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  • Writer's pictureWilde Irishe

Wright’s Chieftains: A Tale of Two Paintings

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

Two of the most important visual documents of traditional Gaelic dress have been somewhat overlooked, their full value obscured by a cloud of scepticism. These are the John Michael Wright portraits of the ‘Irish Chieftain’ (Sir Neill O’Neill), and the ‘Highland Chieftain’ (Sir Mungo Murray). Painted in Ireland as companion pieces in 1680 and c.1683, respectively, they represent the latest portrait of Irish dress we have, and the earliest of Highland dress. After first establishing their origin, we’ll examine them in detail and confirm their accuracy.

Provenance Established

In 1959, the ‘Irish Chieftain’ was positively identified as Sir Neill O’Neill when the painting was cleaned and relined after the Tate Gallery acquired it. The name ‘Sr. Neill O Neall [sic]’ appearing on the wolfhound’s collar was thus substantiated by the sitter’s name painted on the reverse of the canvas in Wright’s neat script: ‘Sir Neil. Oneil Baronet/of Killilaugh’ and below that Wright’s signature, ‘Wright Londsis Pictor Regius/pinxit. 1680.’ (1)

Buckeridge, in his Essay towards an English School of Painters (1700) said of John Michael Wright: “He also drew a High-Land Laird in his proper Habit, and an Irish Tory in his Country Dress, both which Whole Lengths were in so great Repute. . . that many Copies were made after them.”

In 1988, the ‘Highland Chieftain’ was positively identified as Sir Mungo Murray by Jane Fenlon (2), who researched the Ormonde Papers in the National Library of Ireland. There she found inventories of goods from the Duke of Ormonde’s residences at Kilkenny and St. James’s Square, London. Thus, ‘A Hylander in a Scotch Habitt,’ is found at Kilkenny Castle in 1684, and ‘A picture of the Irishman, A picture of the Hylander, whole lengths in guilt frames,’ are listed at St. James’s Square in 1689. In 1700, again at St. James’s Square, ‘A picture of Sir Neale O’Neill in an Irish Habitt at length; A picture of Lord Murrey’s son in Highland habitt at length.’ The last inventory in 1713 confirms that ‘Lord Murrey’s son’ at St. James’s Square is ‘Sir Mungo Murray.’

Fenlon says, “The Ormonde inventories make it clear, therefore, that the portraits of Sir Mungo Murray and Sir Neill O’Neill at St James’s Square were companion pieces, as they are always described hanging together, and also that the Dukes of Ormonde owned two versions of the Highland Laird, Sir Mungo Murray, and one of the Irish Tory, Sir Neill O’Neill. And these inventory descriptions are so close to Buckeridge’s description as to leave no doubt that these are the Wright paintings he described in 1700.”

Imaginative reconstruction of Ormond House, St. James's Square.
Imaginative reconstruction of the lobby at Ormond House, St. James's Square, circa 1715.

Painter and Subjects

John Michael Wright (1617-1694) was a Scottish painter and scholar who spent most of the 1640’s in Rome. He joined the Academy of St. Luke there in 1648, alongside Velasquez and Poussin. In 1654-55 he served Archduke Leopold, governor of the Spanish Netherlands, acquiring antiquities for the Archduke’s collection as well as for his own. Wright kept a particular collection of Roman cameos, and was expert in antiquarian matters. His reputation has risen even since the mid-20th century, and with his more realistic and detailed style, he now eclipses Lely, his more successful contemporary and rival.

He returned to England in 1656, and—after having to sell off his collection of Old Masters—managed to establish himself, despite being a Catholic convert. In 1661 Wright celebrated the Restoration with a portrait of Charles II. The king’s reaction (“Oddsfish, then I am an ugly fellow!”) indicates that Wright was not given to flattery. Amid growing antipathy towards Catholics, Wright fled to Dublin in 1679.

That first year in Ireland, Wright produced a painting of Ladies Catherine and Charlotte Talbot, now in the National Gallery of Ireland. The father of these girls, Richard Talbot, would be created Earl of Tyrconnell by James II in 1685. A staunch Roman Catholic, Talbot was thereafter appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland and he built up the Irish Catholic army that would oppose the Williamites in 1690. Between 1679 and 1683, either Talbot or more likely, the Duke of Ormonde, seems to have employed Wright to produce the two portraits we are considering. Sir Neill O’Neill (the ‘Irish Chieftain’) was Talbot’s nephew, his mother Eleanor Talbot being Richard’s sister. (Sir Neill’s father was Henry O’Neill, Baronet of Killelagh, a descendant of the Clannaboy O’Neills and Antirm MacDonnells.) Sir Neill, 22 years old when Wright painted him in 1680, would later die of wounds received at the Boyne in 1690 as Colonel of a regiment of Jacobite dragoons. There are portraits of Sir Neill (in breastplate and wig) and his wife Frances Molyneux, at Malahide Castle, the Talbot seat (above right). These were painted by James Gandy, brought over by the Duke of Ormonde, thus showing a connection between Ormonde, the Talbots, and Sir Neill O’Neill.

Sir Mungo Murray (the ‘Highland Chieftain’), born in 1668, was 14 or 15 years old when Wright painted him c. 1683. A restless younger son of the 2nd Earl of Atholl, Jane Fenlon says “He took part in a number of expeditions in the Highlands,” and it was during one of these—whilst in pursuit of his erstwhile kidnapper, Simon Fraser—that he is described as “marching in a belted plaid to admiration.” He was killed in 1699 fighting Spaniards with the abortive Scottish Darien expedition in Panama. Wright worked for both the Atholl and Ormonde families, and he had also painted Sir Mungo’s mother, Lady Athelia Sophia Stanley. Fenlon adds, “Sir Mungo was first cousin to William Richard Stanley, 9th Earl of Derby, who married Elizabeth Butler, sister of James Butler, 2nd Duke of Ormonde.”

With Richard Talbot’s death in 1691, and his family’s flight to the continent, the two paintings presumably came into the collection of the 2nd Duke of Ormonde (if Ormonde hadn’t in fact commissioned them). Ormonde led the 1715 Jacobite expedition. He was distrained amid extreme anti-Jacobite sentiment in 1719, and the contents of his properties in England were put up for auction by the Forfeited Estates Commission, thus coming into the hands of their new owners.

