When one thinks of kilts, Scotland immediately springs to mind. However, kilts have also been associated with Ireland, raising the question: do Irish people wear kilts? Let’s delve into the history, tradition, and contemporary use of kilts in Ireland to help unravel this cultural enigma.
Do Irish People Wear Kilts?
The short of it is yes, Irish people do wear Kilts, sometimes, but maybe not traditionally. Bit of an unclear answer? Let me explain.
While traditionally associated with Scotland, the kilt is thought to have roots in ancient Celtic culture, which spanned both Scotland and Ireland. The original version of the kilt, known as the ‘leine,’ was a long garment that reached the knees or ankles and was worn by both men and women in Ireland. Over time, the kilt evolved into the more recognizable ‘great kilt,’ a versatile garment that could be worn as a cloak, blanket, or folded into a kilt-like skirt.
As the kilt evolved, so too did its place in Irish culture. While the kilt was not unique to Ireland, it became increasingly popular during the 19th and 20th centuries, when Irish nationalists sought to promote a distinct Irish identity. In this context, the kilt was seen as a symbol of Irish heritage, drawing on its ancient Celtic roots. Irish kilts, known as ‘saffron kilts’ due to their distinct saffron color, were often worn by members of the Gaelic League and other cultural organizations.
In contemporary Ireland, kilts are worn for a variety of reasons, though they are not as ubiquitous as they are in Scotland. For formal events such as weddings and state functions, many Irish men opt to wear kilts as a nod to their cultural heritage. Additionally, the kilt is commonly worn by members of Irish pipe bands, who perform at parades and other festive occasions.
One fascinating aspect of Irish kilts is the tradition of the ‘tartan.’ While Scottish kilts are known for their clan-specific tartans, the Irish have developed their own unique tartan patterns. These patterns, known as ‘county tartans,’ are designed to represent each of the 32 counties in Ireland. The county tartans are a relatively recent invention, but they have become increasingly popular as a way for Irish people to express their regional pride and allegiance.
Some Irish people may view the kilt as a symbol of outdated traditions, while others argue that it is more closely associated with Scotland and therefore not an authentic representation of Irish culture. Nevertheless, the kilt remains a part of the Irish cultural landscape, albeit through a less tangible connection than what is felt in Scotland with the kilt.
The Irish leine, also spelled léine, was a traditional garment worn by both men and women in ancient Ireland. This versatile and comfortable piece of clothing was popular from the early medieval period up to the 16th century. In the Irish language, ‘leine’ means ‘shirt,’ but the garment was more than just a simple shirt. It was a long tunic-like garment and was made from linen or wool. It served as the foundation for other layers of clothing, such as mantles, cloaks, or gowns.
The Irish leine typically featured a round neck and full-length sleeves, which were sometimes tight-fitting or loose and flowing, depending on the fashion of the time. The length of the leine varied. It ranged from knee-length to ankle-length. It was usually dyed a natural color, like cream, white, or saffron, but could also be adorned with colorful embroidery or decorative trimmings. Saffron dye, derived from the crocus flower, was especially popular in Ireland and would later become associated with the Irish kilt.
The Irish leine was an essential part of the Gaelic wardrobe, worn by people from all walks of life. Nobles, commoners, and even slaves donned the leine as their primary garment. The quality and decoration of the leine often served as an indicator of social status, with wealthier individuals opting for finer fabrics, elaborate embroidery, and vibrant dyes.
One of the distinguishing features of the leine was its pleating. The pleats, or ‘gores,’ were added to provide extra volume and ease of movement. This was particularly important for warriors, who needed freedom of movement in battle. The pleating also added an elegant, flowing quality to the garment, making it suitable for more formal occasions.
In the context of the Irish warrior, the leine was often paired with a brat, a large rectangular cloak made from heavy wool or fur. The brat was draped over one shoulder and fastened with a brooch or pin, leaving the other arm free for wielding a weapon. This combination of the leine and brat provided both warmth and protection on the battlefield.
The Irish leine also played a role in traditional dress for women. Women’s leine were generally longer than men’s, reaching down to the ankles. Over the leine, women would wear a variety of gowns or mantles, depending on the occasion and their social status. The sleeves of the women’s leine were often wider and more voluminous than those of the men’s, with some styles featuring large, billowing sleeves that reached the ground.
As Ireland experienced significant cultural and political changes in the 16th and 17th centuries, the leine fell out of fashion. The English Tudor conquest of Ireland, followed by the Cromwellian invasion, resulted in the imposition of English customs and clothing styles. Consequently, the Irish leine was largely replaced by more contemporary English attire, and its use became limited to remote areas of Ireland where traditional Gaelic culture persisted.
Despite its decline in popularity, the leine has experienced a resurgence in recent years, thanks in part to the growing interest in Celtic heritage and historical reenactment communities. Modern interpretations of the leine can be found at Irish festivals, Celtic weddings, Celtic funerals, and other cultural events. The leine has also been embraced by the world of Irish dance, with many dancers wearing a modified version of the garment as part of their traditional costumes.
Want to learn more about Irish culture? Check out our posts on the ancient Celtic fighting stick known as an Irish Shilleagh, the world famous Celtic Cross, or learn about the 11th Century manuscript that tells the supposed origin story of Celts in Ireland.