Weaver weft me a of piece of cloth
of your purist cotton
for linen is harder to dye they say
and I wish to dye it purple,
Dyster dye my length of cotton
but do not use the madder*
for i do not wish for fabric red
but the colour of the heather,
seamstress sow me a petticoat
of the the cotton i have you handed
and insert in the folds the light of the sun
and i will gladly wear it
basket maker make me creel
of the finest willow grown
and i will fill it full of turf
and bring the turf safely home
Artist paint my petticoat
not red nor blue nor yellow
but Paint it in the finest hue
the colour of the heather.
So he painted her skirt of the finest hue
and kissed its hem so dearly
and she turned and walked with her creel of turf
into the morning early.
(A tongue-in-cheek poem penned in the style of the romantic Victorians)
The Victorians were a romantic bunch as I have recently discovered when attending a series of lectures given in conjunction with the Frederick William Burton exhibition in the National Gallery of Art in Dublin.
But I will start at the beginning.
Long before the yellow bicycle I loved a purple skirt.
I loved it not only for its colour but for the way it hung.
It was made of gathered cotton and its folds caught the light as it billowed out and flowed beautifully when I walked.
I was never one to obsess over clothes (I would rather be off camping in the wilds of Connemara then spending a day shopping for them) So I couldn’t understand the draw it had on me.
It was only later I came across the significance of purple (mystery, magic and creativity not to mention passion and royalty)
I only knew I loved it entirely and wore it till its hem frayed and its colour faded.
Finally it became too threadbare to wear.
‘Make a cushion out of it’ One of my more practical sisters suggested, laughing at the horrified expression on my face ‘or give it to mom! She’ll cut it into squares and use them in one of her quilts’
What was my sister suggesting!
Didn’t she understand it was made to be free and flowing?
Made to live a life billowing out in the west of Ireland wind?
I could not allow it end its days being sat upon or lying crumpled on some bed.
No! I planned to bring it up and throw it, kite-like into the air where it could soar to the heavens or maybe I would hang it on a hawthorn tree beside a holy well where it could continue to spread its magic to those who came there to pray (for the cure of the eye or a bit of passion in their lives) .
But sadly I did neither.
Life changed, divorce happened, I moved from the west and somewhere in some box or bag lies the remnants of my beloved purple skirt
But all is not lost
Reorganising my book shelves last Sunday before I headed out to the above mentioned lecture, I came across an old magazine entitled ‘Ireland of the welcomes’ .
It was the May-June issue dated 1987
And on the front cover, for all to admire, was my beloved purple skirt.
How well the photographer captured its billowing fabric.
I go to my lecture.
Apart from the interesting facts of mapping by the ordinance surveyors of the time, the romantic portrayal , by artists, of the Irish colleen, wearing a red petticoat and carrying a creel of turf (or pitcher of water) in the west of Ireland was mentioned frequently.
It appears romantic remote landscapes were all the vogue in Victorian times. They loved what they considered ‘picturesque wildness’. they could not get enough of paintings on its subject.
They were also curious about people they considered different to themselves. The locals.
They had been to the orient and were now turning their attention to the west of Ireland which though physically nearer was actually harder to access due to lack of roads and ‘Gentlemens seats’ (the big houses where the gentry could spend the night).
Artists went to the west to capture this picturesqueness. Some went of their own accord but others were sent by journals such as Halls pictorial.
Petrie, James Arthur O’Connor, francis Danby and the man who my lectures were about Frederic william Burton to mention a few.
Tourism had come to the west of Ireland.
I wouldn’t dare give accurate dates or which artist came first because even though I scribbled notes I found it hard to concentrate.
Every time the lecturer put up a slide of one of these colleens, the image of my purple skirt (and me in it) with a creel of turf sitting jauntily on my hip floated in front of the screen reminding me that things hadn’t changed that much in 100 years of tourist advertising.
*Madder is a plant from whose roots red dye was obtained and was used extensively to dye the traditional petticoats of the women of the west of Ireland. It is a very ancient form of dye, seemingly used by the celts, who loved to wear colour, and is certainly mentioned in the ‘Book of Lismore’ 1408-1411.
Purple is a man made dye first produced in the mid 1800’s.
P.S I wish to apologise to Nutan who took these photo’s, for the poor transferring of them from magazine to camera to laptop. In doing so I have, unintentionally, lost some of their magic. (Nutan I owe you a pot of homemade jam).