So we can dispose of the two old canards that the sitter in both of Wright’s ‘Chieftain’ portraits is the same person, or that it is ‘Lacy the actor.’ Both sitters actually died young in military action. Lacy the actor had indeed been painted by Wright in a much more theatrical Highland dress in 1668, as we shall see.

Earlier Sceptical Opinions

While the portrait of Sir Mungo Murray has come to be more fully appreciated in recent years, the same cannot be said for that of Sir Neill O’Niell.

The most recent book on Irish clothing history, Dress in Ireland (1989) by Mairead Dunlevy, is a product of a very different country to that which produced its predecessor, Henry Foster McClintock’s Old Irish and Highland Dress (1942). Focusing on dress in Ireland—rather than specifically Irish dress—Dunlevy’s international outlook is very different to McClintock’s concern with the distinctive old Gaelic Irish dress. Even so, it is surprising that Wright’s portrait of Sir Neill O’Neill only merits passing reference and is not even pictured. Rather, in a brief note referencing the ‘Phrygian’ style cap—high-pointed without a brim—she says : “it remained so typically Irish that the Scottish artist, Joseph [sic] Michael Wright, portrayed the actors John Lacy and friend in red conical hats when he wanted to represent an Irish Chieftain (reputedly Sir Neill O’Neill) and his lackey, in the late seventeenth century.”(3)

Although the sitter had been positively identified thirty years earlier (1959), Dunlevy was not entirely to blame. Wilfred Seaby, discussing the recently discovered Dungiven costume in 1961, compared it to Wright’s portrait: “‘The Irish Chieftain,’ by the Scottish painter, J. Michael Wright (1625-1700) shows Sir Neill O’Neill (1658-1690) in somewhat fanciful costume: red trews, short ornamental jacket with slashed sleeves over white shirt, pointed helm with plume . . . The picture merely indicates perhaps that traditional Irish dress had not completely disappeared at the end of the 17th century.” (4)

Hayes-McCoy was similarly dismissive in 1957: “The costume, fantastic though it is in general appearance and in many of its details, displays Irish features. The red conical hats worn by the principal and subsidiary figures are, in shape, Irish. The leg coverings of the same colour certainly resemble hose, but they may have been intended for trews. The method of wearing the dagger, but not the dagger itself, is Irish. The shoes are like brogues. Above all, the javelin is Irish, and this figure also, like Lee, is shown with his forefinger in the loop of the thong . . . The general effect of this picture is theatrical, and it might be suggested that the model was not Sir Neill O’Neill, who indeed if the date assigned to it is correct must have been very young when it was painted, but the actor John Lacy, of whom Wright painted at least two other known portraits. Lacy played both Scottish and Irish parts, and it is interesting to observe that Wright’s portrait of an unknown Highland chieftain in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh appears to be a companion piece to the present picture, even to the extent of the model being the same. . . Both of the pictures may have the contemporary London theatre as a background.” (5)

Dennis Farr in the Tate Gallery Journal is more correct in saying “There can be no doubt that in both cases Wright has depicted men in their correct national dress.”(1) I am certain that Henry Foster McClintock, having spent decades studying the old Gaelic dress, would have recognized the true importance of the portrait of Sir Neill O’Neill, had he lived to see it revealed. It is critical to remember that the painting was utterly unknown until its sale to the Tate Gallery in 1959.

Margaret Brown's portrait and jacket.
Margaret Brown's portrait and jacket.

Yes, artists frequently kept studio props, and their sitters could be kitted out in finery they never used in daily life. Wright was an antiquary, and the Japanese armour in his O’Neill portrait is evidence of this sort of thing. Yet I hope to contrast the two sets of clothes here depicted with the obviously theatrical costume of Wright’s portrait of Lacy as Sauny the Scot. Wright was an unusually meticulous recorder of detail, and both his sitters were men of action who died young. Murray is on record wearing the belted plaid in earnest while on foray in the Highlands, and Sir Neill’s trews, for instance, are a fitted item likely made expressly for the wearer, rather than any studio prop. There are several examples of surviving 16th/17th century garments in mint condition which are depicted with photo-realism in accompanying portraits being worn by their owners in life. To cite just one example, there is the Margaret Brown jacket discussed by Janet Arnold.

Sir Neill O’Neill

In his seminal work, Old Irish and Highland Dress, H. F. McClintock notes “It must at the outset be admitted as a regrettable fact that we know hardly anything of the dress of the chiefs and upper classes as distinguished from the commonality, under the old Irish regime.”(8) However, on page 84 he does quote a description of the Chief Manus O’Donnell, as reported by St. Leger to Henry VIII in 1541: “he was in a cote of crymoisin velvet with agglettes of gold, 20 or 30 payer; over that a great doble cloke of right crymoisin saten, garded with blacke velvet, a bonette, with a fether sette full of agglettes of gold.” While it cannot be proven, McClintock felt it most likely O’Donnell’s dress was in the old Irish style, and he would have been very gratified had he lived to see the painting of Sir Neill O’Neill.

Scalloped Red Bairead or Cappeen:

Sir Neill and his kern wear the Biorraid or Bairead (pronounced - BAER udh), a pointed brimless cap that had become a distinctively Irish head covering. On page 22, Dunlevy (3) discusses Viking influence on Irish dress: “Certainly the pointed-crown headgear which was introduced at this time was used in Ireland for centuries,” later she adds “By the Viking period, conical style brimless caps are a noted Irish fashion, and remain so up to the late 17th century.” The opinionated and very well-read Sobieski-Stuart brothers, in Costume of the Clans (1845), derive the bairead more anciently from the conical caps of the Phrygians and Dacians: “we shall trace in the ‘biorraid’ and the ‘truis’ . . . the conical cap of most ancient countries, the braccae of the Gauls” etc. Our sources note the bairead was made of cloth, not felted or knitted—it was not a knit Monmouth cap. For instance, Thomas Dinely, in his Tour of 1681, says of the Gaelic Irish; “Now the men are come to the use of hatts, instead of their usual caps (made of frize of the countrey).”

British grenadiers, 1706.
British grenadiers, 1706.

The Montgomery MSS, published in 1706, describes on page 35 the return from Dublin of Con O’Neill in 1603 (‘Primo Jac. Ao. 1603’), when he was met by his people in Ulster, and “not one of the concourse had a hat; but the gentry (for sure) had on their done wosle barrads, the rest might have sorry scull caps, otherwise (in reverence and of necessity) went cheerfully pacing or trotting bare-headed.” The done wosle were ‘gentlemen of only secondary rank’ (dhaoine uaisle), and, the editor adds: “The barred, or Bared, as worn by the ancient Irish, was made of wollen cloth dyed purple, blue, and green. Its shape resembled the cap of a modern grenadier [circa 1706], or rather it was made in the style of the old Phrygian bonnet. The Highland bonnet is the modern representative of the ancient Irish barred.”

On page 57 of Old Irish and Highland Dress, McClintock describes the Weckherlin print of 1617. This was a very protestant ‘Triumph’ held at Stuttgart on the eve of the 30 Years War, in which German participants portrayed evil Spaniards and superstitious Irish Papists. McClintock says of the first six ‘Irishmen’ in the procession, “All in the present group are carrying striped mantles made, according to Weckherlin, of shaggy cloth and are wearing tall pointed caps made of the same material,” confirming that the bairead was made of cloth. He continues; “The tall pointed hat is undoubtedly Irish, but these are by far the best pictures of them that we have and are valuable on that account . . . As late as 1670 a tall steeple hat appears on the head of some of the crew of an Irish ʻCurrachʼ in a drawing preserved in the Pepysian Museum at Cambridge; ”

Weckherlin print of procession at Stuttgart, 1617.
Weckherlin print of procession at Stuttgart, 1617.

Fr. John Lynch in Cambrensus Eversus (1662) also described it: “But though the Irish wore their hair flowing down their shoulders . . . They wore a cap, precisely the same head dress as that of the Gauls, ʻnamely an oblong cap of somewhat conical form,ʼ which in Irish is called, Barrad.” Joseph Walker made inquiries to a Mr. Richard Geoghagan of Connacht in 1787, about Irish dress in former times, and Geoghagan recalled his father mentioning “a Barraid or scull cap made of ordinary rags was the ornament of the head; a hatted man was deemed a Sasanagh beau [bodach Sassenach, Saxon churl].”(6) Walker further mentions, on page 108, that two such caps appear in the DeBurgo Geneology of 1583, “Two have brimless caps with pointed tops, one of which is tall, like the traditional ‘Foolʼs Cap,’ and leans to one side, while the other is lower.” He then quotes the Abbe MacGeoghegan, the historian of the ʻWild Geeseʼ in mid-18th century France, who said of the old Irish, “They had caps in the form of a bonnet, in fact of the same stuff as their clothes, and raised in a point.”

Eamonn na fésóige and Emonn Albanach Mac Uilliam Burc, 1583.
Eamonn na fésóige and Emonn Albanach Mac Uilliam Burc, 1583.

James Farewell’s Irish Hudibras (1689) describes an Irishman: “and on his head he wore a scollopt read [red] Burrede.” Moffet’s Irish Hudibras (1728), describes an Irishman and his wife at a feast: ““But his indented cappen wore, / Which he had never usʼd before; ʻTwas of fine frize, and without doubt. / Adornʼd with curious cuts about; / As was the new made brogues, which they / Both wore in honour of the day.” Indented here means “to cut into or notch the edge of in such a way as to produce a scalloped outline. This scalloped decoration is very evident on both baireads in Wright’s painting. There is folkloric suggestion that red may have been a favoured colour—In Patrick Kennedy’s rendition of The Palace in the Rath, the Good People wear “red sugar loaf caps . . . like old Irish birredhs.”(7)

Baireads of Sir Neill (left), his kern (right), and Walker's Bard, 1786 (centre).
Scalloped baireads of Sir Neill (left), his kern (right), and Walker's Bard, 1786 (centre).

Memories of the bairead persisted down to the 19th century. Above, Walker’s Irish bard from his Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards (1786), whose cap bears very similar “scollopt” decoration to that of Sir Neill O’Neill’s in 1680. In Walker’s time the portrait of Sir Neill O’Neill was unknown, so his artist must have had access to now disappeared evidence. It is just possible that Walker’s bairead is based on the carving of an Irish bard’s head (?) topping the fore-pillar of the now lost Hehir Harp, pictured in Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards: “a faithful delineation, by William Ousley, Esq; of Limerick, of one in the possession of Mr. Jonathan Hehir, of that City. This Instrument contains thirty–three strings, is five feet high, and seems to be made of red sally. But its antiquity is not remote, for we find the following inscription on it: “Made by John Kelly 1726.” (Kelly likely made the similar Mulagh Mast and Buntworth harps.)

“Donald Gromesone” by Sobieski-Stuart.
“Donald Gromesone” by Sobieski-Stuart.

The erratic but erudite John Sobieski-Stuart, in his Costume of the Clans (1845) reconstructed the bairead for his impression of Donald Gromesone MacDonald. He says: “The bonnet in the picture is the ordinary ancient biorraid, or “bonaid-biorach” of scarlet cloth, embroidered with gold, ornamented on the crown with a large gold and crimson tassel, and to the rim by a blue tabbed border.” Like Walker, he had never seen Wright’s portrait of Sir Neill O’Neill, yet the outlines and details are very similar—Sir Neill’s bairead is ‘of scarlet cloth, embroidered with gold,’ and his kern’s is red on the crown, ornamented ‘to the rim by a blue tabbed border.’

Sir Neill’s bairead has a hat pin of gilt metal, holding several ostrich feathers, very reminiscent of St. Leger’s 1543 description of Manus O’Donnell’s ‘bonette, with a fether’. Sobieski-Stuart speaks of 1532 as a date after which doublets appear, “as afterwards represented both on Irish and Highland figures, probably embroidered with gold and silver. The first notice is made of ostrich feathers, which had become prevalent among the noble and wealthy in neighboring countries, and in the bonnet was adopted the fashion of wearing jewels, very common in the hats and caps of France and England . . .”(9)

Dagged Jacket:

Dungiven Jacket (1570-1650) with dagged edging.
Dungiven Jacket (1570-1650) with dagged edging.

Sir Neill and his kern wear jackets whose shape answers to the description of Boullaye le Gouz who visited Ireland in 1644 and is quoted on page 92 of McClintock(8), “Their jacket has a long body and four skirts (‘basques’).” Assuming this to mean two pairs of skirts split front and back, this is a good description of the jacket found at Dungiven (above) in 1956.

The resemblance is initially obscured by the heavy spangle and couched embroidery on Sir Neill’s cream-colored jacket, and the slashing of the breasts and upper sleeves, with the collar eliminated and the lower sleeves unbuttoned to display the ample smocked and embroidered shirt. The shape is a bit clearer in the case of the kern’s simpler reddish jacket. The skirts are visible on both men, however, and have the same length and pointed shape as the Dungiven jacket. In the case of Sir Neill, the double skirt can be seen, with its dagged edges, just as with the Dungiven jacket (right).

Dagged edges prevail on the trews and baireads as well as these jackets, for as John Sobieski-Stuart commented; “The Highlanders and Irish still retained the . . . fantastic ‘nagging, knibing, slittering, ounding and indenting’ which prevailed throughout Europe in the 14th century and was so severely censured by Chaucer and the Chronicle of the Brute.”(9)

Dagged coat skirts (Sir Neill, left; Dungiven, right—with paper mock-ups of trews flaps).
Dagged coat skirts (Sir Neill, left; Dungiven, right—with paper mock-ups of trews flaps).

Blue Mantle:

Both mantles are of blue cloth, and a “blue Galway mantle” is often referred to (for instance, C.S.P.I., 1509-73, page 39). That of Sir Neill is apparently silk with a green lining, and a silken fringe of gold and silver mixed. McClintock, on page 84(8) mentions “a mantle of English cloth fringed with silke” sent as a gift by Art O’Toole in 1539. The kern’s mantle is quite plain, without fringe or ornament, like all surviving mantles of this era.

In Cambrensis Eversus (1653), Fr. Lynch laments he who criticises the “Irish mantle as a greasy kersey, and compares the fringes flowing from its borders to a horse’s mane.” But this was the everyday woolen mantle, probably the heavier shaggy variety sometimes exported. Sir Neill’s mantle reminds us that, as Lynch wrote, “The material of the mantle was not always of coarse or flimsy stuff. It varied according to the higher or lower rank of the wearer, sometimes fine, sometimes coarse, sometimes tinged with purple dye, and adorned with fringes of silk, or at least with a delicate thread of woolen, around the borders; on the sides of the mantle was attached a plain, narrow selvage, so woven that the threads should flow down from its borders, like the fringes which are usually seen hanging from the curtains of a bed.” The Bristol Books show Ireland importing ‘lani pro frangi’ (fine wool for fringes) in 1509.


Sir Neill’s red trews are consistent with Fynes Moryson (1617), who notes Irish ‘Gentlemen and Lords of Countries’ wearing trews of ‘red or such light colour.’ In 1571, Lord President Perrott agreed to a duel with the rebel “Fitzmaurice, who insisted on sword, target and Irish trousers. Perrott agreed and provided a pair of scarlet trousers for himself.” (11) But ‘raw white frieze’ was the usual colour, as with Sir Neill’s kern. De Boullaye le Gouz (1644) spoke of “a pantaloon of white frieze which they call ‘trews’.”(8) and “a paire of feet trouzes” (i.e., white trews) is mentioned in the play Captain Thomas Stukeley (1605).

Depictions of red & white trews: Tielch (1603), Taking of Ormond (1600), Eniskillen (1592), Civil War flag (c. 1650).
Depictions of red & white trews: Tielch (1603), Taking of Ormond (1600), Eniskillen (1592), Civil War flag (c. 1650).

Luke Gernon’s 1620 description of the Irishman’s trews if very apt: “The trowse is a long stock of frise, close to his thighs, and drawn on almost to his waste, but very scant, and the pryde of it is to wear it so in suspense that the beholder may still suspect it to be falling from his arse. It is cut with a pouch before which is drawn together with a string. He that will be a spruce lad tyes it up with a twisted band of two colours like the string of a clokebagge. An Irishman walking in London, a cutpurse took it for a cheat and gave him a slash.”

The cutpurse would have been disappointed—the ‘purse’ was in fact simply a square flap, either for modesty or to hide the newly introduced button fly. The usually astute Sobieski-Stuart brothers were similarly misled when commenting on this corresponding description of trews in the Highlands of Scotland (c. 1703) by Martin Martin; “. . . lying close to the body, tied round the waist with a belt above the haunches, having a square piece of cloth which hangs down before.” The Sobieski-Stuarts mistakenly say: “The appendage thus vaguely described with the usual slovenly negligence of Martin, was a square purse or pocket, of the same cloth as the truis, attached to the waistband and generally fringed. Though it continued in use so late as to have been made by tailors yet or recently alive (1845!), it was by no means a general, but rather an arbitrary substitute for the leather or velvet busaid, and was infinitely unsightly and inelegant.” [Costume of the Clans, 1845, p. 102]

Low-slung tartan trews with square flap: Piper on barrel head and swain, Highland Wedding, by De Witt, 1684-86.
Low-slung tartan trews with square flap: Piper on barrel head and swain, Highland Wedding, by De Witt, 1684-86.

Ian Moncrieffe of that Ilk, examining Wright’s painting of Sir Neill, called this square flap a “curious but beautifully adorned Erse apron.”(12) In 1862, Donald Campbell, writing on Highland dress, noted “The trews and hose were in one piece, the part below the knee being fitted to the leg, and ending in a foot like hose. . . The trews buttoned in front like modern trousers; but that part was covered with a small gold and silver laced apron, having the wearer’s crest and badge, tastefully combined with tracery, embroidered on it.”(13) I cannot trace Campbell’s source, but Wright’s painting of Sir Neill was unknown in 1862, yet he gives a perfect description of Sir Neill’s ‘Erse apron’—“a small gold and silver laced apron . . . tastefully combined with tracery, embroidered on it.”

There is evidence of the sort of embroidery depicted by Wright having been a part of traditional Irish dress. An act of Henry VIII for the ‘English Order, Habit and Language’ states “no woman use or weare any kyrtell, or cote tucked up, or imbroydered or garnished with silke, or courched [couched] ne layd with usker, (Gaelic usgar a jewel or ornament) after the Irish fashion,”(14). Couched or laid work (from French—coucher, to lay), refers to gold cord that is laid on the surface to be decorated and whipped down with thinner thread, rather than being stitched into the cloth like more pliable embroidery thread. Couching is often accompanied by the use of spangles, and we see both in the decoration of Sir Neill’s bairead, trews and coat.

Both men’s trews are tied up “with a twisted band of two colours like the string of a clokebagge,” as per Gernon. The string is most likely of fingerloop braid, and can be seen emerging from the seam case in the top of Sir Neill’s very ‘low-rise’ waistband. The ends are complicated with extensions tied in using a heaving line knot, aka ‘monk’s’ or ‘Franciscan knot’.

Trews, West Highland Museum.
Trews, West Highland Museum.

The pattern for the trews of Sir Neill and his kern corresponds to a couple of surviving pair from Scotland. Helen Bennett described the Hynde Cotton trews (10), “The trews consists of two cloth stockings set into a pilch-like body. The legs are cut on the cross, presumably to give some ease of movement . . . and seamed up the back. The top of each leg is cut to a point at the front, and decorated with a roughly triangular flap, two sides of which are incorporated in the seam joining the leg to the body, and the third left free and ornamented with pinking; a small decorative tag has been set into the seam at the back of each leg. The body has been cut low at the front-end full and deep at the back. The waist buttons at the centre front, and there is a fly fastening below with the buttonholes set on a band; the corresponding pair of buttons is worked in green thread. In use the fly fastening would have been covered with a half-oval flap, which is sewn to the left front and can be secured by a button to the right.” “The Cotton trews have flaps and tabs of uncertain purpose set into the tops of the legs, and another flap which lies across the fly fastening. These features are not unique and appear on another pair, now in the West Highland Museum, Fort William (right). On the Fort William trews the flap is much larger—reminiscent of a small apron—and edged with a ruched strip of matching tartan; the flaps of the thighs are similarly trimmed. But they are difficult to account for as they have no obvious structural function and, if intended to be decorative, are so placed that they would rarely have been seen when the garment was in use; it may be they are relics of an earlier period when trews were worn with short doublets.” She adds, “John Michael Wright’s portrait of the Irish chieftain Sir Neill O’Neill, 1680, now in the Tate Gallery, shows the subject wearing skin-tight trews with a rectangular flap across the front of the body.” She notes also that Sir Neill’s trews “include a small pinked flap just visible across the top of the leg.” These features are visible in the white trews of Sir Neill’s servant as well.

The Irish mantle and trews as depicted in this painting would inspire comparisons with Native American Indians by 17th century English setters (often veterans of the Irish wars). Thus John Smith (True Travels, vol. i p. 129); “The better sort use large mantles of Deare skins, not much differing in fashion from the Irish mantles.” And George Mourt’s Relation, March 18, 1621, describes the Massasoits of Plymouth; “They had most of them long hosen up to their groins, close made; and above their groins to their waist another leather, they were altogether like the Irish trouses.” Likewise, Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan, on page 29, “. . .of such deeres skinnes as they dresse bare, they make stockings that comes within their shooes, like a stirrop stockinge, and is fastned above at their belt, which is about their middle; Every male, after hee attained unto the age which they call Pubes, wereth a belt about his middle, and a broad pieece of lether that goeth betweene his legs and is tuckt up both before and behinde under his belt; and when they have their Apparrell one they looke like the Irish in their trouses, the Stockinges joyne so to their breeches.” There are many such references, and Professor D. B. Quinn noted, “But after 1640 the use of Irish comparisons with American Indians gradually dies along with those who had made them.”(15)

American Indian stockings, breech clouts and mantles were often compared to the Irish.
American Indian stockings, breech clouts and mantles were often compared to the Irish.


Sobieski-Stuart's sketch of Lord Duffus’s brogue.
Sobieski-Stuart's sketch of Lord Duffus’s brogue.

Sir Neill’s shoes are almost perfectly described in John Sobieski’s Costume of the Clans (1845, p. 83), though written of a Scottish example: “The brogues are of crimson leather . . . at the quarters and instep they are turned over in flaps, lined with buff, and the upper leathers and fraochans punched with stars and round water-vents, as described by the clerk, John Elder, and afterwards by Captain Burt.” Edward O’Reilly’s Irish Grammar (1821) defines fraochan as ‘a patch on the toe of a shoe.’ A fuller description is from R. R. MacIan’s Clans of the Scottish Highlands (1845, p. 61): “On the toes of the shoes the friochan appears, which was an additional piece of leather fancifully serrated and superadded as a protection against the friction of the heath, whence its name from Fraoch, heather.”

Folded down like moccasi“Folded down like . . . American Indian moccasins.”s.
“Folded down like . . . American Indian moccasins.”

Edmund Spencer (View of the Present State of Ireland, 1596) speaks of the Gaelic Irish nobility’s “. . . riding shoes of costlie cordwaine (cordovan).” To this day cordovan is a dense, fine leather cut from horse butts, usually with a characteristic red-brown colour, used in high-end shoemaking. Sir Neill’s shoes also agree with Luke Gernon’s description (1620)—“brogues are singled soled . . . sharp at the toe, and a flap of leather left at the heel to pull them on.” Fr. John Lynch in Cambrensus Eversus (1662) confirms the pointed toe, saying “The Irish wore shoes with long, slender, conical uppers and only one sole for greater celerity in running.” This sort of brogue is worn by Sir Mungo Murray in the companion picture, and appears in Richard Waitt’s portrait of Lord Duffus in Highland attire, c. 1700. Sir Mungo’s brogues are described by John Sobieski-Stuart; “. . . the shoes of black leather with broad flaps turned over the instep and quarters folded down like those of the American Indian moccasins; and both these and the shoes are punched with star vent-holes.”

Flapped brogues: Lord Duffus, Sir Neill O’Neill, Sir Mungo Murray.
Flapped brogues: Lord Duffus, Sir Neill O’Neill, Sir Mungo Murray.

Sobieski-Stuart describes Lord Duffus’s brogues (above, left); “The shoes are black, with large flaps on the insteps, and fraochans on the toes, punched with hearts and vent-holes, and worked with silver or white silk, like the Spanish polayna, or stiff leather gaiter of the present time.” The brogues in these paintings correspond archaeologically to Lucas type 5, but the latter are usually round-toed, without such large flaps at heel and instep, and with no sign of a fraochan. However, Johh Nichol’s study of 16th-17th century brogues from Chancery Lane in Dublin includes an example with an exaggerated heel flap very comparable to those in the painting. The term ‘Brogan Boan’ is used in a c. 1750 manuscript (The Ancient History of the Kingdom of Kerry, by Friar O'Sullivan) where it was said to be the name of a more elaborate shoe, worn by grandees of Gaelic society in the previous century. Could this be what we are seeing here?

John Nichol’s images of Chancery lane brogues with elaborate heel piece (left), and pointed toe (right).
John Nichol’s images of Chancery lane brogues with elaborate heel piece (left), and pointed toe (right).

Skeans, Broadsword and Darts:

Sir Francis Markham (Five Decades of the Epistles of Warre, London, 1620), says of the well-armed man; “He shall have by his left side a good and sufficient sword with a basket hilt of a nimble and round proportion after the manner of the Irish.” Markham seems to have been a veteran of the Irish wars, and we see basket hilts already in use by the Irish in the detail pictured above under ‘Trews’ from the capture of the Earl of Ormond in 1600. The gilded hilt of Sir Neill’s sword shows the sort of British basket hilt commonly called an ‘Irish hilt’ in the earlier 17th century. The subject of the use of the basket hilt sword in Ireland will be covered in a separate blog.

Two kinds of handle are found on surviving 16th-17th century Irish skeans: The first is the spirally carved, or ‘barley twist,’ cylindrical shaped variety, as found on the Corbally scian fada. This moderately-waisted, spiral grooved handle is seen on Sir Neill O’Neill’s kern (below right), and on Derricke’s woodcuts of kerns from 100 years earlier. Sir Neill’s kern also has a similarly hafted by-knife, mounted on a plain scabbard.

Sir Neill’s skean, baroque carved, roughly of Athlone type, and his kern’s, spiral carved like that from Corbally.
Sir Neill’s skean, baroque carved, roughly of Athlone type, and his kern’s, spiral carved like that from Corbally.

The second type of skean handle is flatter, elegantly waisted, and carved with crossed bands of Gaelic revival three-strand plait knot work. (See example from Athlone below) One of the bands forming the cross is staggered where it passes under the other. The handle of Sir Neill’s skean bears a superficial resemblance in the crossed legs of the Baroque-style mythological figure, possibly Typhon, carved on it. This use of Baroque themes on traditional Gaelic arms is not unique—an outstanding example is the Highland targe and basket-hilted sword sent by the Duke of Perth to Prince Charles Edward before the ’45, both of which are adorned in Baroque style with wholly un-Highland auricular figures and Medusa’s heads,

fasces, etc.

Skean handles from Athlone (left) and Corbally (right).
Skean handles from Athlone (left) and Corbally (right).
Derricke’s kern with skeans, 1581.
Derricke’s kern with skeans, 1581.

In both cases, the manner of suspension is identical to that seen in Derricke, the skean being worn ‘point blanke at his codpiece,’ at an angle across the right thigh. Derricke’s kern carry long skeans with spiral carved handles like the one from Corbally. The recess of the spiralling groove is indicated by cross-hatching in the woodcut. 16th century skeans are often seen slung on long lanyards around the neck, and in Wright’s painting they are worn thus, but partly concealed beneath the jacket. That may be the case with Derricke’s kerns as well?

The sheaths of Derricke’s skeans (right) invariably terminate in a ribbed chape, formed of bronze wire wound around the last three inches of the sheath. Sir Neill’s otherwise unadorned skene sheath is similarly finished with a chape of bronze wire, with a bronze locket at the throat. Remains of a bronze wire chape were originally found with the Corbally skean.

Kern with dart, Codice de Trajes, 1529.
Kern with dart, Codice de Trajes, 1529.

Sir Neill and his kern are holding the famous Irish dart. These have a shaft four feet long, thicker at the butt and tapering toward the point. The dart, commonly called fogha or ga in Irish, was thrown by means of a finger loop (the suainemh) made from flax or silk. In the Annals of the Four Masters, sub anno 1595, we read “Felim [MacDavitt] had a sharp, piercing dart [fogha] to shoot when needed. He put his finger in the string [sauinemh] and he drew the javelin boldly.” The finger loop is tied on about eight inches from the heel of the shaft, and all of these details were confirmed by a recently discovered illustration of 1529. The finger loop is an ancient device, appearing in Homer’s Iliad and known to the Romans as the ammentum, and we read in the Tain of Cúchulainn’s “smooth handled throwing spears with cords of full-hard flax upon them.” Irish wars veteran Captain Thomas Lee, who was depicted by Marcus Gheeraerts in 1594 holding an Irish sleagh (a longer spear), also has his forefinger in the finger loop. The Irish dart is often described having barbed heads as we see in Wright’s depiction, and the apparent bronze plating is interesting. Etienne Rynne noted that bronze plating on 16th century Gaelic Irish sword hilts and skein handle fittings—an unusual technique—may have been a Gaelic cultural marker; “The use of copper, brass or bronze to solder and/or plate iron is apparently not widespread, but is known from some Irish weapons, including the hilts of sixteenth century swords, and also some arrowheads, and it is probably justified to regard it as an Irish technique of sixteenth century date.” (16)

The round shield, covered with red leather and a pattern of brass nails, is similar to a Highland targe, but considerably larger. There are two surviving Irish targes (the O’Donovan and Bell targes) which were of a more typical size, about 20 inches across. But see Sir Mungo Murray’s cearnach below, who also has a very large targe slung on his back.

A Japanese armour is in the lower left (the helmet is in the kern’s hand). It is considered emblematic of Japan’s severe persecution of Catholics—perhaps analogous to the situation under the British crown. It probably was from Wright’s personal collection.

Sir Neill O’Neill’s kern; flapped trews of ‘raw white frieze,’ long pointed coat skirts.
Sir Neill O’Neill’s kern; note the flapped trews of ‘raw white frieze,’ and long pointed coat skirts.

