Proof against the Existence of an Irish Kilt
“The Gaelic form of this name is celt [kelt], of which “kilt” is a phonetic rendering. The word occurs so seldom, and is used so vaguely, that we might find it difficult to identify the particular article it designates, if the Scotch had not retained both the article itself and its name: for the Highland kilt is the ancient Irish celt. The kilt – commonly falling to the knees – is very frequently met with on the figures of manuscripts, shrines, and crosses, so that it must have been very much worn both by ecclesiastics and laymen. It appears in a very decided form in the eleventh-century illustration given here (fig. 120).” A SOCIAL HISTORY of ANCIENT IRELAND BY P.W. JOYCE, M.A., LL.D., T.C.D.; M.R.I.A.,1908.
And thus begins the mistaken justification for the existence of an Irish kilt. P.W. Joyce’s analysis of ancient Irish dress is deeply flawed in its identification of an Irish kilt. Joyce based this classification upon the work of Eugene O’Curry, noted antiquarian and Professor of Irish History and Archeology at the Catholic University of Ireland. O’Curry delivered a series of lectures at the University in the Spring of 1857. These lectures were printed posthumously in the now-famous books, “On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish” printed in 1873. O’Curry translated such ancient tomes as The Annals of the Four Masters, The Book of Ballymote, The Book of Lecain, The Book of Leinster, Leabhar na h-Uidhre, and the Seanchas Mor, among others. In these texts is voluminous information about our ancient ancestors in their own words.
In passages from these books, O’Curry translated the word “leine” (“leinidh,” “lene,” etc.) alternately as “shirt” and “kilt.” Through his own explanation, when the ancient manuscripts mentioned a garment of fine linen “placed upon his white skin,” he translated it “shirt.” When the tracts mentioned a border of silk or embroidery descending to the knees, he translated it as “kilt.” In the Old Irish, the spellings of both words were often the same.
O’Curry points to one passage in particular to prove that the “leine” was a kilt. This passage, on page 143 of the third volume, is from a poem in the Leabhar na h-Uidhre. It describes the monarch Conaire Mor, the epitome of the illustrious chieftain:
I saw his splendid linen kilt,
With its striped silken boarders, —
A face reflecting mirror of various hues,
The coveted of the eyes of many, —
Embracing his noble neck — enriching its beauty.
An embroidery of gold upon the lustrous silk —
From his bosom to his noble knees. (201)
O’Curry’s footnote 201 reads, “This passage clearly proves that the Leinidh was a kilt or petticoat reaching to the knees. See on this subject Lect. XXIII., ante, vol. ii. p. 106.”
Firstly, O’Curry is breaking his own definition of “Leinidh” by calling a linen garment a “kilt.” Then he seems to assume that everything that reaches to the knees is a kilt. Why couldn’t a “shirt” reach to the knees? Thirdly, the passage mentions a number of features of this “kilt” that describe portions above the waist. The “striped silken boarders” are referred to as “a face reflecting mirror.” The only way this would be possible is if those boarders were around the neck of the garment. The borders are also described as “embracing his noble neck.” Another piece of evidence that the “Leinidh” began at the neck. The last couplet clinches the proof. “An embroidery of gold upon the lustrous silk from his bosom to his noble knees.” Unless the waistband of this kilt was worn very high, the embroidery couldn’t extend “from his bosom.” What we have here is the description of a highly ornamented, knee-length tunic. This jives etymologically with the modern Irish translation of the word “leine” (the modernized spelling of “leinidh”) as “shirt.”
However, we should not jump to conclusions that O’Curry was wrong in his description of the leine. It has been suggested by researchers since O’Curry’s time that his classification of the leine as a “kilt” was not wrong, but our reading of what he meant by “kilt” is.
W. K. Sullivan, Ph.D., Secretary of the Royal Irish Academy and writer of the thousand-page introduction to O’Curry’s work, gives this perspective:
“O’Curry concluded that the Lena was a kilt. From such brief descriptions of it as are available, it appears to have been a tight-fitting garment apparently without sleeves, which covered the upper part
of the body and extended to the knees.” — pg ccclxxviii of Vol. 1
It is clear by this passage that O’Curry and Sullivan did not mean what we think of when we hear the word “kilt,” but rather a garment with skirts, i.e. a long tunic.
Henry Foster McClintock, in his 1947 work “Old Irish and Highland Dress” made this same analysis. He says, “I think it is clear that, so far as the evidence adduced goes, the word [Leinidh] cannot be properly translated as “kilt”.”
