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Costume in County Clare

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

Possible manner of wearing objects from the Gorteenreagh Hoard, c. 17th Century B.C.
Possible manner of wearing objects from the Gorteenreagh Hoard, c. 17th Century B.C.
hoard suggest that a sophisticated interest in personal attire had evolved by about 700 B.C. At that time men and women wore hand-sewn, dyed wool kirtles or skirts which they tied with a belt of wool or horsehair. Their mantles and headcoverings were of wool or leather.

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.

Details from the Cross of Muiredach, Monasterboice
Details from the Cross of Muiredach,
Monasterboice

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.

The reputed inauguration ceremony of the Cenél Conaill.
The reputed inauguration ceremony of the Cenél Conaill.

After the invasion the influence of the Anglo-Normans on much of Gaelic Ireland was slight for many a century. Proof of this lies
Effigy of a nobleman in the Cathedral at Kilfenora, Co. Clare, early 25th C.
Effigy of a nobleman in the
Cathedral at Kilfenora,
Co. Clare, early 25th C.

in the fact that garments worn in Clare were often adaptations and developments of those in vogue in Europe as much as, if not more than, those worn in London or Dublin. A striking example of this may be seen in the fifteenth century effigy of a gentleman in Kilfenora. He is depicted in the then fashionable pudding-bowl hairstyle and a houppelande or heavy woollen outer garment with high standing collar, bodice tailored to the chest and a skirt with deep tubular folds held in place by a belt. These houppelandes were usually quite colourful: violet, russet, blue, red and black being listed in some Irish documents. They often had long skirts and funnel sleeves which were so wide that the cuffs trailed on the ground. The Kilfenora gentleman, though, is depicted in a known variation with a short skirt and his houppelande would seem to have unusually tight sleeves.

Other introduced gown styles became popular and evolved independently in medieval Ireland. A developed
Wool gown from Moy, Co. Clare.
Wool gown from Moy, Co. Clare.
form of one such was found in 1931 while digging turf in Moy townland (Kilfiddan parish). Dated to the late fifteenth-sixteenth century it is a round-necked gown of wool, the face of the fabric being felted to make it waterproof. It shows that at that time tailors measured the person by wrapping the fabric around the body and then around each arm. Buttons, made of woollen knots covered with fabric, were used to close the front of the gown and used instead of a seam on the arms. That these early tailors were experts is shown in that they avoided the weakness of a shoulder seam through complicated cutting and they increased the skirt size with attractive gussets. This style of gown was worn by both men and women. They would also have worn an Irish mantle over the gown.

Irish people as depicted by John Speed about 1612-18.
Irish people as depicted
by John Speed
about 1612-18.
Mantles were of wool which was treated so as to make it weatherproof. Frequently the nap on one face was drawn and curled - giving a sheepskin wool effect - and extra bulk was added at the neck by sewing on layers of fringes. These mantles, which ranged in colour from sober greys and browns to Galway blues and purples, were so popular that they were exported particularly in the fifteenth century. In Ireland they were worn by adults and children, as a mantle in daytime and as bedcovering at night.

Townswomen, about 1575
Townswomen, about 1575
but based by Lucas de Heere on
an early sixteenth-century illustration.

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 family’s 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 O’Looney, McNamara and O’Brien appeared in civil (non-military) English modes, but he was shocked that their followers wore Irish fashions. He wrote,
‘when I beheld the appearance and fashion of the people of Clare I would have been in Ulster again, for these are as mere Irish as they, and in their outward form not much unlike them - they are not so reformed as the people of Munster.’

Máire Rua O'Brien of Lemenagh, Co. Clare, about 1640
Máire Rua O'Brien of Lemenagh,
Co. Clare, about 1640

Máire Rua O’Brien 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.

Further Reading
Mairead Dunlevy, Dress in Ireland (London, 1989).

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