Clothing of any era does not exist in a vacuum. It is constantly
influenced by the forces around it. There are two major influences
on clothing throughout the ages: fashion and functionality.
Today, as in the past, these two influences may be in opposition
to one another, but they rarely cancel each other out. The
fact remains that even the most impractical examples of haute
couture today still provide the basic function of covering
the body, though granted, not much of it.
Irish costume research is not as easy
a task as Italian or English, for example, because of the
rarity of illustrations. The Irish are traditionally an
oral culture. While their musical and narrative legacy is
rich, the society provides us with little concrete evidence.
Writing was not used until the introduction of Christianity.
The art of painting was never pursued in any real fashion.
Even in the writings we do possess, the Irish do not give
the kind of detail we have come to expect from Roman writers
for example. This can be explained by the fact that Irish
writers were writing for themselves who understood the cut
of the clothing and detail was not necessary. The Romans,
by contrast, were describing foreign styles from the provinces
to an audience at home.
Luckily we have more than one place
to look for information on Irish clothing. The Highlands
of Scotland had connections with Irish from very early times,
some inhabiting parts of Argyll. Dalriada was the name of
the people who came from Ireland and whom the Romans called
the Scots. The earliest knowledge we have of them comes
from when they were still in Ireland. At that time there
were four septs or main families of the Erainn stock. A
famine occurred and made it necessary for some of the septs
to emigrate. A portion of Dal Riata remained in Ireland
while Cairpre Riata led the rest of his people across the
water to the land of the Picts. Cairpre Riatalanded with
his people in Scotland yet the Kingship of Dal Riata stayed
in Ireland. This remained the case until Fergus mor Mac
Erc, King of Dal Riata, arrived with more of his people
bringing his Kingship with him and in doing so shifting
the emphasis of Dal Riata from Ireland to Scotland. Eventually
the Irish Dal Riata became a separate entity, although the
two were still allied. When considering modern history,
it does not seem that the Scottish and Irish would be related
at all. Yet only a glance at their language, customs or
traditional clothing would tell different. Scots and Irish
Gaelic, though technically two different languages, are
mutually intelligible. Though of two different Christian
practises, the Irish and Highland Scots hold many of the
same folk traditions. And though the Irish never developed
the kilt, the use of brightly coloured woollen mantles and
saffron shirts was identical in Ireland and the Highlands.
There is much debate about what the
léine was and was not. Léine is simply the
Irish word for "shirt." The ancient Irish used
it for what they wore. The modern Irish use it to mean everything
from dress shirt to T-shirt. Therefore, the garment thus
labelled is not unique.
In clothing research, the name has
come to be synonymous with the 16th century “saffron
shirt" of the Irish and Highland Scots. It is in this
context that we call the garment the "Man's Léine."
The first evidence we have for the
16th century léine is from a print in the Ashmolean
Museum, Oxford, England. The picture is labelled "Irish
Chieftains." No other copy exists and nothing is known
about its origin. From other evidence it appears to have
been drawn in the reign of Henry VIII. Some have conjectured
that it depicts some of Henry's Irish recruits for his war
with France in 1544. The details of this print are carefully
drawn. A note on the border of the drawing claims that it
was drawn from life as opposed to from memory (it is labelled:
"after the quick" meaning "from life").
The men depicted in this print are
all wearing long tunics with wide hanging sleeves and short,
elaborately decorated jackets. Some wear mantles. All carry
swords. All are similarly barelegged and bare-footed. They
are Irish kern(catharnach) or non-professional infantry
soldiers of the Tudor period. From the consistency of their
dress, we can assume these garments were commonly worn in
battle. The same full tunic with hanging sleeves and short
jacket is shown in prints dated 1547 and 1575 by Lucas De
Heere. Again it is worn with a short leatherjacket by an
Irish kern. In one print, a piper also wears this garment,
though his has red embroidery around the sleeves. Pipers,
however, were normal participants in Irish armies and therefore
this depiction of a musician wearing military dress is not
Though poorly drawn, John Derricke's
Images of Ireland shows the same outfit. This time, the
subject is a courier delivering a message to an English
lord. "Runners" were also members of Irish armies
and would be dressed similarly to soldiers.
An engraving in the first edition of
Holinshed's Chronicle (published 1577) shows léine-clad
Scots bow-hunting deer in the mountains. They wear the same
elaborately decorated, short, leather jacket over long,
full tunics. The tunics are obviously bloused over a belt.
The sleeves dangle to the knees or calves, but do not come
any lower on the arm than the elbow joint. This representation
of hunters clearly demonstrates the reason for the sleeve
construction. The sleeves do not appear to hinder the bowman
in any way. Neither to they appear to encumber the kern
in the earlier prints. This was the Irish/Scottish way of
making a fashion statement (and a statement of wealth as
well) while not sacrificing functionality.