Sir Mungo Murray

On page 105 of Costume of the Clans, John Sobieski-Stuart summarizes the context of this painting; “The features of Highland Costume which had belonged to the middle of the 17th century, lingered among the clans until the beginning of the 18th; and thus, in the reign of Queen Anne, we find the chiefs still wearing the flapped shoes, bandaliers, and scalloped tabbed doublet, which had been the fashion of Europe in the time of Chas. I and II. The bonnet only had undergone a decisive change, and, instead of the ancient conical form, had become the squashed Flemish pudding, which in the time of Holbein and Anne of Cleves, found its way into England, and soon after into Scotland.” (9)

Sobieski-Stuart’s description of the painting of Sir Mungo itself, on page 97 of the same work, is worth quoting at length:

“The bonnet . . . is of dark olive velvet and the flat Flemish shape introduced into England in the reign of Henry VIII, and into Scotland soon after, but not common in the Highlands before the time of Charles I. At the side it is turned up with three white ostrich feathers, apparently set, like those of Hungary and the modern hussars, in a metallic stalk, which, according to the fashion of other countries in the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries, is ornamented with an enamelled gold jewel, suspending a very large pear-shaped pearl. The prevalence of this fashion in France is noticed by Moryson—‘The men wear rings of diamonds, and a broad jewel in their hats, placed in the root of their feathers.’

“The upper part of the dress is exactly the fashion which prevailed in France and England from 1646 to 1660—the short-waisted doublet described by Bulver and Randal Holmes, open in front, without any waistcoat, and exposing the shirt puffed out through a disgusting hiatus, between the diminutive jerkin and strutting breeches; for the want of which last garment the Highlander, as before observed, affected the same slovenly foppery between the jacket and belted plaid. Greatly at variance with this negligence of adjustment, the jerkin is of azure blue silk, slashed to the shirt, and gorgeously embroidered with gold, every part of the body and sleeves being so covered by the work as scarcely to discover the colour of the silk. The neck and waist are surrounded by tabs, and the whole jacket is divided with slashes, for it is a mere complication of straps, connected at the neck, shoulders, and wrists by narrow bands—those of the arms shorter than the wrists, and without cuffs, exhibiting almost the whole of the voluminous shirt sleeve puffed through the vacancies from the shoulder to the hands. The fashion, very prevalent in the early part of the reign of Charles II, appears in many French and English portraits of that period. The buttons are of gold richly figured; four at the side above and two at the neck, from whence the jerkin is unconfined to the waist. The collar and ruffles of the shirt are of point lace, and the wrists tied with a blue riband, a fashion continued from the time of James V. The plaid is of rich silk tartan, in large confused setts, broken by numerous stripes of red, black and somber green; it is put on in the manner called ‘breacan-an-fheile,’ or ‘belted-plaid;’ but the part above the girdle instead of being broached to the left shoulder in the formal manner, is folded round the body and cast over the left arm, in a temporary attitude, perhaps preparatory to the disposition described by Straloch: ‘Sometimes it is all folded around the body about the region of the belt for disengaging and leaving the hands free.’

“The hose are of tartan cloth, having at the knee a cuff, which appears above and below the garters; the upper edge cut into vandyke points, and the lower into square tabs. The back of the leg is deformed by a welt of jagged cloth, let into the seam of the hose, and giving them exactly the appearance of having been put on with the inside outwards. This unbecoming absurdity continued in use from this period until the beginning of the 18th century. The garters are of gold lace, and deeply fringed; the shoes of black leather with broad flaps turned over the instep and quarters folded down like those of the American Indian moccasins; and both these and the shoes are punched with star vent-holes.”

“The waist and shoulder belts are are of rich figured gold lace, with gold buckles. The powder-horn is black, of a peculiar triangular shape—the remains of the old touch-box common to Europe as early as the time of Francis I. It is suspended to a belt, ornamented with gilt studs, and from which also hang two gilt bandaliers. The sword has a gilt basket guard; the dirk hilt is richly chased in gold and fretted with silver; and the pistols are remarkable for still retaining the straight stock of their original and namesake, the early ‘dag.’” (9)

Sir Mungo’s attire conforms well with contemporary descriptions as well, including Richard James, Master of Arts of Oxford, who wrote of his visit to the Highlands circa 1618; “. . . The weapons they use are a longe basket hilte swoarde, and a longe kind of dagger broade in ye backe and sharpe at ye point which they call a durcke; and long bowe and arrowes with which they are very expert. Their garments are a blue frise slasht jerkin, and pleidens and truces, and blacke and greene and blue bonnets.” The slashed doublet and black bonnets are evident in the painting. James’s information that not only ‘broad blew bonnets’ were worn is seconded by Martin Martin, who wrote in 1702; “on their heads [they] wear bonnets made of thick cloth, some blew, some black and some gray.” Note that the Highland doublets are considerably shorter than the Dungiven type coats worn by Sir Neill and his kern, possibly to facilitate wearing a belted plaid.

The important fact that Sir Mungo’s belted plaid is secured with a drawstring was noted by the scholar and Highland tailor Matthew Newsome in 2004. A surviving belted plaid worn by Sir John Murray MacGregor for George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822 had been found to have belt loops of the same material sewn round the inside of the waist line, with one belt loop per pattern repeat. A cord was threaded through these loops and drawn together and tied off to create regular ‘pleats,’ being afterwards secured with a belt. Much simpler than lying down upon a plaid spread over the ground! Charles Grant, in his Memoirs de la Maison Grant (1796), noted something similar; “ . . . the broad belt within the keepers, the gentleman stands with nothing on but his shirt; when the servant gets the plaid and belt round, he must hold both ends of the belt till the gentleman adjusts and puts across in proper manner the two folds or flaps before; that done he tightens the belt to the degree wanted . . .” Wright’s painting proves this was no recent innovation, for the drawstring is visible just above the waist belt.

Detail of Sir Mungo Murray, showing drawstring just above waist belt.
Detail of Sir Mungo Murray, showing drawstring just above waist belt.

The cock’s comb welt in the back seam of Sir Mungo’s short hose came in for censure by John Sobieski-Stuart. It appears again in Waitt’s portrait of the Champion of the Laird of Grant, which John redrew below, and called “an unsightly dog-toothed welt let into the back seam.” A back seam sewn up on the outside is seen on the surviving Killery trews from Sligo, and it can just be discerned in a mid-17th century powder horn carving of a Highland gentleman and his “galloglass” out hunting (below).

Cock's comb welt seen on: Champion of Grant, 17th century powder horn, Killery trews, Lord Dunblane.
Cock's comb welt seen on: Champion of Grant, 17th century powder horn, Killery trews, Lord Dunblane.

