Traditional Handsewn Kilts and Accessories
Irish Kilt & Kit
The Irish Kilt - A Short History
The Irish Kilt has been a much contended topic among scholars of Highland dress and tartan for decades.
Traditionally, the ancient Irish wore the léine (pronounced LANE-AH), a linen tunic with voluminous sleeves and a hemline reaching the knees or higher. (Scottish Highlanders also wore the léine under their belted plaid - the garment that eventually became the modern kilt.) The Irish léine was dyed "saffron", a shade often described as mustard-yellow. (Whether saffron from the crocus flower was actually used or this was simply the term for the colour is another bone of contention.) The léine was eventually discarded as everyday clothing, partly due to restrictive English laws imposed upon the Irish populace and also for economic reasons. (There were reputedly several yards of linen in a léine.)
In the late 19th and early 20th Century, Irish nationalists and enthusiasts sought to create (or recreate) a unique form of national dress for Ireland. The léine was deemed unsuitable, as it could not be "updated" to the fashions of the day, and many did not think it looked particularly "manly". Instead, they turned to their Gaelic cousins, the Scottish Highlanders, for inspiration. The Irish chose to adopt a solid-coloured (or self-coloured) kilt, dyed either green or saffron. When applied to worsted wool, the 'saffron' dye produced a much deeper colour; the orange-brown shade we associate today with the saffron kilt. Solid-coloured kilts were historically worn in Scotland as well, though they never seemed to attain the popularity that tartan or tweed did.
In the first decade of the 20th Century, Patrick Pearse, revolutionary of the Easter Uprising and headmaster of St. Enda's school for boys, decided upon the saffron kilt for the school uniform. Whether he designed the kilt himself, had someone else design it, or merely based it upon what he had seen elsewhere is unknown. There is an example in existence in the former school (now the Pearse Museum) which has some peculiar differences with most kilts made then and today. Shortly thereafter, various Irish regiments of the British Army also adopted the saffron kilt for their pipers. These two occurrences are definitely coincidental, but display a curious historical paradox, given their opposing political positions. Irish dancers were also known to wear solid-coloured kilts, though this garb has largely disappeared today due to Riverdance and the modern Irish dance phenomenon.
There are also many Irish tartans, most are modern creations dating from the last few decades of the 20th Century. A few are clan or name-based, but most are district tartans. The House of Edgar has produced a line of Irish County tartans that have proven very popular for its warm and subtle shades. Marton Mills of England has also created a line of Irish County tartans. These tartans are based upon the colours of the various County Crests.
So, do the Irish wear kilts? Yes and no. While there are historical examples of Irish kilts dating back well over 100 years (certainly long enough for many people), the tradition is not as deep-rooted as it is in Scotland. Furthermore, it is readily acknowledged by most that the Irish kilt (and its various accessories) are quite obviously adapted from traditional Scottish Highland regalia. There is nothing wrong with this admission. In fact, it seems almost fitting. The Highlanders are largely descended from the Irish Scotii who migrated to Scotland from Ireland in the 4th-6th Centuries. Their respective Gaelic cultures remained closely linked for many centuries thereafter. The Highlanders are the only Gaelic (and indeed Celtic) people to have their traditional costume survive into modern times, so they were the natural choice to turn to. One could view this not as plagiarism but as strengthening the bonds of Gaelic culture once again.