Did the Irish invent the kilt?

 If you have read any of my novels (The Dawn of Ireland trilogy), you will have seen numerous references to the clothing of the time, ca. 432 AD. But no amount of words can adequately describe the real thing. What follows is a short post on what the Irish people of that day probably wore. I say “probably,” because of course after 1500 years, who’s to know? The descriptions are based on pictures in old manuscripts, on extant writings by Romans and others of the time, and on descriptions in Ireland’s earliest written legends and tales. A few articles of clothing have actually been taken from deep layers of Ireland’s famous bogland, well known as a preservative (see the gown below).

To begin “at the top,” let us consider the hair styles of the time. When Caylith first meets Liam, she is a little amused to find that he has “frizzed” his mustache and beard hairs, possibly by setting a match-sized piece of wood next to his hair and allowing it to curl. This may well have been a style of the time, along with weaving all sorts of foreign objects into the hair to make it stand out, curl, and so on. I have read that the men especially would allow their hair to mat, like gigantic dreadlocks, to form an almost impenetrable “helmet.” Hey, it must have been sexy at the time, ladies . . . .

Next, let’s consider the most common form of clothing, the léine. The word means “linen,” and it was probably a one-piece shirt such as you see on the male model here. It was most often made of dyed linen and worn by both men and women. Notice that the sleeves are quite long, and that it is gathered in the middle with a belt. By using a belt, the wearer could don a shirt that might be rather long, and simply hitch it up to the desired length.

Discussing the léine means talking about the kilt. Did the ancient Irish wear kilts, as their latter-day brethren the Scotsmen did (and do)? Battles have raged over this subject for over a hundred years. The best compromise I can reach is that, because the Gaels began to overtake the southern part of present day Scotland in the fifth century, they probably influenced the Scots with their skirt-like léines. Some say it was the other way around–that the Irish Gaels met up with the free-roaming Scoti and adapted their more casual dress style. For the sake of this post, I agree not to agree!

It is true that no matter who invented the kilt, the colors were many and the underwear nonexistent.

In ancient Ireland, and for centuries into recorded history, the people of Ireland were allowed to wear colors depending on their social status. Kings and their ollamhs, or high scholars, were allowed to wear six colors. Each descending rung of society was allowed fewer colors, until at the bottom of the social landing we have the “non-free,” or the “bonded,” who could wear only one color, usually either white or yellow, according to different historians.

Women wore an article called a gúna–yes, a gown–on top of their léines. The gúna had no sleeves, in order for the long, bright colors of the tunic sleeve to thrust through. And those sleeve colors must have been as varied and the patterns as whimsical as the dress-makers themselves–stripes, crosses, hatches and cross-hatches–surely the beginnings of the latter-day tartan designs of both modern Irish and Scottish people.

Men wore either bríste–britches–or triús, trousers. Both our modern words are, as you see, derived from the old Irish Gaelic. In my books, Liam favors tight leather britches fastened with a thong; and his warrior wife Caylith begins to wear trousers when she and her lady friends gather to practice stick fighting. In fact, they call themselves
“The Terrible Trousers,” and they prove themselves worthy warriors in both The Wakening Fire and in Captive Heart. The trousers were slender in the leg and then flared at the hips and tied with a belt or thong.

Both sexes would also have worn a brat, or mantle, made of wool, simply a four-corner large woven cloak to stave off the cold. Shoes, called bróga,  were of leather, and could be either low or–in the case of rough-riding men–worn to the thighs and laced.

Then various swords, shillelaghs, long knives and eating knives would have been thrust through the leather belts or thongs. And this completes the picture of what the well-dressed Irish Gael would probably have worn in the time of St. Patrick.

For a very close look at the clothing and culture of the days of St.Patrick–rounded out by Caylith and by sexy Liam and his clansmen–please visit the buy links below to purchase Erin O’Quinn’s entertaining trilogy.

Storm Maker on Amazon: Erin O’Quinn                                                                                                                                                    

10 thoughts on “Did the Irish invent the kilt?

  1. Janus Gangi

    Once again you have made history come to life! Being able to picture what the characters wore makes the read all the more enjoyable. Thank you for bringing back to life a part of history that not too many know about.


  2. Dear Janus, I appreciate your comments a lot! I wish more people did know about that time in history, but for some reason we are left with a lot of scholarly treatises on Patrick, but little about the bigger-than-life characters in Ireland during those turbulent days. I agree–it helps us visualize the characters much better if we can get a glimpse at what they actually may have looked like.
    Slán, Erin


    1. I rather suspect they are, too, Rosemary. But it was a good headline. Actually, there really has been quite a debate over the matter for more than a century, so I’m sure there are good arguments on each side. Thanks for your visit. :)) Erin


  3. Hoo, I’m with you on that one! I find myself irresistibly drawn to the cattle barons, especially, in their leather bríste and leggings. Celtic cowboys were the first Clint Eastwoods, I think! Thanks for your comments, slán Erin


    1. No, it’s for me to thank YOU, and readers like you, who appreciate a bit of background when they read books.The clothing figures prominently in all the Dawn of Ireland books, and if it piqued my curiosity, I’m sure others feel the same. It’s especially interesting to me whether indeed the Irish “invented” the kilt, and now only DNA experts are left to tell us . . . maybe . . . who came first, the Scots or the Irish Gaels, into the northwest of Ireland and thus who really introduced that cute litte skirt. 😀


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