by Garry Bryant/Garaidh Eóghan Ó Briain
Last Saturday on St. Patrick’s Day (17 Mar 2012) I was leaving my in-laws house to attend a family party when driving by a car pulled up and down went the window and the lady commented that she loved the kilt I was wearing, then she asked if I was Irish. I replied yes and then she asked what my surname was and I replied O’Brien. With the expression of surprise on her face she replied, “So are we!” Cool. Yet it dawned on me that she was not knowledgeable on the kilt, either Irish or Scottish.
After the party I came home and turned on the computer and a forum thread (xmarksthescot.com) I’ve been following about the Irish kilt in nationalism had a comment from one John Carrick of Ireland:1
“Attended St Patrick’s Day Parade in Sligo town in the West of Ireland today. Pipe Bands: 6, all in tartan (Sligo band wearing Isle of Skye, others hard to identify but not popular tartans). Kilts in crowd: nil.”
Interesting observation; the consensus of the Irish replying on the forum state that they never have seen while growing up in Ireland a civilian wearing a kilt. The only kilt wearing done was by military pipe bands, bagpipers, and Irish dancers. If a civilian was seen in a kilt the assumption would be either the person in question was from Scotland, or their accent would give them away as a tourist from America.
Various histories about Ireland tell of the populace wearing a long shirt to the thighs or knees and belted around the waist. This piece of clothing was called the ‘léine,’ which in Gaelic means ‘shirt.’ Many authors have mistaken the léine as the fore-runner of the kilt, which it was not. I thought the léine was an early form of kilt for many years until I did some research on the subject. The léine is clearly depicted in John Derricke’s Image of Ireland, published in 1581. One of Derricke’s popular prints is of a clan chief eating with his clansmen and shows many individuals wearing garments with heavily pleated skirts that appear to be modern kilts, but these men were actually wearing are léinte, which by this time had evolved into wrap around shirts with wide, hanging sleeves and elaborately pleated skirts, not a kilt at all but léinte, and Derricke himself explained:2
A clan chief sits at eating table with fellow clansmen, unlike the segregation of the English nobility. Notice in attendance is a bard playing a harp, a seanachai standing telling a story. Also there is a abbot/bishop in attendance. All men except chief, woman and abbot, are all wearing a léine and brat.
"Their shirts be a very strange,
Not reaching past the thigh,
With pleats on pleats they pleated are
As thick as pleats may lie.
Whose sleeves hang trailing down
Almost unto the shoe . . ."
The early kilt did not come about in Scotland until the seventeenth century. It was one long piece of woven wool about nine yards long called the ‘feilidh-mór’ (great wrap) or ‘abreacan-feile’ (tartan wrap). This garment was worn only by Highlanders and the first mention of something like a belted plaid is dated 1578, when Bishop Lesley wrote to Rome stating:3
“Their clothing was made for use (being chiefly suited for war) and not for ornament. All, both nobles and common people, wore mantles of one sort (except that the nobles preferred those of several colours) These were long and flowing but capable of being neatly gathered up at pleasure into folds.”
The truth of the matter is that only one document has yet been found that dates from before 1600 and without a doubt describes a belted plaid, the earliest form of the kilt. It is an Irish source, written in Gaelic. Lughaidh O’Clery authored the Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell. The book mentions a group of hired mercenaries from the Scottish Hebrides, employed by O’Donnell in 1594. These mercenaries were recognized among the Irish by the difference of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks to the calf of the leg with ties and fastenings. Their girdles were over the loins outside the cloaks.