Where did such a strange looking garment come from? We know
that nothing develops in a vacuum. And even in remote Ireland,
fashions were influenced by the clothing of other peoples.
Wide and flowing floor-length garments, extravagant sleeves,
pleating to excess — these are all typical of
the houppelandes of the previous century. From stone effigies
in Ireland, we know that at least the Anglo-Irish ladies
of the 15th century wore the houppelande. Léinte
in the 16th century we reputedly made with 25-35 yards of
linen. The Irish simply modified the continental style to
suit their own tastes. The Irish were often criticized for
dressing above their station. Henry's 1537Act for the Common
Order sought to reduce the volume of fabric used in the
léinte to a mere 7 yards to discourage such impropriety.
Yet the poor Irish routinely sacrificed their livelihoods
to wear the best clothes, the fairest cuts, and the most
The houppelande was court dress, not a military garment.
How did it come to be worn by Irish kern? Quite simply,
it became utilitarian. 25-35 yards of linen "pleates
on pleats thei pleated are as thicke as pleats maie lye"
(John Derricke, Images of Ireland, 1577) makes for excellent
protection against almost anything, even sword blows. For
a self-funded kern fighting without armour, the léine
was literally the only thing between him and death.
On tomb effigies of the 14th century,
we see thickly pleated gambesons called cotún. They
were made of linen and stuffed with scraps for padding.
This gambeson protected the noble warrior from the "bites"
of his own coat of mail. It also protected the less wealthy
soldier from sword blows.
Conjecture has been made that the Scots
and Irish léine croich and the gambesons depicted
in tomb effigies are the same garment. Although they are
related garments serving the same function, they are not
one and the same.
For proof, we must look at the contemporary
writings regarding the saffron shirt. In all these accounts,
the word used to describe the léine is "shirt"(shift,
camisa, chemise, etc.). Yet three writers mention something
else. John Major in his 1521 History of Britain speaks of
both a "shirt" (camisa) and a "manifoldly
sewed linen garment" (panno lineo) worn in battle:
"A medio crure ad pedem
caligas non habent, chlamyde pro veste superiore et camisa
croco tincta, amiciuntur...Tempore belli loricam ex loris
ferreis per totum corpus induunt ei in illa pugnant. In
panno lineo multipliciter iintersuto et coerato aut picato
cum cervinae pellis coopertura vulgus sylvestrium Scotorum
corpus tectum habens in praelium prosilit." "From
the middle of the thigh to the foot they have no covering
for the leg, clothing themselves with a mantle instead of
an upper garment and a shirt dyed with saffron...In time
of war they cover their whole body with a shirt of mail
of iron rings, and fight in that. The common people of the
wild Scots rush into battle having their body clothed with
a linen garment manifoldly sewed and painted or daubed with
pitch, with a covering of deerskin."
The History of the Gordons mentions
"...cloathed in a yellow warr coat (which amongst them
is the badge of the Chieftains or heads of Clans)..."And
Robert Gordon of Straloch writes of their war and peace
apparel as if speaking of two separate garments:
"As for their Apparel;
next the Skin, they wear a short linnen Shirt, which the
great men among them sometimes dye of saffron colour. They
use it short, that it may not encumber them, when running
or travelling. Major says the common people among them went
out to Battle, having their Body covered with Linnen of
many folds sewed together and done over with Wax or Pitch,
with a covering of Hart's skin; but that the English and
common Lowland Scots fought in Clokes."
These passages indicate that the léine
or saffron shirt and the cotún orgambeson were two
For further substantiation, we will
move to the physical evidence. On Irish and Highland tomb
effigies we see depictions of quilted gambesons with tight
sleeves sometimes worn under a mail halberk. The identical
garment can be seen on the Burke tomb effigy at Glinsk in
County Galway, the O'Cahan tomb at Dungiven in County Derry
and in all the Highland tomb effigies. However, in none
of these effigies are the characteristically long sleeves
of the léine portrayed. All the carvings have distinctly
tight sleeves and none show anything resembling a short
In the illustrations of the léine,
as we have already discussed, the garments always have long
sleeves and flowing skirts and are worn with short jackets,
ionar. Contemporary writings indicate that the jackets were
thrown off in battle. Yet the léine is never shown
We must conclude that the léine
croich was a voluminous shirt worn in battle by Irish kern
and Scottish Highland soldiers. These garments were made
of as much linen as the wearer could afford. He would wear
it as heavily pleated as possible to provide him better
protection. Those who could afford shirts of mail wore them
over a kind of padded jacket. In those cases sleeves were
fitted so that they could fit through the mail shirtsleeves.
This was a different garment altogether, known as a cotún.