As to Joyce’s statement that “the Gaelic form of this name is celt, of which kilt is a phonetic rendering,” this cannot be substantiated. “Kilt” is an English word of Scandinavian origin (ME kilten “to tuck up” of Scand. orig. — Webster’s New College Dictionary, 1995) and not Gaelic at all. The Gaelic word for kilt is “filleadh” (FIL-ah) meaning folded and used in the Scottish “filleadh beag” (filabeg) meaning little kilt, and “filleadh mor” (filamore) meaning great kilt or belted plaid.
Regarding the reference to the eleventh-century illustration (figure 120), this is drawn after the bronze figures on the side of the Shire of St. Manchan in Offaly. George Petrie described them as being dressed in a kilt and wearing mantle fastened on the breast by a brooch. Rev. James Graves thought they wore a close fitting garment with a sleeved jacket over it. When one looks at the figures, they appear naked to the waist at first glance (their ribs are clearly showing and there are marks indicating their abdominal muscles). Yet marks indicating sleeves and necklines are also clear. McClintock takes up this view and points out that what Petrie took for brooches are merely the rivets by which the figures are attached to the shrine.
From studying photographs of the original and reading the descriptions of ancient dress, conclusions can be drawn regarding Irish dress. The garments are not “shirt and skirt” combinations of any form but rather one body-covering garment. The figures appear to be wearing leinte with elaborately embroidered lower boarders like Conaire Mor’s leine described above. In this case, the embroidery extends from the hips to the knees, not from the bosom. The lines described as “abdominal muscles” look more like folds in the fabric as it rests on the hips. Any close-fitted, drop-waisted dress will do the same. The arms appear to be wearing tight sleeves yet the marks described as “ribs” look like the bagpipe sleeves of the later (16th century) incarnations of the leine (the saffron shirt of the Irish kern). If this is true, the figures may be wearing a tight jacket as Graves described. The 16th century version of the ionar (jacket) had tight sleeves that opened along their bottom seam. This was to accommodate the large, bagpipe sleeves of the leine of that day. Is this what we are seeing here? Could this be a prototype of what was to be worn in a later century? This, of course, is purely conjecture based upon the personal opinion of this author.
T. D. Kendrick and Elizabeth Senior expressed another opinion in their 1935 article in the Illustrated London News: “[The figures in question] are thought to be crude derivations from the continental type of Crucifix figure. They were probably made at a later date in the twelfth century than the shrine… The importance of these figures in the history of Irish art is considerable, for they announce the intrusion of a foreign style in the twelfth century that is in fact the beginning of a noticeable decline.” McClintock concludes from this that the figures therefore have no bearing on Irish costume at all. These are the kinds of things in Irish costuming history that we might never definitively know.
Furthermore, Henry Foster McClintock, in his 1958 work Handbook on the Traditional Old Irish Dress in a section entitled “Mistakes Made in Past Days and Some Suggestions for Designing and Irish Uniform or National Dress” states:
The first of these mistakes, which is fullt dealt with in pages 118-123 of the writer’s book on Old Irish Dress, is the widespread belief that kilts were the national dress of men in Ireland in early times. This was first stated by Eugene O’Curry, Professor of Irish History in the Catholic University of Ireland in his Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, published in 1860, and it was fully accepted and strongly advocated by P.W. Joyce a well-known antiquarian, in his Social History of Ancient Ireland, published in 1903, and those who took up the kilt as a national dress or uniform, had, therefore, ample authority to point to and are in no way to be blamed for doign so. But the fact remains that there is no evidence that kilts were ever worn in Ireland till modern times, and the Highland Kilt, as is shown in the writer’s book on Old Highland Dress, did not come into being till about the year 1700 so could have had nothing to do with introducing it into Ireland in the sixteenth century.
It must also be stated that there is no reason for thinking that the leine in Ireland was usually, if ever, dyed a brown colour like that adopted for the kilts worn as part of the uniform of pipers in some Irish regiments today. The subject is fully dealt with on pages 69 to 72 of the 1950 edition of the writer’s book on Old Irish Dress. All the evidence goes to show that they were dyed with saffron and were of a bright yellow colour as shown in De Heere’s paintings. The same is true of the saffron shirts worn in Scotland as proved by the descriptions left by several early writers such as Bishop Lesley and Lindsay of Pittscottie, who are quoted a short way back.
© 2000, 2003 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.