How The People Dressed

An oval face, broad above and narrow below, golden hair, fair skin, white,

delicate, and well-formed hands with slender tapering fingers: these were

considered as marking the type of beauty and of high family descent; they

were the Marks of Aristocracy. To these natural advantages the people

added by the usual artificial means. Among the higher classes the

finger-nails were kept carefully cut and rounded. It was considered
/> shameful for a man of position to have rough unkempt nails.

Crimson-coloured finger-nails were greatly admired; and ladies sometimes

dyed them this colour. Deirdre, uttering a lament for the sons of Usna,

says:--"I sleep no more, and I shall not crimson my nails; no joy shall

ever again come upon my mind."

Ladies often dyed the eyebrows black with the juice of some sort of berry.

We have already seen (p. 54) that the Irish missionary monks sometimes

painted or dyed their eyelids black. An entry in Cormac's Glossary plainly

indicates that the blush of the cheeks was sometimes heightened by a

colouring matter obtained from the alder tree: and the sprigs and berries

of the elder were applied to the same purpose. Among Greek and Roman

ladies the practice was very general of painting the cheeks, eyebrows, and

other parts of the face.

Both men and women wore the hair long, and commonly flowing down on the

back and shoulders. The hair was combed daily after a bath. The heroes of

the Fena of Erin, before sitting down to their dinner after a hard day's

hunting, always took a bath and carefully combed their long hair.

Among the higher classes in very early times great care was bestowed on

the hair; its regulation constituted quite an art; and it was dressed up

in several ways. Very often the long hair of men, as well as of women, was

elaborately curled. Conall Kernach's hair, as described in the story of Da

Derga, flowed down his back, and was done up in "hooks and plaits and

swordlets." The accuracy of this and other similar descriptions is fully

borne out by the most unquestionable authority of all, namely, the figures

in the early illuminated manuscripts and on the shrines and high crosses

of later ages. In nearly all the figures of the Book of Kells, for example

(seventh or eighth century), the hair is combed and dressed with the

utmost care, so beautifully adjusted indeed that it could have been done

only by skilled professional hairdressers, and must have occupied much

time. Whether in case of men or women, it hangs down both behind and at

the sides, and is commonly divided the whole way, as well as all over the

head, into slender fillets or locks, which sometimes hang down to the eyes

in front. I do not find mentioned anywhere that the Irish dyed their hair,

as was the custom among the Greeks and Romans.

The men were as particular about the beard as about the hair. The fashion

of wearing the beard varied. Sometimes it was considered becoming to have

it long and forked, and gradually narrowed to two points below.

Sometimes--as shown in many ancient figures--it falls down in a single

mass; while in a few it is cut straight across at bottom not unlike

Assyrian beards. Nearly all have a mustache, in most cases curled up and

pointed at the ends as we often see now. In many the beard is carefully

divided into slender twisted fillets, as described above for the hair.

Kings and chiefs had barbers in their service to attend to all this.

Razors were used made of bronze as hard as steel, as we know by finding

them mentioned in Irish documents as early as the eighth century; and many

old bronze razors are now preserved in museums.

From what precedes it will be understood that combs were in general use

with men as well as with women; and many specimens of combs are now found

in the remains of ancient dwellings.

Bathing was very usual, at least among the upper classes, and baths and

the use of baths are constantly mentioned in the old tales and other

writings. In every public hostel, in every monastery, and in every

high-class house, there was a bath, with its accompaniments. Soap was used

both in bathing and washing.

Woollen and linen clothes formed the dress of the great mass of the

people. Both were produced at home; and in chapter xix. the modes of

manufacturing them will be mentioned. Silk and satin, which were of course

imported, were much worn among the higher classes. The furs of animals,

such as seals, otters, badgers, foxes, etc., were much used for capes and

jackets, and for the edgings of various garments, so that skins of all the

various kinds were valuable. They formed, too, an important item of

everyday traffic, and they were also exported.

