No brehon robes for new Irish judges who went back to black after independence

Wigs and gowns were trappings of an alien regime, thought first chief justice — with a colourful alternative proposed

A proposal by the first Chief Justice of the Irish Free State that Irish judges should wear colourful robes inspired by costumes worn by the brehons or judges of old Gaelic Ireland never got past the drawing board.

Hugh Kennedy, a skilled barrister and ardent nationalist, was appointed the first chief justice of the Irish Free State in 1924.

As chairman of the superior courts’ rules committee, he campaigned for a new look for the Irish judges. His proposal that Irish judges should wear brehon-style robes, not the wigs and gowns that he regarded as trappings of an alien regime, was enthusiastically supported by the poet WB Yeats.

On Yeats’s recommendation, Kennedy obtained sketches for the new robes from an English artist Charles Shannon, and from the Dun Emer Guild, on Dublin’s Hardwicke Street.


Kennedy’s suggestions for the robes include an increasing use of colour, according to the seniority of the judge. Kitty McCormack, from the guild, said the inspirations for her designs included the Book of Kells.

The robe proposal received little support from judges or government and the existing wigs and gowns were mostly retained although some district judges adopted a form of head-dress favoured by Kennedy, modelled on that of the doges of Venice.

Kennedy himself did not wear his wig when sitting in the Supreme Court and instead carried it and placed it on the bench.

It took until 1995 for Irish barristers to be freed from the rule requiring them to wear wigs. In 2011, the superior court rules were changed to make wigs optional for judges and the Supreme Court led the way in not wearing wigs on the bench.

Judicial gowns are still black, apart from some colourful stripes on the sleeves.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times