On the Dress of the Ancient and Modern Irish

(Extract from "Historical Essay on the Dress of the Ancient and Modern Irish" by Joseph Cooper Walker)

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 2, edited by Charles A. Read

Amongst the ornaments which formerly adorned the fair daughters of this isle, the bodkin is peculiarly deserving our notice. Whence the Irish derived this implement, I might conjecture, but cannot determine. Although I have pursued it with an eager inquiry, I have not been able to trace it beyond the foundation of the celebrated palace of Eamania. The design of this palace (according to our old chroniclers) was sketched on a bed of sand by the Empress Macha with her bodkin. If this tradition be founded in reality, bodkins must have been worn by the Irish ladies several centuries before the Christian era. But I should be contented to give them a less remote, provided I could assign them a more certain antiquity. If the word aiccde in the Brehon laws will admit of being translated a bodkin, we may infer their use in Ireland about the commencement of the Christian era: for in a code of sumptuary laws of the second century we find frequent mention of the aiccde. But I am rather inclined to consider the aiccde as a kind of broach from the circumstance of its marking the rank of the wearer by its value, as was formerly the case amongst the Highlanders, whose frequent intercourse with the Irish occasioned a striking familiarity in the customs and manners of both people.

This instrument was known in Ireland under several names, viz. coitit, dealg, meannadh. Its uses were twofold: it was equally worn in the breast and head. The custom of wearing the bodkin in the breast is alluded to in the following passage of an old Irish MS. romance, called The Interview between Fion Ma Cubhall and Cannan:--"Cannan, when he said this, was seated at the table; on his right hand sat his wife, and upon his left his beautiful daughter Findalve, so exceedingly fair, that the snow driven by the winter storm surpassed not her fairness, and her cheeks were the colour of the blood of a young calf. Her hair hung in curling ringlets, and her teeth were like pearls. A spacious veil hung from her lovely head down on her delicate body, and the veil was bound by a golden bodkin."

Such bodkins as were worn in the head were termed dealg-fuilt. Even at this day the female peasants in the interior parts of this kingdom, like the women of the same class in Spain and Turkey, collect their hair at top, and twisting it several times made it fast with a bodkin.

Besides these uses, the bodkin had another: it was sometimes made to answer the purpose of a needle. Hence its name of meannadh-fuaghala. To be so employed it must have an eye. It is in a bodkin of this kind that Pope's Ariel threatens to imprison such of his sylphs as are careless of their charge--

"Or plung'd in lakes of bitter washes lie,
Or wedg'd whole ages in a bodkin's eye."

Whether or not the Irish ladies, like those of the neighbouring nations, employed their bodkins as weapons offensive and defensive, neither tradition nor history informs us. But such of those implements as I have seen, certainly seemed as capable of making a man's quietus, as that with which Julius Caesar is said to have been killed, or that with which Simekin in the Reves Tale protected the honour of his wife.

But perhaps we should not confine our bodkin to the toilet of the fair. However, I shall let it remain there until I am properly authorized either to give it a place in the breast, or to bury its body in the hair of the ancient heroes of this isle. According to the ingenious Mr. Whitaker, bodkins constituted a part of the ornamental dress of the early British kings. This he asserts on the authority of coins. And from the works of some of the old English dramatists it appears that bodkins were worn by Englishmen during the middle ages.

Of the dresses of the turbulent reign of James II. I cannot speak with certainty; for little is certainly known. If any particular fashion prevailed at that time, it was probably of English origin. Some of the female peasantry, however, still continued attached to their old habits. Of these I will here describe one, as worn to the hour of her death by Mary Morgan, a poor woman, who was married before the battle of the Boyne, and lived to the year 1786. On her head she wore a roll of linen, not unlike that on which milkmaids carry their pails, but with this difference, that it was higher behind than before; over this she combed her hair, and covered the whole with a little round-eared cap or coif, with a border sewed on plain; over all this was thrown a kerchief, which, in her youth, was made fast on the top of her head, and let to fall carelessly behind; in her old age it was pinned under her chin. Her jacket was of brown cloth, or pressed frieze, and made to fit close to the shape by means of whalebone wrought into it before and behind; this was laced in front, but not so as to meet, and through the lacing were drawn the ends of her neckerchief. The sleeves, halfway to the elbows, were made of the same kind of cloth with the jacket; thence continued to the wrist of red chamlet striped with green ferreting; and there, being turned up, formed a little cuff embraced with three circles of green ribband. Her petticoat was invariably of either scarlet frieze or cloth, bordered with three rows of green ribband. Her apron green serge, striped longitudinally with scarlet ferreting, and bound with the same. Her hose were blue worsted; and her shoes of black leather, fastened with thongs or strings.

This fashion of habit, however, had not been always peculiar to the peasantry: it appears to have prevailed formerly in the principal Irish families. About the close of the last century there lived at Credan, near Waterford, a Mrs. Power, a lady of considerable fortune, who, as being lineally descended from some of the kings of Munster, was vulgarly called the Queen of Credan. This lady, proud of her country and descent, always spoke the Irish language, and affected the dress and manners of the ancient Irish. Her dress, in point of fashion, answered exactly to that of Mary Morgan as just described, but was made of richer materials. The border of her coif was of the finest Brussels lace; her kerchief of clear muslin; her jacket of the finest brown cloth, trimmed with narrow gold lace, and the sleeves of crimson velvet striped with the same; and her petticoat of the finest scarlet cloth, bordered with two rows of broad gold lace.

