The traditional clothing of the Irish and Scots remained unchanged throughout the medieval period and into the early-modern period of the early 17th century.
The main item of clothing for both Irish men and women was the Léine (pronounced Laynuh) which translates into English as a shirt. The men wore it as the outer garment while the women used it more as an undergarment, covering it with a dress with opened sleeves. The traditional colour associated with the Léine was always a sort of soft yet bright yellow. It has been usually referred to as a saffron colour, however true saffron would have been a rare commodity in medieval Ireland.
In the 15th and 16th century, the English administration in Ireland attempted to outlaw the use of yellow colouring in Irish clothing. This distinctive colour was viewed as a cultural symbol and a potential threat to the administration which viewed Irish customs and clothing with suspicion. In 1536 and 1537, King Henry VIII’s government in Irelandd tried to ban the use of the yellow (saffron) colour, passing laws which stated, “saffron should not be used in any shirt (Léine), smock, kercher (head covering), bendel, neckerchief, mocket (childs bib?) or linen cap”.
This attempt at banning traditional clothing failed and by 1577 enough saffron or yellow coloured dye was sold in Galway to warrant a tax on it which was used to pay for paving the streets in the town. In 1578 the Lord Chancellor of Ireland Sir William Gerrard complained that even the English in Dublin were using Irish styles.
The English Antiquarian William Camden writing in the year 1589 described the typical dress of the Irish as he saw it… “they wear large linen tunics with wide sleeves hanging down to their knees which they generally dyed with saffron; short woollen jerkins, simple close-fitting trews and a mantle or shaggy rug fringed and elegantly variegated”.
Here are descriptions of the main items of Irish traditional clothing up to the early 17th century, when new imported fashions began to take over.
The principal item of clothing, for men, was the Léine (pronounced Layna). It was basically a long loose garment, reaching just about to the ground and always made of linen. The wearer would then put a belt around their waist, usually made of woven wool, but sometimes of leather or horsehair. The word for a belt in Irish, then and now, is crios (pronounced Kriss). The Léine was then pulled up through the belt and the extra ‘bag’ of material was allowed to simply hang over the waist area, therefore hiding the belt apart from a piece that was allowed to hang down at one side. The Léine was nearly always dyed a yellow colour, often called saffron. The Léine also had a very unusual feature… long hanging baggy sleeves which sometimes would nearly touch the ground. The long hanging sleeves feature was brought in sometime in the 1400’s until the demise of the garment in the early 1600’s. From the waist down, the Léine had a superficial resemblance to a kilt. This was the everyday clothing of the vast majority of the native Irish populace.
The Brat (Mantle) was a large outer covering made of thick wool with often very elaborate fringing. The fringing was thicker, longer and in layers around the neck and head area. The purpose of this was to protect the wearer from the worst of the weather. The fringing was often of more than one colour. The shape was ‘semi-circular, but sometimes rectangular ones were made. The Brat was a very warm piece of clothing. It was so respected that ‘Irishe Mantels’ or ‘Mantelles de Hiberniae’ were exported from south east Ireland to England, Wales, Scotland and all over Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries. On the Continent, Irish half-mantles were most sought after. They reached only to the waist and no doubt were more suitable for warmer climates. Irish mantles could be Tufted (an outer effect like sheeps curly wool), Blanket (a plain thick sort), Lined (often with fur), Light (for summer usage and among the poor) and Leather.
The Seaicéad (pronounced Shakaid) was a short jacket barely reaching the waist (see image above). It had open sleeves so that the large hanging baggy sleeves of the Léine could hang down. These open sleeves could be tied up but some were simply tied at the wrist with thongs. The jackets were most often made of wool but leather ones were common also. These jackets were often elaborately designed as can be seen in the various depictions of them.
The Triús (pronounced Trooss) or trousers were usually worn instead of the Léine, coupled with the Brat and Seaicéad and a basic linen shirt next to the skin, but sometimes they were worn underneath the Léine (most likely in winter). The triús of the Gael were tight fitting from the foot up until the middle of the thigh. Then, totally different material, often of checked or tartan was added.
This was one of the most used items of clothing. The words Cóta mór translates as ‘great coat’ or ‘big coat’. It was worn over the Léine. It, like the shorter jackets, had open sleeves to allow the long hanging sleeves of the Léine to show through. It covered the body down to the knees. A few of these have been recovered from bogs and are always made of wool, but some may have been made of leather. The Cóta Mór outlived the Léine by a few decades and altered in appearance by getting rid of the opened sleeve as it was no longer required.
The word Bróg (singular) is the origin of the word brogue, although the ancient shoe looked nothing like a modern brogue. Bróga were nearly always made of one piece of leather, the front and sides ‘curled up’ with small whole added for a lace or thong to pass through. These shoes were easy to make and comfortable but not very durable. Sometimes a thicker harder sole was added. The modern Irish dancing pump is a derivative of it. Cuarán or sandles were also worn sometimes.
The women of Ireland also wore the Léine, but it was used as an undergarment. The only difference being that they wore the Léine at full length (as did the monks of Ireland). There is no indication that the women had any differing designs. On top of the Léine they wore a traditional dress or gown.
On top of the Léine the women wore a large heavily pleated dress or gown. The Irish word Gúna equates with the word Gown. It had the open sleeve design to let the sleeves of the Léine hang down. The most common colour for the dress was red or green.
The women also wore the Brat. There is no evidence to suggest that it was any different to the men’s version, but it may have been a little smaller and lighter. We have old records relating to the trade of Mantles when lighter smaller ones are mentioned. The much later (nineteenth and early twentieth century) women’s shawl could be considered a ‘relation’ of the ancient female Brat or mantle.
The women of Ireland wore a sparán or purse (the Scottish sporran is from this Gaelic word). It was attached to a linen, wool or leather belt and hung down in front of her dress often to below the knees. The purse itself was made of a circular piece of wool cloth or leather, small holes put all around the edge and then gathered together with a thong. A very simply but attractive design. There is little evidence to suggest that the ancient Irish or Scots wore a sparán/purse, but if so, it was worn on the hip and not in front.
The Clan McGrath Society wish to acknowledge the contribution made by Proinsias Mag Fhionnghaile, Chieftain of the McGinley Clan and the curator of Ballyshannon Museum. Proinsias is an authority on traditional Irish dress of the Gaelic period and was a presenter at our Clan McGrath ‘Online’ International Gathering which took place in July 2020. Proinsias hand makes items of traditional Irish Clothing which are available through his website www.gaelicattire.com
You can view Proinsias’ excellent presentation on traditional Irish clothing here: