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  • Writer's pictureWilde Irishe

Getting Saffron in Kilkenny

Updated: Dec 15, 2019

“We must change their course of government, apparel, manner of holding land, their language and habit of life.”

—Sir William Parsons, Master of the Court of Wards, 1625 (emphasis added)

Academic historians are steered away from such subjects as dress, weapons, and even military history. Notable work in these areas has thus come from gifted amateurs such as Janet Arnold (dress) and Ewart Oakeshott (weapons). And Jim O’Neill, in his Introduction to The Nine Years War, has noted an academic wariness of even military history per se. Coming a little lower on the rungs of existence must be the study of heraldry, but Alastair Campbell, Unicorn Pursuivant of Arms, noted that if heraldry doesn’t provide conclusive historical evidence, it can at least “show who [people] thought they were, or at least, who they would like to be!”

We are free to indulge these interests here, and will argue that they are of greater importance than generally recognized for understanding Tudor Ireland. We will return to all of them. Their neglect is a lost opportunity in appealing to children and even the broader public. (Sandhurst military historian Christopher Duffy has averred that his early interest in his 18th century period of focus was inspired by “the hats”—he loved the look of tricorns!)

Distinctive Irish dress is no longer a part of Irish culture, and there is a tendency to gloss over its former importance. But the English administration was well nigh obsessed with eliminating Irish dress, and as we see from the lead quote above, it often features among their top two concerns! This needs to be taken seriously. A key element of Gaelic dress was the “saffron shirt" or léine croich.

In this context, this week we look at the O’Byrnes. The O’Byrnes were a Leinster clan who, unlike the MacGiollapadraigs, charted an uncompromising course with the government, most famously under Fiach MacHugh's leadership. In 1548, the predatory activities of Fiach’s father Hugh came to the government’s attention. Hugh had taken a prey with Cahir MacArte Kavanagh, and eaten the meat ostentatiously within the Pale along with 60 kern. Cahir and Hugh then went to Kilkenny “to get silk, saffron and cloth.” We join them there.

street scene, 16th century Kilkenny, Irish kern buying saffron from merchant
Hugh and Cahir at the saffron merchant's.

Note the shop shingle. It is actually the arms of the Croke family, whom geneologist McLysaght places in Kilkenny in the 14th century. It is a “herald maunch”—an arm in full medieval sleeve holding a lily. The sleeve is coloured bright yellow. Now Croke, (or Cróc), is from crocus, and it means saffron. I playfully suggest that these arms may well have been the sign of the family business in medieval times.

Old soldier Barnaby Rich actually wrote of “deep smock sleeves like herald maunches” in describing the large sleeves of the Irish léine croich. Likewise, Edmund Spencer (1596) spoke of "the deep smock sleeves hanging to the ground . . . in armoury the fashion of the manche which is given in arms by many, being indeed nothing else but a sleeve, is fashioned much like to that sleeve." The hand holding a lily reminds one of the saffron flower, which features prominently on the arms of the town of Saffron Walden. Right through the 16th century, Saffron Walden was covered in lavender flowers every autumn while the saffron harvest was underway (saffron is the pistils of the autumn crocus). Local historians have never been certain where the harvest from Saffron Walden was exported to, but I would suggest Ireland.

Arms of the Croke family, Ireland, and Saffron Walden, UK.
Arms of the Croke family, Ireland, and Saffron Walden, UK.

And we’ll finish by saying that it was indeed saffron, though full exploration of that subject needs a paper of its own. But let’s remember 16th century Archbishop Richard Creagh, who entered the priesthood after becoming disillusioned with the world. He had apprenticed with a Limerick spice merchant and was dismayed at his practice of adulterating saffron to increase its weight. And we have, for instance, a 1503 record of a trio of merchants from Bilbao in the Basque country loading a ship with wine, saffron, and sword blades. They sailed to Ballinskelligs in Co. Kerry, and returned with fish and hides. The kern levied by Henry VIII in 1544 were given an impress (advance payment) of 40 shillings to buy themselves silk and saffron. (The silk was coloured thread used to decoratively stitch the léine together.) This same payment, 40s. (about $800.00 U.S. in 1989), was also delivered to Stanley’s levy for the service of the Low Countries in 1586, which included 500 kern. But a letter of 1537 to Henry VIII’s minister Cromwell quotes even higher expenditures; “there is no Irishman of war—horseman, kernagh, nor galloglass—for the most part but will . . . bestoweth for saffron and silk to one shirt many times five marks.” Five Elizabethan marks equalled about $1,260 U.S. in 1989.

Next week, a closer look at the O'Byrnes of Leinster.

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