THE BLOG
01/11/2013 13:24 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Movember, Mullets and 14th Century Irish Legislation

"Someone outlawed the moustache?" You say, flabbergasted and spitting coffee into your walrus whiskers like a Boer-war general. Well, yes they did. Let me bring you back to 1366 in Ireland, a country in a state of near-continuous warfare controlled by a slew of regional warlords.

And so the month of November begins again and like the green shoots of our economic recovery, the first outcrops of hair are springing forth on the upper lips of men trying to raise money for charity and cultivate a rakish image along the way. Movember is not something I've ever participated in, or have any intention of doing - I'm sceptical about whether anyone will really give me money for the simple act of having hair that grows, no matter how worthy the cause - but to those currently enjoying a warmer-than-usual mouth area, I wish the best of luck. I generally enjoy that it makes life a little bit sillier, and they're expressing an important freedom - one that was once denied to Englishmen, and that remained on the statute book of Ireland until 1983.

"Someone outlawed the moustache?" You say, flabbergasted and spitting coffee into your walrus whiskers like a Boer-war general. Well, yes they did. Let me bring you back to 1366 in Ireland, a country in a state of near-continuous warfare controlled by a slew of regional warlords. A sort of contemporary Afghanistan, but more damp. England, in its first ever colonial adventure, has been claiming overlordship of the country for roughly two centuries after Pope Adrian IV - the only English pope - had given them permission to invade (popes of this era were like a sort of malign UN security council). Despite all this time ostensively spent in control, and their military superiority over the native Irish, things didn't look great for the colony. It had been largely ignored by the English crown in favour of campaigns in Scotland and France and as a result had been fending for itself, making alliances with locals and trying to survive the low-level ambushes that sapped their strength outside the walls. Rather than try to fight everyone at once, the settlers tried to make friends with some of the locals so that they could at least have some allies. Families intermarried and the Anglo-Norman colonisers learned some of the language of the people that they had conquered.

Unfortunately, when people came over from the home counties to check up on how the imperial outpost was going, they found all this 'Irishness' being exhibited by the English over there to be very peculiar. Worse than that. The word they actually used was 'degenerate'. It was something that the English had been worrying about for some time. What is the point in conquering somewhere if your colony is then colonised back culturally? One complainant in 1297 whined that his countrymen in Ireland "dress themselves in Irish garments and having their heads half shaven, grow the hair from the back of the head, which they call the 'culan', conforming themselves to the Irish in garb as well as countenance." Historical context aside, that does sound like a terrible haircut - a sort of mullet with the front shaved off. This was paired with a moustache and sort of cloak, giving the impression of a sort of 80s fashionista.

So, when Lionel of Clarence, third son of Edward III landed in Ireland with a large army, part of his task was to root out these elements of Irishness in everything from clothing, language, sport, and even in the way that they rode horses (apparently the Irish had a fondness for riding without stirrups). As an exercise, it has been called an early version of South Africa's apartheid regime, though obviously Lionel couldn't pick out people by colour of skin (otherwise no doubt it would have been like the music video for M.I.A's born free - all exploding ginger people and that), so he had to use cultural markers.

In the end, the statute that passed in 1366 proscribed anything that wasn't "English custom, fashion, mode of riding and apparel." It, like South African apartheid was biblically-based on the wisdom of Deuteronomy: "When thou art come into the land which the lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations." The same part of the bible that said you can own slaves and brought in the 'eye for an eye', a gooch for a gooch theory of justice. It probably doesn't need to be said, but the Statutes of Kilkenny was not a particularly successful law. A couple of years later, Lionel of Clarence left the country with his tail between his legs and everything largely went back to how it had been.

Nevertheless, its existence means that whenever I see someone with a badly cut mullet and a moustache, I salute them for standing up for freedom and integration against cultural imperialism. I feel the same way, incidentally, about seeing someone in a burqa, as whatever the arguments may be in terms of women's equality or security, the reality is that laws banning people from wearing things are total bullshit, as we learned last time we tried to implement them.