Tartan Kilts: No Irish Need Apply

This year, for the first time, I attended the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City. Both of my paternal grandparents were born in Ireland, and my mother’s people came here in the 1850s, most likely “Famine Irish,” a two-word description so graphically horrific, it needs no further embellishments.

I grew up in a city neighborhood that tilted toward Irishness, and attended a parish school that tipped even further in that direction. Yesterday, standing behind the barricades along Fifth Avenue, I watched in a kind of dismay as one after another, kilted pipe and drum bands passed by my review. Almost all of them led by solemn fat guys, fully outfitted as regimental pipe majors, and all of them staring off into the middle distance in dramatic seriousness.

I am seventy years old and until about twenty years ago, I had never heard an Irish pipe band, nor had I ever seen anyone I recognized as Irish arrayed in Scots Highland drag, no matter how green the tartan. I am aware that there is a generalized Celtic link among the Scots, the Irish, The Bretons, the Basques and maybe even the Inuit. But it is a frail reed upon which a second or third-generation, or even a further removed Mick, can tart him or herself up in plaids, spats, sporrans, bearskins toppers and daggers in their sock-tops. And then, there’s the marching around skirlling and screeching on a Scottish three-octave bagpipe. The original Irish warpipes were two-octave howlers, but the truly traditional and musical Uilleann pipes of Ireland are much smaller, elbow-pumped, played seated and not blown into. And further, how come so many of these noisome Gaelic marching societies are made up of public sector participants; cops, firemen, postal workers and even the U.S. Coast Guard?

Let’s get back to the beginnings. Yes the highland Scots, a minority themselves among Scots, did wear kilts, and less generally so did an even smaller minority of the Irish. And while the highlanders did wear plaids, there is no evidence of any significance to the patterns of those original plaids. Following the miscalculations of Highland Clans in coming out for the Stuart Pretender, and their subsequent massacre at the hands of the Duke of Cumberland’s redcoats at Culloden in 1745, the clans were dispersed, their chiefs hung and that was that. Highland dress and the playing of bagpipes were proscribed by law for another thirty-two years.

A century or more after Culloden, in the high Victorian Romanticism, a cult of Scottishness arose, with the Queen herself utterly enamored of the whole business, and possibly with her attendant Balmoral ghillie, Mr. Brown. An enterprising Lowland weaver, William Wilson, saw a good thing and began producing tartans, assigning a number to each pattern of plaid. Somehow the numbered plaids began being associated with the names of the Highland clans, despite it being decades after the clan system had been broken and anglicized. While all this was going on, while prosperous Angles and Scots were dressing up in what they thought a proper Highland chieftain might have worn to a sword fight, the Irish, dispossessed in their own land and struggling to stay alive, were lucky to have breeches covering their bare behinds, much less distinctive family tartans. When the irish, as with the 1900 establishment of the Irish Guards, did take up marching in kilts, the color of choice was usually a plain saffron.

In the movie “Trainspotting,” the drug-addled Edinburgh lads lament the fate of their nation in the hands of such wankers as the English. But wait a minute, one of them wonders, what kind of wankers must we be if the English still have the better of us? The Irish have had to deal with the same question in much starker terms than the Scots.

The search for authenticity is a chimera, an infinite regress. Balancing the burdens of history against one’s life in the present can prove tricky. In 1913, even a Michael Collins nearly tore asunder the London Gaelic Athletic Association by refusing to play such British “garrison” games as soccer and rugby. The search for ethnic or national identity particularly among those momentarily or occasionally unlucky national groups or races – Black Americans, Poles, Palestinians, Armenians, Native Americans, Jews and so many more, including of course, the Irish – can often deteriorate into compensations that are as trivial as Eubonics, as sad as the mannerisms of the stranded Anglo-Indians, as comedic as Jewish humor, or worse yet, as catastrophic as German National Socialism. Somewhere on that spectrum of cultural malapropisms is the spectacle of the Irish, particularly twenty-first century Irish-Americans, unthinkingly appropriating to themselves, the second-hand, made-up traditions of their fellow historical losers, the Highland Scots.

In a real sense however, the Irish no longer need the compensations, genuine or dreamed-up, of an unlucky people. With the exception of conditions in the now relatively quiet northeast corner of the island, the prosperous people of Ireland have become the EU’s Celtic economic Tiger. No longer is emigration the most promising option for the Irish. And among the Diaspora, the successes of the Irish-Americans, the Irish-Australians and of the Irish wherever in the world they landed have become the stuff of legend. With all that said, if the Irish, or some of them, or even too many of them, choose to costume themselves as green ghilles and march up Fifth Avenue making hideous noises, then history I would say, owes them that much. All that said, don’t look for me in a kilt.