Bow, dorloch, sword and dags:

Sir Mungo’s cearnach in the background is running with a longbow in hand and a dorloch, or quiver, sticking out behind, with the quarry of wild goats in sight. His shaggy dorloch and Sir Mungo’s brace of dags or ‘durgs’ (pistols) framing his sporran are mentioned in the following account—the report of the English spy, John Aston, on the Scots army on the eve of the Battle of Newburn, 1640; “tall and active, apparelled in blew woollen wascotts and blew bonnets. A padre of bases of pled, and stockings of the same, and a padre of pumpes on their feete: a mantle of pled cast over the left shoulder, and under the right arm, a pocquett before for their knapsack, and a pair of durgs on either side the pocquett . . . some carry onely a sword and targe, others musquetts, and the greater part bow and arrows, with a quiver to hould about 6 shafts, made of the maine of a goat or colt, with the hair hanging on, and fastened by some belt of such like, soe it appears almost a taile to them.” (17) The dorloch is very evident sticking out behind the cearnach, and appears very much like an animal’s tail. Interestingly, the targe slung on his back is quite large, nearly the size of that of Sir Neill O’Neill.

Sir Mungo’s sword is a ‘ribbon’ hilt, of late form. The hilt is gilt, rather than painted black.

Sir Mungo’s cearnach in slashed-out hodden gray doublet, with fur dorloch and very large targe on his back.
Sir Mungo’s cearnach in slashed-out hodden gray doublet, with fur dorloch and very large targe on his back.

To conclude with a quote from Sobieski-Stuart’s Costume of the Clans; “. . . such were the general features of dress among the Highlanders and the Irish clans. The same in race, language, and manners, their habits also possessed the same unity of a common people.” (9)

John Lacy the Actor as Sauny the Scot (1668-70)

Lacy as Sauny the Scot.
Lacy as Sauny the Scot.

In 1668-70, a decade before the paintings we have been considering, Wright painted “Lacy the famous roscius” (comic actor). He is depicted in a triple portrait in three roles; Sauny the Scot in Taming of the Shrew, Monsieur DeVice in The Country Chaplain and Parson Scruple in The Cheats. Lacy was about 50 at the time.

The Highland dress has plausible elements; the hodden gray slashed doublet and black bonnet, as well as the pistol and very long dirk. But the belted plaid is worn grotesquely short, and the trews are not cut on the cross, like proper trews. And the flaps on the upper thighs of the trews are also exaggerated, again probably for comic effect. The caricature is light but unmistakable, and Sauny the Scot would continue to serve as the stock stage Scotsman for the next century.


(1) Farr, Dennis 1961: “A Rediscovered John Michael Wright Signature,” Burlington Magazine, Vol. 103, No. 695, pp. 68-72.

(2) Fenlon, J. 1988: “John Michael Wright’s ‘Highland Laird’ Identified,” Burlington Magazine, Vol. 130, No. 1027, pp. 767-69.

(3) Dunlevy, Mairead 1989: Dress In Ireland, B.T. Batsford Ltd., London, p. 61.

(4) Henshall, Audrey S. and Seaby, Wilfred 1961-62: “The Dungiven Costume,” Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 24-25, p. 131.

(5) Hayes-McCoy, G.A. 1957-58: “Irish Costume in Two Portraits,” The Irish Sword, No. 3, pp. 44-46.

(6) Walker, Joseph C. 1788: An Historical Essay on the Dress of the Ancient and Modern Irish

(7) O’Faolain, Eileen 1954: Irish Sagas and Folk-Tales, p. 201.

(8) McClintock, Henry Foster 1943: Old Irish and Highland Dress, Dundalk.

(9) Sobieski-Stuart, John 1845: Costume of the Clans, London.

(10) Bennett, Helen 1980: “Sir John Hynde Cotton’s Highland Suit,” Costume, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 95-109.

(11) Bagwell, Richard 1885: Ireland Under the Tudors, vol. II, p. 210.

(12) Moncreiffe, Ian 1967: The Highland Clans, Barrie and Rockliffe.

(13) Campbell, Donald 1862: Treatise on the Language, Poetry, and Music of the Highland Clans, Edinburgh, p. 42.

(14) Maxwell, Constantia 1923: Irish History from Contemporary Sources, London, p. 113.

(15) Quinn, David Beers 1966: The Elizabethans and the Irish, Folger Shakespeare Library, p. 25.

(16) Rynne, Etienne 1969: “Three Irish Knife-Daggers,” J. Roy. Soc. Antiqs. Ireland, vol. 99, p.143

(17) Buchan, Donald Buchanan: History of Scotland, vol. 1/09, Edinburgh.

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Terry Moylan
Terry Moylan
Feb 18, 2023

My interest in the history of the pipes in Ireland led me to your article, and I have a query regarding the dating of the Codice de Trajes, now in the BNE. Your illustration above shows the spear carrier portion of the image, which also includes a bagpiper. You refer to the image as follows "The finger loop is tied on about eight inches from the heel of the shaft, and all of these details were confirmed by a recently discovered illustration of 1529." I should be obliged if you could let me know the source of your date of 1529 for this image.

Thank you,

Terry Moylan


May 23, 2021

Thank you for presenting this most comprehensive and interesting article about the authenticity of the costumes depicted by the artist in the two portraits Sir Neil O Neill the Irish Chieftain and Sir Mungo Murray in Highland Dress. While I may not agree with every point made in the article it has obviously been broadly researched. The artist who painted the two sitters named above, John Michael Wright, was an erudite man who included complex iconography in many of his portraits. For many years I have continued to research these portraits and I have found an alternative explanation for the iconographic programme in the O Neill portrait, which I hope to publish in the near future. Once again thank yo…

Wilde Irishe
Wilde Irishe
Aug 17, 2021
Replying to

Thank you for your kind words, and for taking the time to comment on an article that very much depended on your own scholarship. Looking forward with great anticipation to learning more about the iconography and possible ideology encoded in the paintings. The Japanese armour has been commented on by Sara Stevenson (In Scottish Weapons and Fortifications, 1100-1800, Ed. Dr. David Caldwell, 1981), and by Bottomley & Hopson, (Arms and Armor of the Samurai, 1993). We left this out of the discussion here, as it is outside the subject of Irish and Highland Dress--but Wright's depiction again confirms his accuracy of portrayal, as the suit is highly comparable to Japaneses presentation armours given to James I as diplomatic gifts.

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