Irish Kilt

Clare Marsh, "Portrait of Lord Ashbourne", 1910s

In 1900, Patrick Pearse, future revolutionary, was asked his opinion on the vital question of the national costume. Having inspected the garments on display in the National Museum, he wrote,

pearse endas
Boys at Pearse's school, St Enda's, in school uniform
"They really resemble nothing so much as a modern pair of drawers ... Frankly, I should much prefer to see you arrayed in a kilt, although it may be less authentic, than in a pair of these trews. You would, if you appeared in the latter, run the risk of leading the spectators to imagine that you had forgotten to don your trousers and sallied forth in your drawers. This would be fatal to the dignity of a Feis. If you adopt a costume, let it, at all events, have some elements of picturesqueness."
pearse endas
Boys at Pearse's school, St Enda's, in school uniform

Later, when Pearse designed the uniform for his boys' school, St Enda's, he plumped inevitably for the kilt. The kilt has remained ever since the "traditional" costume of Ireland.

saffron kilt
Figures on the shrine of St Manchan (date, eleventh century) – illustration from P.W. Joyce, A Social History of Ireland, 1903

The notion of the kilt as an ancient Irish costume was first promoted by the historian Eugene O'Curry in an influential series of lectures given in the 1860s, On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish. O'Curry discovered kilts throughout the bardic literature and used the word in his translations:

"A cloak over his breast the champion bore,
And a kilt of fine soft satin"

Later, P.W. Joyce, grammarian and antiquarian, furthered the notion:

"The kilt – commonly falling to the knees – is very frequently met with on the figures of manuscripts, shrines, and crosses, so that it must have been very much worn both by ecclesiastics and laymen." – Joyce, A Social History of Ireland, 1903.
Irish dungiven costume
The Dungiven Costume, discovered in a bog in 1956 by a farmer digging peat. The clothing consists of a woolen semi-circular cloak, a jacket, tartan trews, and a leather belt and shoes. It's probable period is given as the late 16th century.

But scholars even then disputed this claim. What Joyce saw as the kilt was in fact the Irish léine, a long shirt falling to the knees, rather like a belted nightshirt. The dispute seems academic, in that the importance for national esteem was not whether the Gaels wore kilt or long shirt, but that they didn't wear trousers. And it was not wearing trousers that would separate Irish Ireland from anglicized modernity.

But even here, scholarship proved unhelpful. Many scholars regard the tunic and trews as more "authentic". Indeed the word "trousers" derives ultimately from the medieval Irish triubhas – "trews" as "worn by the Celts" (OED).

piper saffron kilt
Postcard, piper, Royal Ulster Rifles

Saffron is the "traditional" colour for the Irish kilt for males. It's the colour worn to this day by piping bands in the Irish Defence Forces and in the remaining Irish regiments of the British Army. For females it can be any colour, but green seems to be preferred.

There's a movement to denominate "tartans" for the different Irish clans. But nobody takes these seriously, not even the salesmen in the tourist shops that cater to the trade.

(Jim's calculation of "four yards" to a kilt might be thought ungenerous. A good kilt could be nine yards or more. The standard today is five.)