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15 Responses to “Tartan Kilts: No Irish Need Apply”


  1. 1 doug March 31, 2008 at 3:05 am

    I wore a kilt to a friends wedding. And yes he (as i am half) is Irish. His whole party had them on. It was a green plaid Kilt. And I loved wearing it. I wish I could own the whole outfit, it’s really fun to wear.

    I had no idea about the history tho, I figured it was all interconnected in that region.

    I’ll have to scan the pic and put it up for you to see.

  2. 2 doug March 31, 2008 at 3:05 am

    oh an the time stamp is off on my posts, its not 3 am. Its only 11pm.

  3. 3 petebyrne March 31, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    I’d love to see that pic. And the question: what did you wear under it?

  4. 5 Dave Gallagher April 5, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Pete, some but not all that you have written is true. The kilt was made the national dress of Ireland. The saffron kilt is the national kilt. It was not the establishment of the Irish Guards in 1900 that started the Irish in kilts thing. The pipers of the Inniskilling Fusiliers were wearing them in 1880 even before the pipers had official regimental status. Before the Easter Rising when Pearse was Headmaster of St.Enda’s school he made the saffron kilt the school uniform. With the founding of the Gaelic League in the late 1800’s they began promoting not only gaelic sports,language and arts, but also a return to the bagpipe. They understood that the pipes had fallen almost totally out of use due to oppression by the English. The founders felt that if Irish culture had not been so suppressed that they would have continued to develop along the same gaelic lines as the Scots.
    When The British established the numerous Irish regimemnts in the early 1900’s it was decided to have the pipers wear saffron kilts to give them an Irish look that would be different than the Scottish regiments. This included introducing the two droned version of the bagpipe. This was intended to revive the idea of the more ancient Irish Warpipe. However this two droned version made by the Starck family in London was not really a new version. It was actually a return to the same sets that had been played by both the Scots and the Irish before the third drone was added.
    You can visit my two websites:
    http://www.stlouisirishpiper.com
    or my Warpipe site: http://st.louis.irish.tripod.com/irishwarpipe/

    Best Regards,
    Dave

  5. 6 petebyrne April 6, 2008 at 10:30 am

    Hi Dave:

    I knew when I posted the piece, I would get called on it, and I happily and gratefully defer to your amply evident expertise. I did do some rudimentary reasearch, but in truth, my knowledge of the authenitc Irish cultural traditions is at best superficial. One or two of the bands on Fifth Avenue on 3/17 did wear the saffron, but most of them were in green tartans, and I think that was what set me off.

    Another spark that led me to write the piece was that decades ago, working on a college paper on The Ulster Crisis of 1914, I came across several condescending, and in one case sneering, references in the memoirs of some Tory/Unionist grandees about the establishment of the irish Guards in 1900. I spent a couple of hours on the Web, but couldn’t track them down.

    Coincidentally, you could pass for a twin of my son’s father-in-law, one “Jim Gallagher.” And, my maternal grandmother was a Gallagher.

    After one too many piped “Danny Boys” at recent funerals, I told my wife that I didn’t want any such thing at my own interment. After your gracious corrections and after seeing your site, I am reconsidering. Something martial, not “Danny Boy.”

    Great hearing from you,

    Pete

  6. 7 Uilliam April 22, 2008 at 5:11 am

    The Romans referred to the Irish as the Scotti. What we know as Scotland today was originally in the hands of the Picts, who were most likely Brythonic Celts (same as the Welsh, Cornish, etc.). The Irish first started to invade the lands circa 500 AD. The English viewed the Irish and the Highlanders as one and the same at least up to 1600 AD. They had maintained strong political, economic, social and familial ties for centuries.

    I have Irish (O’Donoghue) and Scottish (MacKissock) ancestors on my father’s side, and it is extremely important to me. I have no problem with any Celts wearing the kilt. The Welsh and Cornish have joined in, and I think it is great. The English have spent centuries trying to suppress and oppress our collective people, and we have to use whatever means possible to remember who we are and where we came from.

