I was reading the descriptions of people’s appearance in Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (The destruction of Daderga’s hostel), an early medieval Irish story from the Ulster Cycle, when I was interested to note these quite vivid descriptions of people at the court of the Irish High King, Conaire Mór mac Eterscél, who is said to have reigned in the first century BC or AD.
First, three men from Pictland, i.e. the East of Scotland, are described:
‘At-chonnarc and imdae & triar indi,
trí dondfir móra,
trí cruindberrtha foraib it é comlebra for cúl & étan.
Trí gerrchochaill dubae impu co ulnib & cendidi fota forna cochlaib.
Trí cloidib dubae dímóra leó
& teora dubboccóti úasaib
& teora dubslega lethanglasa úasaib. Remithir indber cairi crand cach ae díb. …
‘Is andsa damsa a samail.
Ní fetursa i nh-Érinn in triarsin manid h-é in triar ucut di Chruithentúaith de-deochatar for loinges asa tír conda-fil h-i teglach Conaire.
It é a n-anmand:
Dub Loinges mac Trebuait
& Trebuait mac h-ui Lonsce
& Curnach mac h-ui Fíaich.
Trí laích ata dech gaibthi gaisced la Chruithentúaith in triar sin.
‘I saw another room there, with a huge trio in it:
three brown, big men:
three round heads of hair on them, even, equally long at nape and forehead.
Three short black cowls about them reaching to their elbows: long hoods were on the cowls.
Three black, huge swords they had,
and three black shields they bore,
with three dark broad-green javelins above them. Thick as the spit of a caldron was the shaft of each…’
‘Hard it is for me to find their like.
I know not in Erin that trio,
unless it be that trio from Pictland, who went into exile from their country, and are now in Conaire’s household.
These are their names:
Dublonges son of Trebúat,
and Trebúat son of Húa-Lonsce,
and Curnach son of Húa Fáich.
The three who are best in Pictland at taking arms are that trio.
A little later, there is a description of three Anglo-Saxon princes:
‘At-connarc isind leith atúaid din tig. Nonbur.
Noí monga forbaidi foraib.
Noí camsi fogarti impu.
Noí lennae corcrai tairsiu cen delgae indib.
.ix. cromsceith déirg úasaib’.
‘Rusfetamar’ ol se.
‘.i. Ósalt & a da chomalta.
Osbrit Lamfota a da chomalta.
Lindas & a da chomalta.
Tri rigdomna do Saxanaib sin filet ocond ríg.
‘On the northern side of the house I beheld nine men.
Nine very yellow heads of hair were on them.
Nine shirts somewhat short were round them:
nine purple plaids over them without brooches therein.
Nine broad spears,
nine red curved shields above them.’
‘We know them,’ he said.
‘Oswald and his two foster-brothers,
Osbrit Longhand and his two foster-brothers,
Lindas and his two foster-brothers.
Three crown-princes of England who are with the king.
I was interested in the descriptions of the individuals’ clothing and accoutrements. This section of the story is a long and detailed description of the physical appearance of each nobleman in the Royal party in turn, mentioning their shirts, cloaks, brooches, weapons, hair, etc.
I am not very happy with any of the translations I have seen though! The different technical words for the garments is very hard to work out. The Pictish men wear short black capes or cloaks, reaching down only to their elbows, with long hoods. We are not told what they wear under their cloaks. The English men each wears a short tunic, and a purple cloak without a brooch. This is interesting because almost everyone else described has a brooch or pin on their cloak. Is this a distinctively English thing, to not pin a cloak but just throw it over your shoulders? And is it a distinctively Pictish thing, to wear a short cape with a hood (perhaps somewhat like the Orkney hood?)
I am imagining that we see here some kind of attempt on the part of the Irish storyteller, to caricature the distinctive appearance of foreign people at the Royal court. I wonder how much these caricatures reflect genuine clothing and appearance habits of the Picts and the English respectively?