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
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.
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
This revival that began in 1822 continued with a big boost during the reign of Queen Victoria and espoused by the gentry as to what they thought a Highlander should dress like.6
Where did the idea of an Irish kilt come from?
Most scholars of Irish dress agree that the kilt is not part of traditional Irish dress, nor does it have a pedigree in the mists of Irish ancient history. The Irish kilt has a modern origin adopted by some Irish nationalists (but certainly not all) at the end of the 19th century in an attempt to counteract the Anglicization of Ireland, which had been going on for hundreds of years.
An excellent article of depth on the subject of the Irish kilt was written and copyrighted in 2010 by Matthew Newsom and Todd Wilinson titled “Hibernean Dress, & Caledonian Custom: Brief History of Irish Kilts & Tartan.”7 Some of the data in this article is from this excellent source.
The idea of the Irish kilt is believed to have started with Eugene O’Curry, a professor of Irish History at Catholic University of Ireland, according to scholar Henry McClintock. O’Curry first proposed the idea of the ancient Irish kilt in 1860, in his Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish. McClintock also mentions “a well-known antiquarian”, Patrick Weston Joyce, strongly advocated O’Curry’s claims in his Social History of Ancient Ireland, which was published in 1903. McClintock is cited by Kass McGann, that Joyce mistranslated the word “Leine,” in reference to an ancient Irish shirt, as “kilt,” in McGann’s article “Proof against the Existence of an Irish Kilt.”
Old Irish and Highland Dress, by McClintock states his belief that it was Joyce’s book that put the idea of an Irish kilt firmly in the minds of many, as the book was “widely read and carried much weight at the time.”8 Indeed, McClintock believes that it was Joyce that inspired Irish pipe bands to adopt the saffron kilt (which was also mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses). McClintock is quick to suggest that those who took Joyce and O’Curry at their word were not to be blamed, as they had “what seemed to be ample authority” for adopting the kilt as a form of Irish dress.
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
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
The wishes of the Gaelic League and Gaelic Athletic Association of the Irish kilt being adopted as the national garment of Ireland never caught on with the Irish populace except a few of the gentry-class (early 20th century), dancers, and the military pipe bands throughout the twentieth century continue to wear it. The Irish pipes have been heard throughout Africa, Lebanon, and on United Nations Peacekeeping missions, usually played by kilted pipers.
So if Irish kilts are to be solid in color, what’s all this about tartans for the Irish?
In the 1980s or so several Irish weaving mills would take Scottish tartans and change the colors and rename it, for instance the Scottish clan tartan of Maclean of Duart was re-colored and renamed Tara.15 Then in the 1990s there arose a clamoring by the Irish Diaspora mostly of North America and Australia for their family tartan so that a kilt could be made for them to wear to show their ethnicity. Of course the native Irish are still wondering what all the hoopla is about concerning Irish kilts. To answer this niche demand was met by the House of Edgar mill in Scotland, who designed 32 Irish county tartans. A short time later, Marston Mills of England designed 32 county tartans inspired by the Irish county coat-of-arms colors. These tartans are more vibrant then the first. Probably the best design was the Irish National tartan by Edgar mill which has a base green with white, black and gold/orangish stripes. Of course Marston came out with designs to counter Edgar’s. In addition to the mill county tartans there’s also Irish family tartans, including O’Brien, which was designed by an Australian of the name John O'Brien in the 1990s. It must be remembered that none of the Irish counties or Irish families have authorized the tartans. The only Irish tartan that is recognized is that of Clan Cain/O’Carroll of Ely, who in 1983 registered their tartan with the Chief Herald of Ireland’s office.
In very early 1990s, a Cornishman traveled across America talking to newspapers and TV stations doing interviews about the Cornish people adopting the kilt. Why he asked? Because the Scots kilt is recognized around the world as being Celtic/Gaelic, and the Cornish want the world to know that we are Celts not English. He went on to state that six tartans had been designed for Cornwall with colors that have meaning to the Cornish, and even though they have no history of wearing anything close to a kilt, but the tradition has begun, and is now over twenty-five years old.
There are those in Scotland who feel that this isn’t fair that the world should be adopting the kilt for the kilt belongs to the Scots and the Scots only. As for other countries, go find something else. Personally I can understand this with the Norwegians, the Dutch, Germans, French, etc., do not these countries have their own native dress? Yes, and they have tartans designed, but not the kilt.16
In review – the Irish kilt has its origins about 1900, but the idea never caught on among the native Irish, but the Irish Diaspora wanted to indicate their ethnic heritage and pride in the mid to late 1990s by wearing the kilt as the Scots do. Mills designed Irish tartans to meet this demand and the wearing of the Irish kilt was born, whether in solid color or tartan. The Irish Diaspora has created a new tradition completely novel to the native Irish.
The best reason to don the kilt is that you like it. Nevertheless evolution of the Gael continues.
In the modern era many of the Irish clans have developed a tartan for use in the wearing of kilts at festivals, etc. The use of tartan as a heraldic or clan symbol is not of Irish origin. Only a few Irish of the Gaelic League and Gaelic Athletic Association wore kilts at the turn of the twentieth century did not catch on with the native Irish population, but the Irish Diaspora has embraced the idea in the late 1990s.
Type of material that works best for kilts is a 13 – 16 oz twisted Strome wool. But a new fabric has entered the shelf called poly-viscose (PV). This is acrylic and not wool and can be washed in the washing machine, hang dry, and has few problems with creases. The best part is the cost is usually only a quarter the cost of that of a traditional kilt, and can be made at various costs depending on what additions one wants. One kilt makers PV material has added anti pilling (small lumps of fabric caused by wear). There are several generic Irish tartans available in PV, but no O’Brien.
The O'Brien Clan does have a tartan designed by John O'Brien who lives in Australia. Concerning Irish tartans, it is one of the earliest (abt. 1995), but it is not officially recognized by the O'Brien Clan Chief. None of the Irish clans have authorized a tartan except Clan Cain/O’Carroll of Ely.
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/