Dressing the Part: Depictions of Noble Costume in Irish High Crosses

  • Maggie McEnchroe Williams
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In the tale of King Niall of the Nine Hostages, progenitor of the powerful Uí Néill dynasty, leadership is bestowed upon the young Niall by a beautiful, finely dressed lady:

Like the end of snow in trenches was every bit of her from head to sole. Plump and queenly fore-arms she had: fingers long and lengthy: calves straight and beautifully coloured. Two blunt shoes of white bronze between her little, soft-white feet and the ground. A costly full-purple mantle she wore, with a brooch of bright silver in the clothing of the mantle. Shining pearly teeth she had, an eye large and queenly, and lips red as rowanberries….

“Who art thou?” says the boy. “I am the Sovranty,” she answered.1


Ethical Leader Central Figure High Cross Male Figure Archaeological Society 
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  1. 1.
    The historical king Niall reigned from ca. 379—ca. 405, but this text probably dates to the eleventh century. The translation is Whitley Stokes’s, from the original, “Ba samalta fri deread snechta î claidib each n-alt o md co bond di Rigthi remra rignaidhe lé. Méra seta sithlebra. Colpta dirgi dathailli le. Da maelasa findruine iter a troigthib mine maethgela & lar. Brat logmarda lancorcra impi. Bretnass gelairgit l timthach in bruit. Fiacla mamda nemannda le, & rose rignaide romor, & beoil partardeirg … ‘Cia tusu?’ or in mac. ‘Misi in Flaithius,’ or si …” See Whitley Stokes, “The Death of Crimthan, Son of Fidach, and the Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Muigmedon,” Revue Celtique XXIV (1903): 172–207, at 198–201 See alsoGoogle Scholar
  2. Myles Dillon, The Cycles of the Kings (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1994), 38–40.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    As several early law tracts demonstrate, Irish kings were expected to be free of any visible deformities. See Fergus Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, vol. 3, Early Irish Law Series (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1988), 19. Moreover, in addition to the citations provided below, descriptions of Irish kings and noblemen in elaborate attire can also be found in Myles Dillon, The Cycles of the Kings, 1994; andGoogle Scholar
  4. C. Plummer, Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1910).Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    As many scholars have shown, the garments that people wear constitute a nonverbal system of communication, serving as an immediate, visible, and performative language through which one publicly proclaims membership in a particular group, sometimes adding unique touches that represent individual personality traits or choices For instance, see Malcolm Barnard, Fashion as Communication (New York: Routledge, 1996);Google Scholar
  6. Roland Barthes, “The Garment System,” in Elements of Semiology, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (NewYork: Hill and Wang, 1968), 25–28;Google Scholar
  7. Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983). On the anthropology of costume, seeGoogle Scholar
  8. Georg Simmel, “Philosophie der Mode (1905),” in Georg Simmel, Gesamtausgabe, Herausgegeben von Otthein Rammstedt (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1995), 9–37. In an interesting collection of essays on the topic of ethnic dress, Joanne Eicher and others describe the function of clothing in defining ethnic identity. SeeGoogle Scholar
  9. Joanne B. Eicher, ed., Dress and Ethnicity (Oxford: Berg Publishers Limited, 1995).Google Scholar
  10. 4.
