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 had 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.
What were these trews, and what made them ‘more authentic’ than a kilt?
Back and front view of sixteenth-century trews found six feet deep in a bog in Killery, Co. Sligo. Image from Dunlevy. Click to enlarge.
Handsome, aren’t they? These were probably the exact trews that Pearse was thinking of – they had been discovered in 1824 in Sligo, and were in the news just before he was born as they had been donated to the museum of the Royal Irish Academy. They date from around the late sixteenth century. They were made from woven wool – checkered at the legs in design, and plain on top. The pieces of fabric that formed the lower legs were cut on the bias, and fit very closely to the leg, finishing over the heel and instep with a scalloped edging. There was a strap that went underneath the foot, to hold them in place, like modern stirrup pants. Like everything found in bogs, it’s difficult to tell what colour they originally were. Now, they are a shade of brown, striped and crossed with darker shades of brown! Opinion at the time described the trousers as probably saffron orange and black.
Image from Dunlevy.
This was the whole outfit that they pulled and cut carefully from the bog body, which was found lying next to a long wooden staff (see quote below). There was also a cone-shaped sheepskin hat, which fell apart almost immediately, and a small leather bag. Intriguingly, this bag contained (as well as a silver coin) a ball of worsted wool! Was he a travelling yarn salesman, or just on an errand for someone else? Was he an early example of one of the many professional male knitters who exclusively operated stocking-looms after their invention in 1589 (see Chapters 4 in this book and this book)?
Regardless of how interesting the Killery find was, there were a few more reasons for trews to be considered an authentic candidate for a national costume.
This is the first page of the Gospel of St. Mark in the ninth-century Book of Kells (click to enlarge). Look carefully at the top right-hand corner…
… and you will see this guy! The leg-coverings in the illumination are remarkably similar to the woven and sewn garment worn by the Killery man. The two-part construction is present, with a checkered, bias-cut representation in the lattice-work. The stirrups are visible, as are the scalloped ankles.
In the seven hundred years (!) between this drawing and the Sligo bog body, Irish trews were commented on frequently. Around 1188, Gerald of Wales described them in detail:
[The custom of the Irish people] is to wear small, close-fitting hoods; hanging below the shoulders a cubit’s length, and generally made of parti-coloured strips sewn together. Under these, they use woollen rugs instead of cloaks, with breeches and hose of one piece, or hose and breeches joined together, which are usually dyed of some colour. Likewise, in riding, they neither use saddles, nor boots, nor spurs, but only carry a rod in their hand, having a crook at the upper end, with which they both urge forward and guide their horses.
The breeches used by the Irish was a long garment, not cut at the knees, but combining in itself the sandals, the stocking, and the drawers, and drawn by one pull over the feet and thighs. It was … tight, and revealing the shape of the limbs… The breeches cover the groin, but not sufficiently, if the long skirts of the tunic were not wrapped over them. This precaution is, in my opinion, more decorous than the custom of the Swiss and Swabians, who retain, even at the present day, a very unbecoming and immodest dress, and are consequently more open to the imputation of barbarism than the Irish, who do not offend modesty in their national costume.
And so we come full circle to Pearse, who insisted that to adopt these leggings would indeed offend his sense of modesty!
That the trews were absolutely dyed-in-the-wool (pun intended!) ‘Irish’ was reiterated by attempts made throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to ban the wearing of them. Three different kings outlawed them as being too nationalistic a costume to don during that period of colonization (these laws were 5 Edw. IV., 10 Henry VII., and 28 Henry VIII).
Schoolboys from St. Enda’s in their uniform.
[This school provides] a secondary education distinctively Irish in complexion, bilingual in method, and of a high modern type generally, for Irish Catholic boys… It is suggested that parents should dress their boys in the Irish kilt, which, apart from its claims as a distinctively national form of dress, provides an economical, hygienic, and becoming costume for boys. This recommendation applies to Day Pupils equally with Boarders, as does the regulation with regard to clothes, etc., of Irish manufacture. Messrs. M. Meers & Co., Tailors, 10 Lower Pembroke Street, Dublin will supply the kilt in the School colours to pupils of St. Enda’s at special terms.