Married in Blue, You’re Sure to Rue

Looking back through my manuscript pages composed during the winter months, I invariably find sheets stained with purple fingerprints. Each summer I freeze enough blueberries to last me through the winter. What a rich violet dye these little blueberry popsicles make! Apparently, Irish bilberries possess the same quality.

Purple was one of the earliest and easiest dye colors to come by through the use of various species of berries. In addition, the royal purple of the Roman Empire was manufactured from shellfish, a process discovered by the Phoenicians, perhaps around 1400 BC, as Pliny dates it. “Although we do not know when knowledge of this dyestuff first came to Ireland, archaeological evidence shows that it was here in the seventh century AD. Dye-houses have been excavated in Roundstone in Connemara and in Inishkea in north Mayo revealed large mounds of certain shellfish broken in such a way as to denote they had been used to extract the dye.” (Mahon, 2000, p. 24).

Elderberries, as well as bilberries, were used to make a bluish-purple or violet dye, and the leaves of woad were the only native source of blue (a deep midnight shade), as indigo had yet to be imported from the Orient. It did not replace woad as a blue dyestuff until the 1600s. Other sources for purple included dandelion, purple loosestrife, and deadly nightshade.

Red was considered a lucky color, but there weren’t many sources for it. The roots of lady’s bedstraw, wild madder, and common sorrel produce a crimson color.

By contrast, yellow dyestuffs were found in abundance. Broom and gorse flowers, bracken roots, St. John’s wort, moss, meadow rue, lichens, and agrimony were used to produce yellows and light greens. Foxglove and nettles were also used for green.

Browns were produced from dulse (seaweed), lichens, oak bark, and bogbean; black from oak bark and acorns, bog sediments, and the roots of meadowsweet and yellow iris.

Fading was a common problem in the use of vegetable dyes, so a process was needed to fix the color. Substances called mordants were used to pretreat wool, linen, and sometimes imported silks, for the dying process to ensure color fastness. The ancient Gaels had access to potash, lime, tannic acid, vinegar, and the ammonia in urine to use as mordants. Varying the mordant with the dyestuff was a way to increase the variety of colors.

Dyecraft was a messy and lengthy process generally done out in the open. It was women’s work, steeped in ritual and myth. Men were considered unlucky around the dye vats, perhaps as a result of a legend involving St. Ciarán (d. 548 AD), who dwelt at Clonmacnoise. As a young boy, he placed a curse on his mother’s dye pot when she shooed him away from her work. Everything she attempted to dye from that point on came out white. (Mahon, 2000, p. 29). I wonder if his curse works for preventing color bleeding in laundry?


Mahon, B. (2000). Rich and Rare: The Story of Irish Dress. Cork: Mercier Press.

Dyeplants and Dyeing: A Handbook. (1964). Baltimore: Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

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