    Malcolm Chapman, “‘Freezing the Frame’: Dress and Ethnicity in Brittany and Gaelic Scotland,” in J. Eicher, ed , Dress and Ethnicity, 1995, 7–28, at 15. See alsoGoogle Scholar
  11. M. Chapman, The Celts: the Construction of a Myth (London: Macmillan, 1992).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    On the issue of creating traditions as a means of defining a culture, see Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (London: Cambridge University Press, 1983).Google Scholar
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    The term “léine”appears quite frequently in the literary sources and the adjective gel meaning bright is often used to describe it. See C. O’Rahilly, ed. and trans., Tain Bo Cüalnge from the Book of Leinster, vol. 49, Irish Texts Society (Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1967). Léine appears to be a native word and may derive from a root meaning linen. SeeGoogle Scholar
  14. M. Dunlevy, Dress in Ireland (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1989), 15–26;Google Scholar
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    Thomas Kinsella, ed. and trans., The Tain: From the Irish Epic Tain Bo Cuailnge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), ix–xvi.Google Scholar
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    In particular, the frequent references to silk léinte (pi.) suggest an early medieval inflection because silk was probably not readily available in Ireland until the ninth or tenth century. Excavations in Dublin revealed imported compound silks, silk tabbies, and gold braids dating to the tenth century. See Patrick Wallace, “The Archaeology of Viking Dublin,” in The Comparative History of Urban Origins in Non-Roman Europe: Ireland, Wales, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Russia from the ninth to the thirteenth century, ed H. B. Clarke and Anngret Simms, British Archaeological Reports International Series (Oxford: B.A.R., 1985), 103–45 at 135.Google Scholar
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    C. O’Rahilly, ed. and trans., Tain Bo Cualngefrom the Book of Leinster, 1967, 119, 254Google Scholar
  19. 13.
    I am using Thomas Kinsella’s translation here because he includes an opening phrase in which dress is specifically listed as a criterion for distinguishing between the ranks Thomas Kinsella, ed and trans., The Tain, 1969, 226. In C. O’Rahilly s version, the distinction between costumes is certainly implied, but it is not stated explicitly. O’Rahilly translates the same passage as follows. “A handsome man in the forefront of that same band Fair yellow hair he had A bright and very curly beard on his chin. A green mantle wrapt around him. A pure silver brooch in the mantle over his breast A dark-red, soldierly tunic with insertion of red gold next to his fair skin and reaching to his knees.” C. O’Rahilly, ed and trans , Tain BÓ Cualngefrom the Book of Leins ter, 1967, 119, 254–5.Google Scholar
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    Yellow seems to have been a very popular color, which the Irish may have achieved by using a local plant called buidh mor (great yellow) rather than imported saffron See J. C. Walker, An Historical Essay on the Dress of the Ancient and Modern Irish, (Dublin:J. Christie, 1818), 262. Purple dye also seems to have been made in Ireland. See F. Henry, “A Wooden Hut on Inishkea North, Co. Mayo,” Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol 52/2 (1952): 163–178. Additional evidence for brightly-colored costumes comes from the illuminated manuscripts of the period, particularly the Book of Keils, Dublin (TCD MS 1), and also from the archaeological textiles found at Lagore crannog, which might have been dyed red. SeeGoogle Scholar
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  23. 19.
    The condition of the carvings makes it difficult to determine whether these are annular or penannular brooches. Both types are circular, but the penannular variety has a gap in the ring. See Susan Youngs, ed., The Work of Angels: Masterpieces of Celtic Metalwork, 6th–9th Centuries AD (Austin University of Texas Press, 1989), 214–215.Google Scholar
  24. 22.
    The word tríubhas or triüs appears to be derived from the Old French trebus, which is also the origin of the English word trousers. See F. Shaw, S. J., “Irish Dress in Pre-Norman Times,” 1950, 16–17. J. C.Walker used the term cota to describe a shirt that fell to the loins, probably the so-called jacket. See J. C. Walker, An Historical Essay on the Dress of the Ancient and Modern Irish, 1818, 9. Figures wearing this type of costume appear in the Book ofKells (TDC msl) on folios 200R and 130R and on the twelfth-century Aghadoe Crozier.Google Scholar
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    Before 1200, triüs were probably called broc or bern-bróc, which Kuno Meyer defines as “breeches, long hose, or trousers.” See Kuno Meyer, Contributions to Irish Lexicography (London: D. Nutt, 1906). On occurrences of the term bern-bróc, seeGoogle Scholar
  26. H. Zimmer, Zeitschrift fur vergleichende Sprachforschung, vol. XXX (Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1888). Triüs were also known among the Romans by their Gaulish name, bracae or braccae See F. Shaw, S. J., “Irish Dress in Pre-Norman Times,” 1950, 16–17.Google Scholar
  27. 25.