    I do take offense when non-Celts wear kilts as a fashion statement. I saw a “comedy” show depicting a homosexual wedding where everyone wore formal Highland attire for the “skirts,” and the “bride” was wearing a tartan mini-skirt! I cannot recall what the show was called, but I can say without a doubt that I was not a fan.

  7. 8 Saamus April 25, 2008 at 7:04 pm

    The Kilt was developed in Scotland. But its origins lay in the long single Brat which was brought to Scotland by the Irish. It was Saffron, hence saffron kilts today are associated with the Irish

  8. 9 sean June 7, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    “I have Irish (O’Donoghue) and Scottish (MacKissock) ancestors on my father’s side, and it is extremely important to me. I have no problem with any Celts wearing the kilt. The Welsh and Cornish have joined in, and I think it is great. The English have spent centuries trying to suppress and oppress our collective people, and we have to use whatever means possible to remember who we are and where we came from.”

    Who is we, you are not scottish you are american.

    • 10 PerfectScotchMaster March 6, 2010 at 2:09 pm

      @ Sean, You really should not attempt to suppress Celtic identity with intimidation tactics. Your Nationalistic pride does not replace or override the bond of mystic Celtic blood. My ancestors of recent times, built this great country (USA) as I can claim 4 Presidents, one Vice President, the first settlers to be buried in parts of Virginia, Arkansas, numerous literary giants, academics, veterans, etc.. But, I don’t feel the need to trade in the awareness of my Scotch-Irish lineage for my pride in my country, nor should anyone else.

  9. 11 Erig Le Brun de la Bouëxière July 30, 2008 at 11:43 am

    Not only the welsh and cornish have joined in the wearing of the kilt, but the bretons too: check it on my page, you’ll find our 14 registered tartans http//www.myspace.com/bretontartan

  10. 12 Alun November 22, 2008 at 4:47 am

    There’s a lot of good info above, but it was the leine (tunic) that was sometimes dyed with saffron and which was also pleated, and the brat was a woolen cloak, probably tartan. The Scots, who came from Ireland originally, added the pleats from the tunic to the tartan wool of the cloak to invent the kilt.

    The confusion about saffron is that it does dye an orange/brown colour usually, but it only turned the leine yellow because it was made of linen, which is difficult to dye. They would have used saffron because it was the only natural dye that had much effect on linen. Modern synthetic dyes still have to be used on a linen blend rather than pure linen to get a good colour. This is why traditional Irish linen jackets aren’t dyed atall (if you see one that is, it’s not pure linen). Of course, there is no such problem dying a woolen kilt, so the saffron kilt is not the same colour as the saffron leine, but it’s just the effect of the same dye on a different material.

    There’s never been any official Irish national dress AFAIK, but that’s probably because at the time people were trying to promote plain kilts as Irish national dress there was no Irish government to have adopted it, as they were all under British rule. They chose plain kilts because they didn’t think they could get any Irishmen to wear either a leine (i.e. a yellow pleated dress!) or the Irish version of the trews, which they thought looked too similar to longjohns and so would make them look like they had gone out in their underwear! What would you have picked given those choices?

  11. 13 Aogan May 6, 2009 at 11:17 am

    I agree with most of the above. The Tartan isnt Irish, but Piping is very important in the Irish context, and most international competitions have bands wearing the Scottish dress, so Irish pipers just decided to conform. The Saffron kilt has some resonance though. The Scottish Kilt is the closest modern dress wear to ancient Irish dress, add the yellow colour, and you have yourself a contemporary Irish Gael

  12. 14 Johnathan James Kennedy May 18, 2010 at 8:21 am

    I’m Scottish, from a Scottish family born in Glasgow. And I’d like to add that the kilt is Celtic, from a time of many Celtic tribes jointly roamed the fringes of Europe. The Modern 1800’s kilt is just an elaboration and a fashioned take on the old Celtic garment. If your family/clan has a tartan you can only really assume some guy with your name was quite rich during the 19th century and commissioned it, to give himself a sense of history.
    If we’re not careful you develop the ‘second world war syndrome’ i.e. (as many an American is heard to yell) ‘ We really saved your French ass in WWII!’ I do believe YOU did nothing, and neither did YOU fight for your country against the ‘hated’ English, some other guy did 100’s of years ago, all YOU are wearing is HIS outfit.

  13. 15 white rose June 28, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    I am of Irish decent and very fixed on detail, studied large areas and pretty much think that the kilt is an evolution from medieval era and its a celtic tradition.
    http://irishweddingbagpipes.art.officelive.com/sitemap.aspx


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