As St. Patrick's Day is fast approaching, I have been getting a lot of requests regarding Irish tartans. It's given me cause to rethink the possible origins of many of them, and indeed, the "Irish tartan" phenomenon in general.
Many are aware that the oldest Irish tartan is the Ulster tartan, dating to the seventeenth century. There is a good article about it here. However, it is important to realize that it would not have been regarded as "the Ulster tartan" at that time. There were no named tartans at that early date, and it would have been considered the same as any other tartan design. It was not known as "the Ulster tartan" until well after its discovery in 1956, buried on a Dungiven farm. A reconstruction of the seventeenth century outfit was made and put on display in the Ulster Museum in 1958. At some point in the 1970s it was recorded by the Scottish Tartans Society as the Ulster tartan, and the name as been associated with it ever since.
Why is this significant? I don't know when the Ulster tartan was first put into production by the tartan mills, but I suspect it was around the same time as the STS recorded the tartan. And I propose that this sparked interest in the creation of other Irish named tartans.
Just look at the earliest known dates for many of the older Irish tartans. The Clodagh tartan was first woven in 1970. By 1979 a story was being circulated that it was an historic tartan that was discovered in a peat bog in southern Ireland (sound familiar?), but that story has never been substantiated.
The Tara/Murphy tartan first appears in the records around 1967, being sold by the Kilt Shop in Edinburgh.
There are many Irish family name tartans that were first recorded by William H. Johnston on a visit to Pendleton Woolen Mills, in Oregon, in 1977 or 78. These supposedly were recorded from their pattern books, and include tartans for the names Forde, Keirnan, O'Keefe, and O'Farrell.
All the other Irish named tartans that we have record for, including the popular Irish county tartans, were designed well after this period, and their origins are fairly well documented. I can find no evidence of Irish named tartans at all from before this time. My theory, therefore, is that the interest in the Ulster tartan, following its discovery in 1956 and subsequent inclusion in the Scottish Tartans Society register, is what created the phenomenon of the Irish tartan.