Royal Irish Academy Collection in the National Museum…They really resemble nothing so much as a modern pair of drawers of the kind usually worn by men… I cannot imagine an Irish gentleman of three or four centuries ago wearing so clumsy an article or dress. Frankly, I should much prefer to see you arrayed in a kilt, although it may be less authentic, than in a pair of these trews. “You would if you appeared in the latter, run the risk of leading the spectators to imagine that you had forgotten to don your trousers and had sallied forth in your drawers. This would be fatal to the dignity of the Feis.” RH305 – Dungiven Outfit
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And with these words, this great man, this promoter of all things Irish, removed the dignity of the true Irish national dress and instead suggested that they adopt the costume of a foreign land because of the possible perception of this clothing as “clumsy” or “undignified.”

In the late 1950s, noted clothing historian Henry Foster McClintock published Handbook on the Traditional Old Irish Dress as an attempt to set the record straight. Ireland declared itself a republic in 1949 and sought a National Costume to go along with its new nationhood. But McClintock’s section on Traditional Irish Dress in his 1943 work, Old Irish and Highland Dress was largely ignored. So in 1958, he published the Handbook as a rebuttal, explaining the mistakes of O’Curry, Joyce, and Pearse and suggesting a National Costume with more solid Irish roots.

The costume McClintock suggested consisted of the four elements of Irish dress that are repeated from antiquity until the 17th century when Irish styles were largely abandoned in favour of the English way of dressing. McClintock’s costume comprised four garments: The Léine or tunic, the Mantle or Brat, the Jacket or Ionar and the Trews. Unfortunately McClintock was not heard and people continued to wear kilts as Pearse had suggested.

Wearing a kilt and calling it “Irish Traditional Dress” is at best a mistake and at worst a misrepresentation of the culture we wish to glorify. It is the National Dress of Scotland where it was worn by Highland men since the 17th century. It was never worn in Ireland before Pearse suggested it in 1900. Borrowing it because we do not like the look of our true traditional dress is like Bavarians saying, “Lederhosen are ugly. Let’s make the kilt our National Costume!” It is subornation of the well-known truth. We might as well just dress like the English!

If you are proud of your culture or your Irish ancestry, please do not perpetuate this myth. Wear the real Irish Traditional Clothing, the Léine, Mantle, Ionar and Trews. And if anyone thinks you look silly, tell them how silly they look in a garment the Irish never wore.

Buy a pattern for a real Irish traditional clothing here.

Bibliography

  1. McClintock, Henry Foster. Old Irish and Highland Dress. Dundalk: Dundalgan Press, 1943.
  2. McClintock, Henry Foster. Handbook on the Traditional Old Irish Dress. Dundalk: Dundalgan Press, 1958.
  3. O’Curry, Eugene. On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish. London: Williams and Norgate, 1873.
  4. “Padraic Pearse Writing to J. O’Kelly” quoted verbatim and in its entirety on the Irish Kilt Club website

© 2014 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.