The Huguenots who followed the fortunes of William III. brought with them the fashions of their country. But I cannot find that these fashions were infectious; at least it does not appear that the Irish caught them.

The hat was now shaped in the Ramillie cock. The periwig, which had been of several years' standing in Ireland, was not yet generally worn: it was confined to the learned professions, or to those who affected gravity. "Our ignorant nation (says Farquhar, in a comedy written in this reign), our ignorant nation imagine a full wig as infallible a token of wit as the laurel."

The head-dress which, the Spectator says, "made the women of such an enormous stature, that we appeared as grasshoppers before them," now prevailed here. This information I owe to the inquisitiveness of Lucinda, in the comedy which I have just quoted.

"Lucinda. Tell us some news of your country; I have heard the strangest stories, that the people wear horns and hoofs.

"Roebuck. Yes, faith, a great many wear horns; but we have that, among other laudable fashions, from London; I think it came over with your mode of wearing high top-knots; for ever since the men and wives bear their heads exalted alike. They were both fashions that took wonderfully."

The reign of Queen Anne seems to have been an age of gay attire: the single dress of a woman of quality then was the product of an hundred climes. Swift, in a poem written in 1708, thus metamorphoses the dress of his Goody Baucis into the dress of the day.

"Instead of home-spun coifs, were seen
Good pinners edg'd with colberteen,
Her petticoat transform'd apace,
Became black satin flounc'd with lace.
Plain Goody would no longer down,
'Twas Madam in her grogram gown."

Besides the different articles of dress enumerated in those lines, the Irish lads wore short jackets with close sleeves, made of Spanish cloth, each side of which was dyed of a different colour: these jackets were fastened on the breast with ribbands. Their petticoats were swelled to a monstrous circumference by means of hoops. High stays, piked before and behind, gave an awkward stiffness to their carriage. Their shoes were of red and blue Spanish leather, laced with broad gold and silver lace at top and behind; the heels broad, and of a moderate height: some were fastened with silver clasps, others with knots or roses. Their stockings were generally of blue or scarlet worsted or silk, ornamented with clocks worked with gold or silver thread: neither thread nor cotton hose were then known. And their necks were usually adorned with black collars, tied in front with ribbands of divers colours.

I cannot find that the riding-coat, in such general use among the English ladies in this reign, and so justly reprobated by the Spectator, was now worn here: dress had not yet mingled the sexes. A lady in those days mounted her horse in the same dress in which she entered the drawing-room;--nay, she did not even forget her hoop.

"There is not (says Addison) so variable a thing in nature as a lady's head-dress." The justness of this observation deters me from attempting to describe the head-dress of the ladies of those days. I shall be content with concluding that it rose and fell with the headdress of the English ladies, which, within Addison's memory, rose and fell above thirty degrees. I must, however, observe that I cannot learn, on the strictest inquiry, that the lovely tresses of nature were then permitted, as in the present day, to wanton on the neck, where (to borrow the language of Hogarth) "the many waving and contrasted turns of naturally intermingling locks ravish the eye with the pleasure of the pursuit, especially when put in motion by a gentle breeze."

But though I waive any attempt to describe the fashion of the ladies' hair at that time, I ought not to omit to mention, that they wore hoods of divers colours, and beaver hats trimmed with broad gold and silver lace, and a buckle in front.

Wafted by the breath of fashion, the mask alighted in this island. Immediately the ladies took it up and appeared in it in the streets, public walks, and theatres. Under this disguise they could now, without fear of discovery, rally their lovers or their friends, and safely smile at the obscenity of a comedy. Patches, too, were much worn: but whether or not their position was determined, as in England, by the spirit of party, I cannot say.

I have been informed that some Irish ladies of this reign affected the dress in which the unfortunate Queen of Scots is usually depicted: so that we may presume the ruff now occasionally rose about the neck of our lovely countrywomen.

The dress of the gentlemen of this reign was more uniform than that of the ladies. Their coats and waistcoats were laced with broad gold or silver lace: the skirts of each were long, and the sleeves of the coat slashed. Instead of stocks they wore cravats, edged with Flanders or Brussels lace, which, after passing several times round the neck, wandered through the button-holes of the coat, almost the whole length of the body. Their hose, like those of the ladies, were blue or scarlet worsted or silk, worked with gold or silver clocks. Their shoes in this (and in the following reign) had broad square toes, short quarters, and high tops; and were made fast with small buckles. Their heads--even the heads of youthful beaux--were enveloped in monstrous periwigs, on which perched a small felt hat. And through the skirts of their coats, stiffened with buckram, peeped the hilt of a small sword.

Long cloaks too of Spanish cloth, each side dyed of a different colour, were now worn by the gentlemen.

With the line of the Stuarts I shall close this crude essay. For, from the accession of George I. to the present day fashion has been such a varying goddess in this country, that neither history, tradition, nor painting has been able to preserve all her mimic forms: like Proteus struggling in the arms of Telemachus on the Pharian coast, she passed from shape to shape with the rapidity of thought.