    The Cross of the Scriptures takes its name from an eleventh-century entry in the annals. See D. Murphy, ed., The Annals of Clonmacnois, being the Annals of Ireland from the earliest period to A.D. 1408 (Dublin: Royal Society of Antiquarles of Ireland, 1896), 1060 C.E. 178,Google Scholar
  28. J. O’Donovan, ed., Annala Rioghachta Eireann, Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, 6 vols. (Dublin: Hodges, Smith and Co., 1856) [Hereafter AFM], 1060 ce., vol. 2, 879.Google Scholar
  29. 26.
    Beginning on the west face and continuing on the east, the inscription has been reconstructed as: ORDORIGFL.IND MMA/N/ROIT-DORIGHERENNOR [Pray for Fland, son of Maelsechnaill, prayer for the king of Ireland; prayer.…] DOCOLMANDORRO/AN-CROSSAAR/RIGFL ND [… for Colman, who made this cross for King Fland]. King Flann or Fland Sinna reigned from 877 to 914 ce. While the inscription clearly designates Fland as the person to whom the cross is dedicated, Colman’s role is less certain he may have been a co-patron, designer, or perhaps even sculptor For more on Colman’s position, see Douglas Mac Lean, “The Status of the Sculptor in Old-Irish Law and the Evidence of the Crosses,” Peritia 9 (1995): 125–55. Colman has been identified as Abbot Colman Conaillech (d. ca.921), a contemporary of King Fland’s, a discovery that provides an early tenth-century date for the cross See Peter Harbison, The High Crosses of Ireland An Iconographical and Photographic Survey, 3 vols. (Bonn: R. Habelt, 1992), 48–53.Google Scholar
  30. 27.
    The lowermost scene has been alternately identified as Joseph Interpreting the Dream of Pharaoh’s Butler, Moses and the Brazen Serpent, Adam and Eve, King Fland Sinna and Abbot Colman Conaillech building a new stone church in the early tenth century, or Diarmait Mac Cerbaill and Saint Ciarân founding the monastery in the sixth century. The two standing figures in the center panel have been identified as the Chief Butler giving the Cup into Pharaoh’s Hand, Dermot and Mael-Mor, Saint Ciarân and Diarmait Mac Cerbaill founding the monastery, and King Fland and Cathal Mac Conchobair or unknown noblemen or chieftains forging an alliance For a complete description of these interpretations, see P. Harbison, The High Crosses of Ireland, 1992, 49. I have argued elsewhere that these two carvings, like many medieval images, resonate on a number of levels, incorporating references to the Bible, the lives of the saints, and contemporary politics. In fact, the figures ‘s costumes trigger a range of associations that enrich the cross’s significance by linking the monastic brethren with the Irish nobility. SeeGoogle Scholar
  31. Williams, Margaret M. “Warrior Kings and Savvy Abbots: The Sacred, The Secular, and the Depiction of Contemporary Costume on the Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnois” Avista Forum Journal 12, 1 (1999): 4–11.Google Scholar
  32. 28.
    Viking swords were larger and stronger than Irish weapons, and the Irish adopted Viking arms from an early date in order to combat the invaders more effectively. See J. Graham-Campbell and D. Kidd, The Vikings (London: British Museum, 1980), 113–4; L. andGoogle Scholar
  33. M. De Paor, Early Christian Ireland (London: Thames & Hudson, 1958), 105.Google Scholar
  34. 29.
