Friday, February 14, 2014


First published in the Western People on Monday.

James Horan’s chief goal in life is to return the County Mayo to All-Ireland glory. We all know that. But wouldn’t it be something if, as a happy accident of his mission, he were to return the hat to men’s fashion as well?

Horan is seldom seen without a hat. We presume he takes it off when he goes to Mass, or lifts it gallantly when passing a lady on the street, but otherwise the man is seldom seen without a lid of some kind.

In the good old summertime, Horan favours the baseball cap. In the winter, the sensible woolly hat. For his first few years, he wore a Mayo County Board team gear hat during League games, but the Sunday before last Horan debuted a new one, a bluey-grey sort of an effort not unlike the bluey-grey skies under which we have to labour in this wet first month of spring. And more luck to him.

The hat has been out of fashion for men for so long that the language no longer distinguishes between a hat and cap, as it once did. Now, anything you can wear on your head is called a hat, no matter if it’s a hand-made silk topper or a some sort of beanie with a little propeller on the top.

Even though they’ve been unfashionable for quite some time, some men have to wear hats for their own protection and well-being. This depends, like so much in Ireland, on the weather. A man needs his hat to keep the rain off at this time of year, but also to protect himself from the sun on those odd days when it deigns to shine.

The need for a hat on a sunny day may not always be obvious, and the penny may not drop until a man is sufficiently old to realise that he has changed with the years. Your correspondent can’t speak for everyone, but I was genuinely mystified for years when, the Monday after going to watch Mayo in Championship games, I would wake up with the crown of my head looking like that red spot in the centre of a non-stick frying pan.

Eventually, I took a proper look at myself in the mirror and realised that my hairline was not where I thought it was. It had retreated back across my pate like King James fleeing the Boyne, leaving the land undefended in the face of the big Orange man in the sky.

I’ve by jabbers worn a hat since, and over the years have amassed something of a selection. This is something to be recommended to the gentleman who needs to buy a hat but can’t make up his mind which hat he needs. There is a quick answer to him – buy several, and wear them as the occasion demands.

For instance, when those bitter winds howl in off the Atlantic, it is the foolish man who goes out of doors without his woolly hat pulled down tight over his ears. They call those hats toques (pronounced “tooks”) in Canada and if anyone should know about protecting themselves from the cold it’s the Canadians. The Great North is a beautiful country, but ludicrously cold for the majority of the year.

Gentlemen may be tempted to buy a chullo hat, having seen them in the shops or worn by angst-ridden musicians on the BBC. It’s best to resist the temptation.

Although it has a strange name, the chullo is becoming quite common winter headwear in Ireland. The chullo is a hat made from llama wool like that of the standard woolly hat, except that it’s pointier, almost like the business end of a bullet, and has two ear-flaps hanging down from the side, not like a bullet at all.

The chullo is originally worn by the people of Andes mountains in South America and more luck to them, but no man has ever worn one of those things at an elevation of fifteen thousand feet or lower without looking like the world’s most hopeless eejit.

Even Paddington Bear himself, a style icon for generations and native of Peru wherein the chullo is commonly worn, thought better of wearing such a thing when sent to London by his Aunt Lucy. Paddington styled himself in a practical sou’wester, a broad-brimmed floppy hat popular with sailors of the squally seas, paired with a practical blue duffel coat that always had a marmalade sandwich in the pocket, in case of emergencies. The diametric opposite of a fool, Paddington Bear.

Years ago, it was said that headgear was a sign of social class. The working man wore a flat tweet cap, the professional a natty trilby or homberg hat, while respectable upper classes wore bowler hats in the daytime and top hats by night. But social classes are seldom so simply identified.

Irish tough guys in the eastern US cities of the late nineteenth century favoured the bowler hat (called a derby in the USA) – if you look closely at Notre Dame’s famous fighting Irishman symbol, you’ll see it’s a bowler he’s wearing.

Also, the bowler hat was quite popular with the faction fighters at home in the earlier part of that century. This was less so for reasons of fashion, but for more practical considerations. The bowler is somewhat stiff to begin with but at the faction fights it was also often stuffed with straw to make a kind of helmet, the better to resist whacking shillelaghs with which the heavy work was done on the field of honour.

Stuck in the middle of a faction fight, a man might have been throttled by the flaps of his chullo, or have his trilby crushed before the blackthorn as the frog before the harrow, but the well-stuffed bowler could keep him alive until he got the price of the trip to America. One of James Horan’s most favoured summertime hats is that of the New York Yankees baseball team; it’s nice to think it a serendipitous tribute to those Fighting Irishmen who helped to build America.