By Margaret M. Williams
Avista Forum, Volume 12 Number 1 (1999)
Introduction: The Annals of the Four Masters tell us that, in “the Age of the World, 3664” (c. 1530 B.C.E.), Eochaidh Eadghadhach devised a grammar of Irish garments:
“He was called Eochaidh Eadghadhach (Eochaidh the clothes designer) because it was by him the variety of color was first put on clothes in Ireland, to distinguish the honour of each by his raiment, from the lowest to the highest. Thus was the distinction made between them: one colour in the clothes of slaves; two in the clothes of soldiers; three in the clothes of goodly heroes, or young lords of territories; six in the clothes of ollavs (chief professors); seven in the clothes of kings and queen.”
Although it is unlikely that Eochaidh’s exacting system was meticulously adhered to over the course of centuries, it is clear that the color, design, and quality of a person’s attire were unmistakable visual indicators of gender, rank, and occupation in ancient and medieval Ireland. Not only did the language of dress determine the character of social interaction, but the depiction of familiar costumes in the visual arts also participated in a subtle cultural dialogue. This paper offers a new pespective on the depiction of four figures in elegant costumes on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois. These images have frequently been cited as empirical evidence for the appearance of elite Irish dress prior to the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman invasion. While both written and archaeological evidence support this claim, the carvings are not simply direct translations of Irish fashions into stone. As I will demonstrate, the figures’ elaborate costumes both reflected and reinforced the communicative role of dress in early medieval Irish culture.
The figures in question appear in two of the reliefs that adorn the cross’s east face. In the lowermost panel, an individual in a long, richly ornamented tunic and cloak turns to face a bearded man with a shorter garment and a large, Danish-type sword. A slender cylindrical object that appears to be a staff or vine divides the scene. Both men grasp the central object and step towards it in a gesture of collaboration. In the panel directly above, two bearded figures wear long, close-fitting tunics and cloaks fastened with prominent ring brooches. Large swords hang from their belts and they appear to be passing an oblong object between them, a gesture of cooperation similar to the one in the image below.