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Stair / History

From the earliest times, the two predominant garments worn in Ireland, were the Léine (pronounced Layna) and the Brat (pronounced Brat/Brot). The Léine was an ankle length linen tunic nearly always of a yellowish colour, hence the term 'saffron shirt', much used by various late medieval English commentators. A most ancient of garment, the Léine is recorded in our earliest texts (8th century, but believed to have been copied from even earlier sources), down to the early 1600's. Through these many centuries, the only significant change occurred in the early 1400's when the large and long 'hanging sleeves' formed part of the garment. These distinctive sleeves lasted until the end of the Léine in the early to mid-1600's.

As a partner to the Léine, the Brat was just as old. There is some confusion over the shape of the Brat in its earliest days. It was most likely of a rectangular shape and slowly evolved into its unique semi-circular shape by the time of the Norman invasion. It was confused with another early style of mantle called a Lumman, but this died out early and does not figure in later traditional Gaelic attire. The Brat featured decorative fringing all around its border. The straight edge was the part worn over the shoulders and this area that concentrated around the head and shoulders had extra rows of fringing and usually longer. This added warmth to that part of the body. When pulled over the head during times of rain, the fringing hangs down in front and keeps the rain off the face.

While the Léine and Brat were the standard items of clothing for the Gaels, they also wore trews (Gaelic Triúbhas, pronounced as the English word). These Triúbhas were tight fitting from the foot to the mid-thigh. Above this was a seperate, looser piece of cloth, often of a different colour. The lower, tighter section was often made of a simple check or tartan.

Over time, two more garments were added to the ensemble, the Ionar and the Cóta Mór. The Ionar (pronounced inner) was a unique Irish style of jerkin made very short and with sleeves open on the underside. These open sleeves were to allow the large hanging sleeve of the Léine to fall through. The sleeves of the Ionar served no other purpose but as decoration. The lower half of the Ionar contained pleating or lappets all around. This added to the decorative appeal. The jacket body and sleeves were decorated with lines of piping or fringing, sometimes both. The most decorative ones has medieval style foliage instead with a mere hint of what is termed 'Celtic' decoration. It also appears on occasion, with a small stand-up collar. The Ionar came in a variety of colours. The Cóta Mór (pronounced coata moar) is rendered in English as Great Coat or Big Coat. The Cóta Mór reached to about the knees and also had the open sleeve design to accomodate the hanging sleeves of the Léine. It was used in winter time instead of the Ionar. The open sleeve of the Cóta Mór was a little different in that the opening was not underneath but at the back of the arm. In this way, it gave more protection to the wearer in cold or windy weather. The skirt of the coat often had gores added for the benefit of the pleated skirt of the Léine.

There can be no doubt that the Léine and the Brat have formed the core elements of Gaelic attire, for men, women and children. The Léine should always be of a yellowish colour or various shades from white, buff, oatmeal, cream and brownish yellows. Although many of these colours/shades can be attractive, the aim was to achieve, if possible, a pure bright yellow. The Brat on the other hand could be any colour including stripes, checks and tartan. The sewn on fringing of the Brat was more often than not of a different colour or multicoloured.

For hundreds of years the English sought to rid Ireland of these 'barbarous fashions' by bringing in many laws againgst them. The English hatred of all things Irish finally won when the Léine was slowly sqeezed of its life in the early 1600's and replaced by English attire.

It should be clearly noted herein, and fully understood, that while the Irish have always worn tartan, they never wore kilts. Any checks or tartans used in Ireland adorned the Brat and the Trews only. Occasionally, simple checks were used as minor decoration on the Ionar. Kilts are purely Scottish and even then, of a late introduction. Kilts, as they are known today were first recorded in Scotland in the early 1700's. They derive from the earlier Belted Plaid, itself a simple adaptation of the ancient Brat.


The Highlanders are known the world over for their tartan kilts, but these garments did not exist before the 1700's. Before that they wore the Belted Plaid, or Great Kilt for no more than 100 years. Prior to about the year 1600, the Scottish Highlanders wore the same garments as their Gaelic brothers and sisters in Ireland.

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