Civilising the hairy savage in 16th century Ireland

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By | The Researcher’s View

To mark Movember, we invited “pogonographer-in-chief” Alun Withey, to commission a month of posts celebrating the history and culture of facial hair. Here’s the fifth in the series, by Clodagh Tait.

Hair was a political issue in early modern Ireland. As early as the reign of Henry VI it was enacted that “he that will be taken for an Englishman shall not use a Beard upon his upper lip alone”. To this purpose, the upper lip was to be shaven every fortnight, or to be “of equal growth with the neather lip”. The target was the croiméal, a long or bushy moustache sported by Gaelic Irishmen.

Concern about distinguishing English from Irishmen stemmed from the erosion of the area under effective government control to the Pale (Dublin and parts of the surrounding counties) and the larger towns, most of whose inhabitants viewed themselves as the ‘English in Ireland’. A further series of statutes from the 1520s and 1530s associated wearers of the croiméal with criminality. A 1537 act asserted that as “Irishmen calling themselves Englishmen’s servants go about stealing, for there is no difference between our marchers and the Irish in habit” no Palesmen should thenceforth sport the “upper beard called a crommell nor turffid head, but either wear a bonnet or else polled heads”.

Irish soldiers drawing by Albrecht Durer

A drawing of Irish Gallowglass and Kerne [soldiers] by Albrecht Durer, 1521. Original caption: “Also gand dy krigsman in Irlandia hindr engeland
Allso gend dy pawern in Irlandyen ” Image credit: Wikimedia commons.

In 1522 in Galway the corporation resolved that no man could be made a freeman “unless he can speke the English tonge and shave his lipe weekly”. In 1525 the townspeople were warned not to tolerate Irish clothing such as mantles and saffron shirts. Men should “shave their over lippes, called crompeaulis; and suffer the hair of their heddys to grow, tyll it cover their earys”. In the same year it was ordered that the inhabitants of the Pale should “go in English apparel, use the English language, and have their upper beards shaven”.

By the middle of the 16th century the croiméal seems to have fallen out of favour and attention turned to the ‘turrfid head’ mentioned in 1537. This was the ‘glib’, or ‘glibs’, a name variously applied to a shaggy fringe worn hanging over the forehead, or to both that fringe and accompanying shoulder-length locks. It tends to be assumed that glibs were teased in some way like modern dreadlocks, and there are indications that the Irish used lime and other substances on their hair.  Edmund Spenser spoke of the Irish “goinge to battaile without armor on their bodies or heads, but trusting onelie to the thickness of their glybbes, the which they say will somytimes beare of a good stroke”. However, others like William Camden and Thomas Gainsford merely noted that Irish hairstyles were long and curled.

disguised like savages, or like Irishmen, with the hair hanging down to the girdle like women

The length of Irishmen’s hair might attract charges of both savagery and effeminacy: at a tournament held at Whitehall in 1584, many of the combatants’ servants processed to the lists “disguised like savages, or like Irishmen, with the hair hanging down to the girdle like women”.  Spenser objected most strongly to the anonymity that glibs and Irish mantles conferred on their wearers. Camden added that the Irish highly valued their glibs and take it hainously if one twitch or pull them”, while Campion suggested that it was “considered a notable piece of villainie” if any man cut another’s glib. No wonder Ralph Rokeby, on campaign in Connacht in 1570, triumphantly recorded that “Such [Irish] As doo come in to us, we cause to cutt ther glybbez, which we doo thynke the ffyrst token of obedience”.

B.John Derricke, The Image of Irelande with a discoverie of Woodkarne ed. John Small (Edinburgh, 1883 [1581]), Plate V. Image credit:

B. John Derricke, The Image of Irelande with a discoverie of Woodkarne ed. John Small (Edinburgh, 1883 [1581]), Plate V. Image credit: Internet Archive.

John Derricke’s Image of Ireland chronicling Sir Henry Sidney’s campaign in the midlands in the 1570s encapsulates the increasingly hostile stereotypes that accompanied and justified the Elizabethan reconquest. In the accompanying images a variety of signifiers – gestures, clothing and, particularly, hair – highlight cultural distinctions between English and Irish. Two images note the symbolic violence visited by Sidney’s forces on the “glibbed theeves”. In one, an individual is held by his glib as he is killed, while the text scornfully boasts:

“To see a souldiour toze a karne, O Lord it is a wonder:
And eke what care he taketh to part, the head from neck a sonder”

Tozing wool involved combing dirty, matted strands to allow them to be spun. Then three rebel heads are borne aloft, one by its hair – “see how trimme their glibbed heads are”.

C.John Derricke, The Image of Irelande with a discoverie of Woodkarne ed. John Small (Edinburgh, 1883 [1581]), Plate VI. Image credit:

C. John Derricke, The Image of Irelande with a discoverie of Woodkarne ed. John Small (Edinburgh, 1883 [1581]), Plate VI. Image credit: Internet Archive.

In the next image, Sidney rides out of Dublin Castle under the rebels’ heads and the caption: “These trunkles heddes do playnly show, eache rebeles fateful end”. If you look closer, however, you might notice that the heads are glibless as well as trunkless, their hair combed back from their faces in the English manner to reveal their identities as well as their as their crimes.

The earlier Gaelic wearers of croiméals and glibs had merely been accused of disloyalty and dishonesty. Forty-odd years later, ‘glibbed heades’ were being associated with ‘monstrous mallice’, ‘Irefull hartes’ and ‘bloudie hands’, and extreme violence was increasingly advocated as the most effective and lasting means of transforming hairy savages into civil subjects.

Author: Clodagh Tait is a lecturer in the Department of History at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick.

Further reading:

Derricke, John. The Image of Irelande with a Discoverie of Woodkarne [ed. John Small]; Edinburgh, 1883 [1581].

Montaño, JP. The Roots of English Colonialism in Ireland; Cambridge, 2011.

Suranyi, A. The Genius of the English Nations: Travel Writing and National Identity in Early Modern England. Newark, 2008.

Walker JC. An Historical Essay on the Dress of the Ancient and Modern Irish; Dublin, 1788.

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