Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Irish Mantles, English Nationalism: Apparel and National Identity in Early Modern English and Irish Texts

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Irish Mantles, English Nationalism: Apparel and National Identity in Early Modern English and Irish Texts

Article excerpt

In the Rainbow Portrait (fig. 1), painted c. 1600, Elizabeth I boldly appropriated an item of clothing that Edmund Spenser thought fit only for thieves, beggars, and rebels. She wears an anglicized, extremely luxurious version of the Irish mantle, a garment about which the man with so much praise for the Fairie Queene had nothing good to say.1 Why would the most powerful person in England choose this particular garment to display her power? What made the Irish mantle such a potent symbol for the early modern English?

The title of the ninth chapter of Barnabe Rich's A New Description of Ireland (1610) advises that "a conquest should draw after it Lawe, Language, and Habit" (33). Tudor and Stuart England agreed, regularly producing legal and rhetorical attacks on such markers of "Irishness" as language and clothing. The denunciation and attempted elimination of the Irish language were spurred by fears about a disturbing permeability of "Englishness" and its cultural and geographical proximity to Irishness. This attitude toward the Irish language is paralleled by similar attitudes toward the more easily changeable marker of clothing, specifically the Irish mantle. The mantle simultaneously offered a way to keep the Irish separate by marking them as visibly different from the English and functioned as a symbol of the very difference that English expansionism sought to eliminate. As such, English texts considered the mantle in ambivalent and sometimes contradictory ways. Whether represented as covering the nude bodies of beggars, the armor of soldiers, or the satin of the elite, it appeared as a locus of fear and a mechanism of transformation. English writers simultaneously used Irishness to define Englishness and, at the same time, to contain the potential of Irishness to disrupt English identity.

The mantle was a heavy, thick woolen garment that extended between knee- and ankle-length. Sleeveless and relatively shapeless, it would have been placed over the shoulders and wrapped around the body, and it could be pulled up to cover the head as well. The popular English cloak, as a point of contrast, was usually shorter and often lined with velvet. There existed, of course, a broad range of both mantles and cloaks, from the rough and unadorned to the costly and ornate. In the case of mantles, though, while Irish texts might acknowledge such differences, their English counterparts rarely did so. In Spenser's A View of the State of Ireland-a dialogue completed in 1596, entered in the Stationer's Register two years later, but not published until 1633-Eudoxus, who represents England, describes the mantle as able to replace "housing, bedding, and clothing" (57).2 In fact, a 1599 request for supplies to equip English soldiers in Ireland included money for Irish mantles for this very reason and echoed Henry Wallop's similar proposition from two years earlier, which was rejected partly "on the grounds of national preference" (Morgan 154).3 Wallop argued not only that mantles would cost less than English clothing but also that "any soldiers that hath seen the service of other countries and of this can inform your Honour [Sir Robert Cecil] that the solider must here of necessity use a mantle at all times for his lodging at night and to keep him dry in the day" (Calendar 359- 60). He was answered that "English apparel will do best for English men" (381). Mentioned in Henry VIII's Act for the English Order, which banned, among other items of Irish clothing (and grooming), "any mantles, coat or hood made after the Irish fashion" (qtd. in Maxwell 113), the mantle survived as a focal point of English anxieties about cultural confusion into the early modern period and beyond. In the process of launching their attacks, English writers imposed a "national," that is, "racial" identity on the Irish. And while the signifiers of this identity are important, the very idea of an Irish national consciousness is itself of fundamental significance. …

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