|Clare County Library||
Home | Search Library Catalogue | Foto: Clare Photo Collection | Maps | Archaeology | Folklore | Museum | Search this Website | Copyright Notice | What's New
By Mairéad Dunleavy
The clues found in Clare for the history of Irish dress show a distinct interest in style through the centuries. Although early fabrics from the region have not survived, gold accessories such as the Glenisheen gorget, the Gorteenreagh hair rings and the Mooghaun
The Celts, or early Iron Age peoples, introduced, about the time of Christ, a dress style which had elements of the garments worn in both the warm classical and cold Nordic regions. Later the acceptance of Christianity and the influence of the Roman culture encouraged a hierarchical approach in that dress, the wealthy wearing a white or gel léine with a wool brat based on the classical style, while the physically active wore tunics with long or short breeches, a style influenced by northern Europe. Colour was provided in the dress of the Irish aristocracy by the brat: the colours most frequently mentioned being purple, crimson, green, blue, black, yellow, speckled, variegated and striped with grey and dun (brown) seemingly being used for everyday wear or by the less wealthy. There was an extra richness in the contrasting trimming on the brat and the embroidery or applied decoration on the tunic.
Bone buttons recovered in the excavation of Cahercommaun
fort suggest that by the ninth century, at least some people in Clare
were adapting to a new fashion in buttoned garments. This could be seen
as a democratic move when a greater percentage of the male population
began to wear tunics and breeches. It could also be interpreted as a Viking
influence, as about AD 900 a number of old Norse loan words were introduced
to the Irish language: the old Norse skyrta
became scuird (shirt, tunic, cloak); brok became bróg (hose, trews
and centuries later, shoes) and knappr became cnaipe (button).
These loan words suggest that the Irish adopted the dress style, worn
by men elsewhere, of sewn tunics fitted to the body, short or long breeches,
hats with printed crowns and shoes. It seems probable that the distinction
between male and female dress-styles evolved in Ireland at this time,
as women retained the long skirt.
After the invasion the influence of the Anglo-Normans on much of Gaelic Ireland was slight for many a century. Proof of this lies
Other introduced gown styles became popular and evolved independently in medieval Ireland. A developed
The sixteenth century saw the eventual
effective defeat of the Irish Chieftains and the spread of direct English
rule over much of the country. This meant that from the late sixteenth
century the country and its people began to be judged mainly by English
standards. Consequently the chieftains and heads of households abandoned
Irish-style clothing in favour of English fashions. Men were given this
lead-role as at a time when new clothes were rarely acquired it was considered
important that a familys aspirations should be projected by the
head of the household rather than by dependants. When Sir John Davies
visited Clare in 1606 he was impressed because OLooney, McNamara
and OBrien appeared in civil (non-military) English modes, but he
was shocked that their followers wore Irish fashions. He wrote,
Máire Rua OBrien was, because of her own land ownership, an exception in the relegation of the leadership role in dress to men. Her portrait of about 1640, shows her handsomely attired in Spanish and Dutch, rather than English fashions - a point which is hardly surprising considering her political stance and trade contacts. Her black broadcloth gown acts as a foil to the Flemish pillowlace collar and partlet or front inset of transparent linen or silk. Her silk ribbons glisten and the pearls and enamels of her Renaissance jewellery impress. That Máire Rua was not the only Clare person attracted to continental luxuries is suggested by a fragment of woollen cloth which was found in a bog in Boghil townland (Kilfenora parish) in 1936. The fabric is unusual in that it has, seemingly, linen warp threads and a double-faced wool weft. This unusual fabric which is soft, but also thick and warm, may have been imported from Spain in the seventeenth century. Such importations suggest a wealth in the region which allowed people the independence and ease to dress to complement their own political and mercantile opinions. This freedom was not appreciated by many in authority.
The gap in styles between the clothes of the wealthy and poor became more pronounced in the nineteenth century: the wealthy copying the modes of Dublin and London. The majority of the population, though, wore home-spun and woven woollens and linens. Women wove a strong frieze for the men and a coarse flannel which they dyed red for themselves. The everyday dress worn by women is described in a statistical survey compiled on Clare in 1808. It said that they wore red petticoats (skirts) with short jackets of the same material and colour; a kerchief on the head and a cloak. That same survey said that men usually wore Scariff hats which cost from 3/9½ (about 19p) to 5/5 (27p). The older men wore breeches of frieze while the younger generally wore thicksets (coarse fabric of linen and cotton) or sheepskin prepared at home. Some wore frieze waistcoats while those of others were of imported cotton. Their wool wigs cost from I/7½ (about 8p) to 2/8½ (about 13½p). Because of poverty many did not wear shoes everyday, but when a household could afford footwear, they gave the honour first of all to the menfolk. Prices quoted in Clare for what was described as 'badly tanned' everyday shoes in 1808 included 'single pumps' 6/- (30p) 'turned pumps for beaux', 7/- to 9/-, with two soles' 8/8 (about 43p). The style and quality of the clothing worn was related to the industry and wealth of the people. The industry required for a simple life-style may be judged by that survey of 1808 which observed that the women of Corofin and Ennistymon were scarcely ever seen 'without a stocking in her hand, which she continues to knit whilst walking a quick pace to the market; and even in the market-house, whilst selling or buying, her fingers are never idle.'
Their coarse yarn stockings, coarse linens and spun yarns as well as farm produce were used as barter or in truck for other necessaries of life - necessaries which did not then include such luxuries as tea or sugar.
People who achieved some wealth or comfort in their daily lives frequently advertised it through abandoning their strong hard-wearing home-spuns in favour of cheap, shoddy imported fabrics. Indeed as early as 1808 many Clare women wore cotton gowns in English modes on Sundays. These were purchased in local shops or from pedlars, at fairs or markets. A Poor Law report of 1836 shows that the industry of the people of Clare was rewarded in that women could then wear imported cotton gowns everyday! On the other hand this extra wealth allowed more people to wear shoes and stockings everyday with a result that there were five times as many shoemakers in Corcomroe in 1836 than there had been twenty years previously.
In subsequent years the trend was a slow abandonment of home-spuns and traditional modes in favour of mass-manufactured fabrics made-up in international styles for both men and women.