We don’t have bad weather in Ireland, you’re just wearing the wrong clothes.
I do love to joke with visitors to Ireland about their meteorological expectations for my tiny island home in the North Atlantic.
Invariably, a beautifully rendered photo of blue skies filled with happy, puffy clouds, swathes of lush verdant pasture and rugged, bone dry cliff faces will have ingrained themselves in the tourist’s imagination long before they’ve bought their ticket.
How can you tell it’s summer in Ireland? The rain is warmer.
And while nowadays, a traveller to this most green of islands would soon learn the value of a light, water-proof jacket, in times past – the Pre-Gore Tex days – other means of keeping dry were necessary.
Enter, a garment which was once so valuable that it constituted the entirety of some people’s wardrobe; so ubiquitous that the length and colour of it could clue you in to a person’s status; and so quintessentially Irish that it was banned for much of the Tudor era for being intolerably Gaelic.
The Brat (pronounced “Brot”) was a broad, long slab of woollen fabric that was worn like a cape or cloak. It was essential kit in the medieval Irish landscape.
“It is a fit house for an outlaw, a meet (suitable) bed for a rebel,
and an apt cloak for a thief” – Edmund Spenser (16th c.)
Bratanna (plural) were made of thick woven material. Early examples were simply rectangular, and constructed of three thin strips stitched together along their selvedges – a consequence of the narrow looms of the period – while later examples became more tailored, more curved and designed to fit human shoulders more snuggly.
There are samples extant that feature a shaggy mane of loose woollen locks covering one whole side. Presumably the added weight was worth it for the protection against the winter cold that the un-processed, lanolin-filled hairy layer added.
Whatever the shape, texture or colour, this garment had the ability to strike fear into occupying English forces. While Tudor era invaders were often safe enough within the walls of their towns dotted around the island, the wilds of Ireland were filled to the brim with brat-wearing natives who seldom cast a forgiving eye on their unwelcome neighbours.
In a moment of pure propagandist genius, and with the stroke of a quill, Elizabeth I of England simultaneously outlawed brat wearing in English occupied towns and issued her troops in Ireland brats of their very own.
The thing I find most fascinating about the English attitude to the brat at the time is best explained by John R. Zeigler in his journal article “Irish Mantles, English Nationalism”. To paraphrase, Ziegler describes a need to “other” Irish natives in a way that would satisfy the Tudor desire for expansion and conquest. Native Irish people looked similar to native English for the most part and shared many of the same customs, and so the need arose to emphasise and demonise the few nominal differences that would justify the on-going conquest of Ireland.
Language was one such way, and the good old brat – believe it or not – was another.
The brat was held up as evidence of moral decline, in fact.
“In winter it is her cloak and safeguard; and also a coverlet for
her lewd exercise (hanky panky).
And when she hath filled her vessel, under it she can hide her burden (pregnancy) and when her bastard is born it serves instead of swaddling clouts (clothes).“
– 16th Century English text
I don’t know about you, but I suspect that’s quite a mite more than one can reasonably expect from a glorified duvet.
Over time, the brat became less common and clothing regrettably became more and more homogenised across Europe. No longer could you definitely tell one culture from another with a glance at their silhouette. To me, this seems like a real shame.
Luckily, brat-wearing – of a sort – clung on in the West of Ireland, where English influence both in the past and nowadays is weakest. It was not uncommon even in my childhood to see old women wrapped up in a modern day equivalent. And every decade or so some designer or other attempts to revive the look with a modern twist. But trends come and go, and the brat seems now to be consigned to history.
But, the next time you ward off a chilly morning with a crochet blanket or a knitted shawl, or the next time you decide to treat yourself to a duvet day, think back and imagine how it would feel if that fabric on your back were “a meet bed for a rebel” or a handy “coverlet for your lewd exercise“.
I think you’ll agree that the world is a less colourful place without so singular an item of clothing.