Luke Gernon describes the women of Ireland, 1620

[Luke Gernon, an Englishman, was appointed Justice of Munster in 1619.]

The weomen of Ireland are very comely creatures, tall, slender and upright. Of complexion very fayre & cleare-skinnd (but frecled), with tresses of bright yellow hayre, which they chayne up in curious knotts and devises ... They are not strait laced nor plated in theyr youth, but suffred to grow at liberty so that you shall hardely see one crooked or deformed, but yet as the proverb says, soone ripe soone rotten. Theyr propensity to generation causeth that they cannot endure. They are wemen at thirteene and olde wives at thirty. I never saw fayrer wenches nor fowler calliots, so we call the old wemen.

Of nature they are very kind and tractable. At meetings they offer themselves to be kiste with the hande extended to embrace you. The yong wenches salute you, conferre with you, drinke with you without controll. They are not so reserved as the English, yett very honest. Cuckoldry is a thing almost unknowne among the Irish. At solemn invitements, the Benytee, so we call the goodwife of the house meets at the hall dore with as many of her femall kindred as are about her all on a row; to leave any of them unkist were an indignity though it were done by the lord president.

I come to theyr apparell. About Dublin they weare the English habit, mantles onely added thereunto, and they that goe in silkes will wear a mantle of country making. In the country even among theyr Irish habitts they have sundry fashions ... I will beginne with the ornament of theyr heads ... At Lymerick they weare rolls of lynnen, each roll contayning twenty bandles of fyne lynnen clothe ... In Conaught they weare rolles in forme of a cheese. In Thomond they weare kerchiefs hanging downe to the middle of theyre backe. The maydes weare on the forepart of theyre head about foure yards of coloured ribbon smoothly layde, and theyr owne haire playted behind. In other places they weare theyre haire loose and cast behind.

[Gernon goes on to relate that they wear smocks or scarves under gowns laced up the front with hanging sleeves open at the elbow (to preserve them from wear and tear), many-gored thick skirts over petticoats, coloured or white stockings and 'brogues'.]

Theyr mantles are commonly of a browne blew colour with fringe alike, but those that love to be gallant were them of greene, redd, yellow and other light colours with fringes diversifyed ... The old women are loath to be shifted out of thyir auncient habitts but the younger sort, especially in gentlemen's houses are brought up to resemble the English, so that it is to be hoped that the next age will weare out these disguyses. Of their cleanliness I will not speak.

Extract from Luke Gernon, A discourse of Ireland, 1620 reprinted in C. Litton Falkiner, Illustrations of Irish history and topography from contemporary sources, London, 1904, p.357.

'Not strait laced nor plated' means their figures were not tightly laced up or corseted.
'Propensity to generation' means they tended to have many children.
'Calliots' refers to old women.
'Cuckoldry' refers to the deception of husbands by the adultery of their wives.
'Benytee' means bean an tí, woman of the house.
'Bandles' refers to lengths of cloth of narrow width.


  1. Describe the appearance of an Irish woman in 1620, according to Luke Gernon.
  2. Does the style of Luke Gernon's description influence your opinion of the document as a reliable historical source? Give reasons for your answer.
  3. What did Luke Gernon seem to find unusual and therefore worthy of comment in the social manners of the Irish women?
  4. What features of Irish dress as described by Luke Gernon in 1620 were also found in the law passed by the Irish Parliament in the time of Henry VIII in 1537? Refer to Henry VIII in Documents.
  5. Discuss the overall attitude of Luke Gernon to the Irish in 1620.
  6. Discuss the value of the above document as a reliable historical source
contents index