    According to the late twelfth-century parody of the popular vision-tale genre Aislinge Meic Conglinne [The Vision of Mac Conglinne], Aniér Mac Conglinne, a famous scholar, pulled his long leine up over his belt in order to prepare for his walk from Roscommon to Cork. See Kuno Meyer, ed. and trans., Aislinge Meic Conglinne: The Vision of Mac Conglinne (London: David Nutt, 1892).The carving might also depict a shorter tunic called a leinte or leinidh, but the extreme variation in Old Irish orthography suggests that all three words are simply alternate spellings for the same garment. SeeGoogle Scholar
  35. H. F. Mc Clintock, Old Irish and Highland Dress, 1943, 121.Google Scholar
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    For a discussion of the many iconographie interpretations, see P. Harbison, The High Crosses of Ireland, 1992, 49.Google Scholar
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    John O’Meara, trans., Gerald of Wales: The History and Topography of Ireland (London: Penguin Books, 1982 (1951)), 101. On the cochal, see J. C.Walker, An historical essay on the dress of the ancient and modern Irish, 1818, 12–13. This figure might also be wearing a type of footwear called “sole-less stockings.” SeeGoogle Scholar
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    Although the satchel has been linked with the Book of Armagh, it probably originally held a larger object See M. Ryan, ed., Treasures of Ireland: Irish Art 3000 B.C. –1500 A.D. (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1983), 178–9.Google Scholar
  41. 36.
    For more on the links between the sacred and secular realms in early medieval Ireland, see my doctoral dissertation, Margaret McEnchroe Williams, “The Sign of the Cross: Irish High Crosses as Cultural Emblems” (Ph.D., Columbia University, 2000). See also Lisa M. Bitel, Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990); Catherine Herbert, “Psalms in Stone: Royalty and Spirituality on Irish High Crosses” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Delaware, 1997), 273, 287.Google Scholar
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    Roger Stalley, Irish High Crosses (Dublin: Eason & Son Ltd., 1991), 2.Google Scholar
  43. 39.
    The inscription reads: OR DO MUIREDACH LAS NDERN(A)D (I) CROS(SSA) [Prayer for Muiredach who had the cross erected.] The annals refer to two individuals named Muiredach, both of whom were abbots at Monasterboice: the first, Muireadhach mac Flaind, held his post from 837 to 846, and the second, Muireadhach mac Domhnaill, from ca 887 to 922. The latter was simultaneously abbot-elect of the powerful monastery at Armagh, as well as High Steward of the Ui Néill family. As a result of his prominent political affiliations, this second Muiredach has generally been associated with the cross’s inscription, providing a date for the monument of ca. 922–3. See P. Harbison, The High Crosses of Ireland, 1992, 364; andGoogle Scholar
  44. Helen M. Roe, Monasterboicc and its Monuments, 1981, 9.Google Scholar
  45. 40.
    For more on the cross’s iconography, see P. Harbison, The High Crosses of Ireland, 1992, 140–6Google Scholar
  46. 41.
    O Somerville, “Kite-Shaped Brooches,” Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland vol. 123 (1993). 59–101; Niamh Whitfield, “The Kite Brooch as Indicator of Social Change in Ireland from the Ninth to the Twelfth Centuries,” (Kalamazoo, MI: 33rd International Congress on Medieval Studies, 1998)Google Scholar
  47. 42.
    See P. Harbison, The High Crosses of Ireland, 1992, 143;Google Scholar
  48. A. K. Porter, The Crosses and Culture of Ireland (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1931), 42;Google Scholar
  49. E. H. L. Sexton, A Descriptive & Bibliographical List of Irish Figure Sculptures of the Early Christian Period (Portland: The Southworth-Anthoensen Press, 1946), 232Google Scholar
  50. 44.
    The English inscription explains that the Kells cross was re-erected in the seventeenth century. It reads: THIS CROSS/WAS ERECTED/(AT) THE CHAR/GE OF ROBERT/(BA)LFE OF GALL/IRSTOWNE ES (Q)/(BEI)NG SOVERAI/(GN)E OF THE CORP/ORATION OF KEL(L)/IS. ANNO DOMI/1688. See Helen Roe, The High Crosses of Kells (Kells: Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, 1959), 27–30, 35 For a discussion of the entire cross’s iconography, seeGoogle Scholar
  51. P. Harbison, The High Crosses of Ireland, 1992, 103–8.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Désirée G. Koslin and Janet E. Snyder 2002

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  • Maggie McEnchroe Williams

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