The ancient Irish loved bright colours. In this respect they resembled

many other nations of antiquity--as well indeed as of the present day; and

they illustrated Ruskin's saying--"Whenever men are noble they love bright

colour, and bright colour is given to them in sky, sea, flowers, and

living creatures." The Irish love of colour expressed itself in all parts

of their raiment; and we know that they well understood the art of dyeing.

The several articles of dress on one person were usually coloured

differently. Even the single outer cloak was often striped, spotted, or

chequered in various colours. King Domnall, in the seventh century, on one

occasion sent a many-coloured tunic to his foster-son Prince Congal: like

Joseph's coat of many colours.

A very common article of dress was a large cloak, generally without

sleeves, varying in length, but commonly covering the whole person from

the shoulders down. The people also wore a tight-fitting coat with

sleeves, something like our present frock-coat; but it was much shorter

and without a collar, and it was kept tight by a belt round the waist. A

short cape was often worn on the shoulders, sometimes carrying a hood to

cover the head. The outer covering of the general run of the peasantry was

just one loose sleeved coat or mantle, generally of frieze, which covered

them down to the ankles; and which they wore winter and summer. Women

commonly wore a long loose cloak, with a hood, a fashion which is common

at the present day. The over-garments were fastened by brooches, pins,

buttons, girdles, strings, and loops, many of them beautifully made and


The ancient Irish wore a trousers which was so tight-fitting as to show

perfectly the shape of the limbs. When terminating below the ankles it was

held down by a slender strap passing under the foot. Like other Irish

garments it was generally striped or speckled in various colours. Leggings

of cloth or of thin soft leather were used, and were laced on by strings

tipped with white bronze, the bright metallic extremities falling down

after lacing, so as to form pendant ornaments. A kilt was often worn, in

which case the legs were left bare at the knees, with leggings below: for

the kilt is of Irish origin, and was brought--like many other fashions--by

the early colonists to Scotland, where it is still held on, while it has

been long disused in Ireland.

Both men and women wore a garment of fine texture next the skin, commonly

made of wool or linen, but sometimes of silk or satin, embroidered with

devices in gold or silver thread worked with the needle.

Girdles were commonly worn round the waist inside the outer loose mantle:

those used by high-class people were often elaborately ornamented so as to

be worth as much as from L40 to L100 of our present money. Garters were

worn, partly for use, partly for ornament: often they were made of very

expensive materials. Gloves were very common among all classes high and

low, and were often highly ornamented.

The men wore a hat of a conical shape without a leaf; but among the

peasantry, men, in their daily life, commonly went bare-headed, wearing

the hair long behind so as to hang down on the back, and clipped short in

front. Married women usually had the head covered either with a hood or

with a long web of linen wreathed round and round in several folds. The

veil was in constant use among the higher classes, and when not actually

worn was usually carried, among other small articles, in a lady's

ornamental hand-bag.

Shoes were often made of untanned hide stitched with thongs, with several

layers for a sole. But there was a more shapely shoe, made of fully tanned

leather, having serviceable sole and heel, and often ornamented with

patterns stamped in.

The Irish were excessively fond of personal ornaments, which among the

higher classes were made of expensive materials, such as gold, silver,

gems, white bronze, etc. They wore rings and bracelets of various shapes

on the fingers (including the thumb), round the wrist and forearm, and

even round the leg above the ankle. Necklaces were very common, from the

cheapest kind up to those with the studs made of gold, pearls, and other

gems, all of which materials were found native.

They had torques for the neck made of twisted gold bars; and the elaborate

and immensely expensive crescents or gorgets have been already described

(p. 96). There was a gold ornament--a kind of open ring with bosses or

buttons on the ends--called Bunne-do-at, worn on the breast: suspended

from an ornamented button. Thin circular gold plates were also worn

fastened on the breast: and as for brooches, they were of all shapes and

sizes, some plain, simple, and cheap, some of gold or other expensive

material, of elaborate workmanship.

Pictures and full descriptions of all these ornaments will be found in

either of the two Social Histories.