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Inside ‘A history of Ireland in 100 words’: Gruaig

What’s a wicker boat got to do with hair-styles? Find out more about medieval Irish fashion in today’s entry.

To celebrate Seachtain na Gaeilge we’re letting you take a peek inside our book A history of Ireland in 100 words. Today’s entry is Gruaig.

The common word for hair in Modern Irish is gruaig, and contemporary hair-styles are expressed using phrases built around this word. So síntí gruaige are ‘hair extensions’, gruaig spíceach is ‘spiked hair’ and gruaig shuagánach refers to ‘dreadlocks’ (from suagán ‘a rope made of straw’). In practice, Irish speakers would probably turn to English to express most modern styles, but hair has played an important part in Irish society over the centuries, and the pre-modern language bristles with hair-related vocabulary offering valuable insights into fashions and attitudes.

Actually, the word gruaig appears relatively late in Irish sources. Attested in post Reformation translations of the Bible and Tadhg Ó Cianáin’s seventeenth-century account of the ‘Flight of the Earls’, it seems to have come to the fore well into the Early Modern period. Before then, hair was folt, a word that is still used, primarily, to refer to the hair on your head. Subjects of late medieval praise poems expected their hair to be singled out for special attention and these descriptions not only give an indication of late medieval hair-styles, but also show creative uses of words for everyday things. Ringleted hair was described as failgech, an adjective deriving from fail ‘a ring’; the term used for the type of boat known as a curach ‘coracle’ seems to be used also for a top-knot; and clad ‘a ditch’ serves to denote a parting in hair. Mention of a ‘cowlick’ survives in ‘The cattle-raid of Cooley’. Here a man is described as having fine, fair, close-cut hair ‘as if a cow had licked it’ (mar bó ataslilad). In ‘Cormac’s glossary’, baldness at the crown of the head is imaginatively termed sál tre assa ‘heel through shoe’!

References to long, wavy and fair hair predominate in praise poetry, in depictions of men as well as women, and the prevalence of long hair is also suggested in surviving medieval legal terminology. Punishable offences included foltgabál, seizing by the hair, and foltgal, pulling an opponent’s hair (in a fight). Cutting off a person’s hair was considered an act of bodily blemishing or disfigurement.

In other contexts, too, Irish hair was a cause for legal pronouncement. A statute of 1297 proscribed the English from following the practice of Irishmen in having their heads half shaven with long hair tied up behind. This style was known in Irish as the cúlán. It has been argued that, as this term was sufficiently distinctive to be used in a nickname (Niall Cúlánach O’Neill, for example, died in 1291), it was not a common style for Irishmen but rather one associated with outlaws.

Over two centuries later, in 1537, a statute of Henry VIII forbade the English from copying the Irish fashion called the glib. This style seems to be portrayed in a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, dating from 1521, and was described by Edmund Spenser in his A view of the present state of Ireland from 1596 as a ‘thick curled bush of hair, hanging down over their eyes’. In Modern Irish, gliobach ‘dishevelled, tousled; hairy, shaggy’, and gliobachán, a term for an unkempt person, both derive from the sixteenth-century glib.

A history of Ireland in 100 words is a book, a banner campaing and an exhibition. Find our more at