Lowlanders never wore the kilt for it was a mode of dress of barbarians from their viewpoint. Even today there are some Lowland Scots who wouldn’t be caught wearing the kilt. In fact there are some modern Highlanders who feel that the kilt shouldn’t be worn by anyone who isn’t a Highlander. As for the modern kilt, or ‘feilidh -beag ‘ (small kilt), that is seen today, it has been credited to have been created about 1750 by Thomas Rawlinson, an Englishman, who was setting up iron works in the Locharbor region in Scotland.4
The revival of the kilt in Scotland can be attributed to Sir Walter Scott, who orchestrated the visit of English king George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. Scott had the king wear the outfit of a Highland chief, for the king was ‘chief of chiefs.’ This sent Scottish nobles running to weavers asking for their clan tartan. In 1822 only nineteen tartans were ascribed to specific clans. Today there are over 6,000 registered tartans.5
Throughout the nineteenth century there was a revival of Gaelic nationalism. Women wore Celtic/Gaelic inspired jewelry to show their political leanings. By the end of the century there formed two major nationalist organizations: the 'Gaelic League' and the 'Gaelic Athletic Association' (GAA). Both were concerned with Irish identity, and one of them being a ‘costume’ or national form of dress.9
Patrick Pearse (son of an Englishman) was perhaps the most famous Irish nationalist associated with the Irish kilt. Like many members of the Gaelic League and the larger Celtic Revival, Pearse sought to distance himself from all things English. Pearse joined the Gaelic League in 1905 and soon took an interest in the Irish educational system being concerned that Irish children, especially boys, were losing their “Irish” identity in an English-dominated school system. Using his life-savings and borrowed funds, Pearse formed ‘St. Enda’s School for Boys’ in 1908, which offered a bilingual education in English and Gaelic, as well a curriculum in “traditional” Irish culture.10
In his attempt to restore “Irishness” to the educational system, Pearse wished to adopt “traditional” Irish dress. After viewing a pair of trews, coat and cloak found at Killery in County Sligo, which dates to the early seventeenth century, Pearse wrote to John O’Kelly in October 1900 about his ideas on a potential Irish national dress to be worn at a Gaelic League Feis, or Irish cultural festival: “Frankly I would much rather see you arrayed in a kilt, although it may be less authentic (emphasis added) 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 sallied forth in your draws. This would be fatal to the dignity of a Feis. If you adopt a costume, let it, at all events, have some elements of picturesqueness.”11
The Gaelic League decided on the kilt and it would be adopted since it was a noble garment, and worn by the Scots for whom everyone knew was Celtic. A difference was noted that instead of tartan being used in the kilt, a plain colored kilt would be worn.12 Thus, the development of the saffron kilt, worn by many of the military regiments beginning in World War I.13 Saffron is often depicted as being burnt orange in color, like the kilts worn by the Royal Irish Rangers of the English army, but the color is truly more of a mustard color and the dye used to favorably in clothing because the saffron dye repels lice.14
1 John Carrick, posted 17 Mar 2012, on “Irish kilt & nationalism,” at xmarksthescot.com .
2 http://albanach.org/articles.html?http%3A//albanach.org/kilt.html, by Matthew Newsome, ‘The Early History of the Kilt,’ © 2000.
5 George Way of Plean and Romilly Squire, Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia. (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1998; first published 1994 Harper Collins) P. 36.
6 Way & Squire; Internet forum, “Irish kilt & nationalism,” at xmarksthescot.com, March 2012.
7 The Scottish Tartans Authority
8 Henry F. McClintock, Handbook on the Traditional Old Irish Dress. (Dundalk, Ireland: Dundalgan Ltd., 1958.) P. 123.
9 Karl S. Bottigheimer, Ireland and the Irish: a short history. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. ) Pp. 212-214.
10 Elaine Sisson, Pearse’s Patriots: St. Edna’s and the Cult of Boyhood. (Crosses Green: Cork University Press, 2004.)
11 Newsome & Wilinson.
12 Mairead Dunlevy, Dress in Ireland. (Doughcloyne, Wilton, Cork : Collins Press, 1999) P. 176.
13 Newsome & Wilinson.
14 Ennenclaw representive at genealogy fair, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, to Garry Bryant, 2009.
15 Newsome & Wilinson.
16 Gordon Teal of Teallach & Philip D. Smith, Jr., District Tartans. ( 1992) .
17 http://www.stillwaterkilts.com/; http://www.sportkilt.com/; http://www.usakilts.com/
My name is Garry Eugene Bryant, or in Irish, Garaidh Eóghan Ó Briain. My O'Bryan family emigrated from Ireland to Canada around 1830. They were devout Catholics and my 2nd great-grandfather, William, was informed by his parents that he was to become a priest like his two older bro-thers. He ran away changed his name by dropping the O' and adding a 't,' and ended up at Black Hawk, Col-orado about 1861. But this story was family tradition, no paper doc-ument to that gives the name change. To the rescue came Family Tree DNA and the O'Brien Surname Project which confirmed that I was not only of the Dál gCais Tribe with the R-L226 & FGC5659 snp marker's, but a distant cousin to Sir Conor M. E. O'Brien, Chief of the O'Brien Clan. So I'm not an English Bryant, but an Irish O'Brien! I have three children, all grown and married, and two grandchildren. I'm a retired photojournalist, am passionate about family history and heraldry.