When A Handbook of Irish Folklore was first published in 1942, it contained (among many other subjects) a section of questions on personal hygiene, asking about washing of the person and washing of clothing, soap, cutting and combing the hair. The card index in the National Folklore Collection reveals several interesting responses to these questions, provided by full-time and part-time collectors using the Handbook in their work.
While collecting in 1937 in Tonranny, Co. Galway, the full-time collector Seán Ó Flannagáin sketched some simple illustrations of a woman’s hairstyle, based on the descriptions by Bríd Ní Mhurae. The account describes the ‘siognán’ (presumably from chignon), a piece of padding on which to pin the hair, and a hairnet, which she used to make herself:
Nuair a bhíos-sa ’mo bhean óig bhíodh na siognáin dá gcaitheadh againn. ’Séard é an siognáin cúl beag gruaige, agus é casta thimpeall ar phíosa wire nó spring do s[h]órt eicínt. Sórt peireabhaic ba bhea é. Aon bhean ar bith ná beadh cúl maith gruaige uirthi fhéin ó nádúr, nó a mbeadh a cuid gruaige gann tanaí, bheadh trí cinn dos na siognáin dá gcaitheadh aici – ceann acub ar bathas, ceann ar chúl a’ cinn, agus ceann eile ar thosach a cinn os cionn clár a héada’. Níor chaitheas fhéin ceann acub ariamh mar go raibh folt maith gruaige orm gach uile lá riamh. Caitheadh corrabhean hata anuas os cionn na siognáin ach is beag bean a mbíodh hata uirthi ‘san am atá mise a rá. Bhíodh na siognáin sin le ceannacht ins na siopaí.
When I was a young woman we used to wear chignons. The chignons were done at the back of the head, twisted around a piece of wire or a spring of some sort. It was a kind of periwig. Any woman who didn’t naturally have a good head of hair, or whose hair would be thin and sparse would wear three chignons, one on the crown of her head, one at the back and one at the front. I never wore one, as I had a good head of hair. Some women would wear a hat on top of the chignons, but women only rarely wore hats in the time I’m speaking of. The chignons would be bought in the shop.NFC 433: 330.
Younger girls would generally wear their hair loose or in plaits, often tied with ribbons. At the age of around 17 the girls would begin to roll their hair, and pin them in a bun at the back of their heads with hair pins. Hair combs, often made of bone, would also be used. As Anne O’Dowd explains in Common Clothes and Clothing 1860-1930, women in the nineteenth century would wear white linen caps over their hair, creating frills at the edges of the cap with the tally iron. This cap was replaced later with the headscarf, and crossovers and wrappers, which could cover the bodice and the head, were also popular.
Another collector to include sketches of hair was P.J. Gaynor, collecting part-time in Co. Cavan. He includes sketches of different styles of beards and moustaches based on the description of James Argue and James McBreen, illustrating various styles of beards and moustaches that had faded from style by 1951. Before the appearance of local barbers, shaving was often done by neighbours, as was the cutting of hair. James Argue names several men who used to cut hair locally, free of charge, explaining:
The hair-cutters in those days would not cut hair in the same style that it is cut now. It was cut round at the level of the back of the neck and the rest of it was worn long. They wore a ‘bob’ after that [i.e a fringe].NFC 1209: 259.
Baldness was also a concern, and many descriptions of local cures include remedies for baldness, including rubbing eel oil, or the ashes of an old boot on one’s head. Particular days were advantageous or disadvantageous for a haircut. Monday was often avoided and the phrase ‘Lomadh an Luain’ (The Monday Chop) is used to describe an unlucky endeavour. Avoiding a haircut or shaving on Friday and Sunday was supposed to save you from getting a toothache. Holy Thursday and Good Friday were popular days to get a haircut, however, and many would be in need of one after letting their hair grow for the period of Lent. Women would also sometimes leave their hair loose on Good Friday, to mark their mourning on the day of the crucifixion of Jesus:
Mrs Gaughan of Cloonfinish remembers to see girls and married women unloosing their hair, which they used to tie at the back of their heads and let it fall down loosely over their shoulders. Their hair was left in this state for the whole day. This was done as a token of sorrow for the agonies Our Lord suffered on this day.NFC 227: 178.
A certain level of care was taken with the ends of hair that had been cut. One belief states that it must be bundled up and hidden in a hole in a wall, so that the person can collect it again on Judgement Day, as they will need to bring it with them to ascend into Heaven. Another belief states that it must be burned so that birds cannot take it for their nests, as this would cause headaches.
Although not every collector chose to add illustrations when collecting this small aspect of folk tradition, attention to personal hygiene was certainly of interest to the Irish Folklore Commission, as evidenced by the detailed list of questions laid out in A Handbook of Irish Folklore. Further information of the styling and dressing of hair will be found on close examination of responses to the Dress Questionnaire (NFC 745-757) and the various accounts listed in the card index, as there is certainly more to be learned about this dimension of human life in the 19th and 20th centuries.
This post was written by Ailbe van der Heide, Cúntóir Leabharlainne | Library Assistant, Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann | National Folklore Collection.
Dunlevy, M. (1999). Dress in Ireland, 2nd edn, Cork: Collins Press.
O’Dowd, A. & National Museum of Ireland (1990). Common clothes & clothing 1860-1930, Dublin: National Museum of Ireland.