(this a copy of my post on the Ulster Heritage Magazine blog)
Is the kilt Irish…. was the kilt ever worn in Ireland? The answer to this question is a very simple yes, of course, but even simple answers need some explanation. The kilt comes in two forms, the filleadh beag and the filleadh mór. The wearing of kilts came into fashion in the Hebrides and Highlands of Scotland sometime during the late 1500s. Prior to the popularsation of the kilt most Isles and Highlanders dressed identical to the native Irish in a léine and short jacket.
Why the kilt came into fashion can only be speculated on, perhaps it was the changing climate, which was growing colder in the late 1500s and the full kilt offered warmth, or perhaps it was improved small looms that could produce more woolen cloth, or perhaps just a fashion trend indigenous to the Gaels of Scotland. For whatever reason, the kilt became popular and fashionable among Gaels in certain parts of Scotland and would be brought to Ireland by Scottish Gaels that settled there in the late 1500s.
The filleadh mór is comprised of a very long piece of material called a plaid, which is belted in the middle. The upper part could be arranged in various ways depending upon the temperature of the day. The part below the belt was folded in the back to make pleats and came down to the knees.
There is a pseudo history about the creation of the smaller kilt, the filleadh beag, which is the form of kilt still very much in use today. At some point prior to 1690s, Gaelic tailors began to cut the filleadh mór in half. It was an organic fashion development within the Scottish Gaelic community. The upper part became a separate plaid and the lower part had the folds sown into it. This way the lower half, the kilt, could be worn separately from the plaid.
A false story has long circulated about the creation of the small kilt that maintained two English tailors invented this form in 1727. However, in Gaelic oral history it was known that the small kilt predates this time. The English creation myth persisted in some circles until writer Clifford Smyth produced an illustration of the small kilt in use in 1690 and put an end to the pseudo history of the small kilt.
In Ireland the full kilt and small kilt were worn in those areas settled by Highland and Hebridean Gaels. There are eyewitness descriptions of the kilt being worn as early as the 1590s in Ulster. Originally it was worn in the Redshank communities in east Donegal, northwest Tyrone, and north Antrim. Its popularity has waxed and waned over the years, but more and more the small kilt can be seen in Ireland worn at weddings and parties, by hill walkers, and sportsmen. This growing popularity of this very old Gaelic garment is natural and part of the heritage of Ulster.
(c) Barry R McCain 2010