Filibegs

In Brief

The monarch on the British throne in 1904 was King Edward VII, known as Albert Edward before Queen Victoria's death in 1901. Mr. Deasy's mantelpiece in Nestor boasts a picture of "the shapely bulk of a man in tartan filibegs: Albert Edward, prince of Wales." The dissolute ways of the prince come in for mockery in Cyclops, and the king steps in to oversee the fight when his soldiers attack Stephen in Circe.

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"Filibegs" is another name for a kilt (Scots Gaelic féileadhbeag, from féileadh kilt + beag small). It is uncertain what hangs over Deasy's mantel: possibly a painting, but more likely a photo, since many photographs were taken of this royal personage in Highlands garb, and art prints of them were sold widely. Unlike the one displayed here, Deasy's comes from a time before Albert Edward's coronation. But it is recent enough that Dirty Bertie, as he was sometimes called, has assumed his distinctive "bulk." Over time, the man's waistline came to match his gargantuan appetites for food, drink, smoking, gambling, and sex. Edward was also a fancier of thoroughbred horses and an habitué of the racetrack, a fact which may well explain Deasy's having coupled "the princely presence" with portraits of "vanished horses."

In Cyclops, J. J. O'Molloy observes that "we have Edward the peacemaker now," referring to the king's efforts to establish peaceful relations with some of his European neighbors. Gifford notes that this is "What the French called Edward VII in the first blush of optimism about the entente cordiale. It was also a title that he coveted." In reply, the Citizen blusteringly alludes to the prince's notorious sexual exploits: "Tell that to a fool. . . . There's a bloody sight more pox than pax about that boyo." Joe Hynes sneers at "the priests and bishops of Ireland doing up his room in Maynooth in His Satanic Majesty's racing colours and sticking up pictures of all the horses his jockeys rode," to which Alf Bergan replies, "They ought to have stuck up all the women he rode himself." J. J. wryly assures him that "Considerations of space influenced their lordships' decision."

The Citizen also takes aim at Edward's German origins, calling him "Edward Guelph-Wettin." Guelph, Gifford notes, was the family name of the House of Hanover, and "Wettin is the Prussian version of the Swedish Wetter, Prince Albert's family name. Queen Victoria dropped the name Guelph when she married Prince Albert." In 1849, at the tender age of 8, their son Albert Edward was created "earl of Dublin" during his mother's state visit to Dublin—a fact which likewise draws the Citizen's scorn.

In Circe, the looming presence of two aggressive British soldiers brings King Edward into the drama, via Stephen's thoughts: "(With elaborate gestures, breathing deeply and slowly.) You are my guests. Uninvited. By virtue of the fifth of George and seventh of Edward. History to blame." George V, Edward's successor, was crowned King after his father's death in 1910. Stephen's wish to cleanse his mind of the imperial presence—"(He taps his brow.) But in here it is I must kill the priest and the king"—excites the soldiers' wrath. It also makes the king spring to life: "Edward the Seventh appears in an archway." He has come to oversee the fight.

[2019] Edward's "tartan filibegs" conform to a tradition that began when King George IV became the first Hanoverian monarch of Great Britain to visit Scotland. The visit had been encouraged by Sir Walter Scott, who oversaw elaborate preparations that included thousands of Lowlanders outfitted in Highland dress. In How the Scots Invented the Modern World (2001), Arthur Herman notes that the king had said, "I dislike seeing anything in Scotland that is not purely national and characteristic" (312). In 1822 that meant clothes, weapons, and bagpipes consistent with the romantic depictions of Highland life in Scott's novels. When the king arrived in Edinburgh his flabby body was stuffed into the full outfit: a kilt in the Royal Stewart tartan plaid with a sporran pouch in front, flesh-colored plaid tights, the green sash of the Order of the Thistle, and a bonnet with a jaunty feather.

Actual Highlanders usually wore the voluminous breacan an féileadh or great kilt which wrapped around the entire body, keeping people warm in the harsh climate. The Edinburgh organizers opted instead for the sportier féileadh-beag, which covered only the upper legs and sometimes attached a short piece of plaid at one shoulder. The king's visit made "filibegs" the expected thing in the popular imagination. Something similar happened with plaid patterns. Most Highlanders had never associated a particular tartan with their clan; they wore whatever cloth was available, and expressed their clan allegiance in battle with things like a sprig of heather, thistle, or juniper. In the 18th century Highlander regiments in the British army had opted for more regularity, and after the king's visit in the 1820s people in both the Highlands and the Lowlands became convinced that they must have tartans that declared their familial descent. The rest is familiar, and almost entirely bogus, history.

When Prince Albert purchased the Balmoral estate in Aberdeenshire in 1852, Queen Victoria decided that the royal family must wear tartan plaids whenever they retreated to Scotland. Her son Bertie became one more fat, spoiled Hanoverian stuffed into a Highland warrior's kit.

JH 2016
King Edward VII. Source: www.cqout.com.
King Edward VII at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, photographed by his wife Queen Alexandra, published in 1908. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
1829 oil on canvas portrait by Sir David Wilkie of King George IV in the highland costume that he was fitted with upon his arrival in Edinburgh in 1822. Source: Wikimedia Commons.