It is not really enough to call the léine a shirt, as it is really a foundational garment. Modern clothing in the West is not so much complicated as fiddly, with multiple undergarments, numerous and varied over-garments and a host of nigh-disposable accoutrements. Early Gaelic clothing was simpler in some ways and certainly more useful. The léine was a single, basic article of clothing that, when worn with the bratt (or the modern Irish brat as I have it elsewhere), was pretty much all one needed. Of course, it was almost always worn with an inar (more usually spelled ionar), that is, an outer covering that by the sixteenth century at the latest had become a kind of protective leather vest, but this also could be worn on its own.
This image drawn by De Heere of sixteenth-century Irish shows the bratt, inar and léine. On the women, the léine can be seen at the neck of both ladies and emerging from the inside of the right-hand lady’s inar. Note that the ladies’ inair cover from shoulder to hem, while the men’s only comes to below the waist. Above the belt they are very similar, with inar-sleeves slit in order to allow the long léine-sleeves to emerge.
The man on the far right wears a bratt. As a further note, it is interesting that the ladies wear shoes but the men do not. The word bróc (or bróg in the modern language) was a borrowing from Germanic and seems to apply equally to shoes or low breeches. From the literature, it is clear that the assumption was that most went bare-footed. Most images down to the later eighteenth century reflect this as well.
The construction of the léine is fairly simple, in spite of some modern reconstructions. One pattern designed for use in the SCA, for example, produces a very beautiful garment, but after discussing this with a good friend of mine who researches the history of clothing it seems that it is simply too involved, particularly in its use of curved seams. I will get into this more in a later post, but the long and short of it is that the individual pieces of cloth would all be squares and rectangles. Any curves in the garment would be produced by gathers and pleats. This would allow for total use of the famously immense amounts of fabric mentioned in sixteenth century laws.
As a last note, the word tuinech also meant something like a léine, but being borrowed from the Latin tunicuswhence ‘tunic’ could have a broader range of application. Similarly, the cochall being derived from the Latin cucullus denoted a hooded cloak as opposed to the simple covering denoted by bratt.