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Bicycles, Long Coats and Shooting Jackets

Bicycles, Long Coats and Shooting Jackets

by Dr Miriam Moffitt

Cycling came into its own as a means of transport towards the end of the 19th century and many Church of Ireland clergy swiftly took to the bike. The RCB Library has recently focussed on this theme and has made some of its more unusual photographs available online here. However, as we will see, the practicalities of riding a bike caused considerable anxiety among some members of the Church.

RCBL MS 1073
RCBL MS 1073

The advent in 1885, of the ‘Rover bicycle’ with its equal–sized wheels and robust chain, coupled with John Dunlop’s development of the pneumatic tyre in 1888 prompted a rapid rise in the use of the bicycle as a means of transport. Church of Ireland clergy were quick to spot the usefulness of the bike and, from the early 1890s, began to cycle around their parishes. The bicycle was swiftly embraced as ‘a heaven–sent machine’ which cost less than a horse and covered the ground more quickly. The Gazette began to publish advertisements for bicycles and cycling lessons. Bikes soon began to feature regularly in accounts of parish activities and, as early as 1892, the parishioners of Mariners Church in Kingstown presented one to their rector.

the bicycle is a heaven–sent machine to him under such circumstances; it costs less than a horse and gets over the ground more quickly.

Not everyone was completely happy with this trend; a few considered it unseemly that clerics should cycle at all, but many were more concerned about that they should wear. The Gazette of 02 January 1891 insisted that it was inappropriate for clergy to cycle to church dressed in surplice, stole and hood, which makes us wonder if they had formerly ridden on horseback fully attired for service, or whether they travelled in some form of carriage or cart.

One cannot help feeling that it would be a more decent method to carry one’s surplice, stole and hood over one’s arm, and put them on in open church, coram populo, than to be seen hurrying along the road in them, perched on top of a bicycle.

As the traditional long black coat was too cumbersome on a bike, cycling clergy began to wear short shooting jackets to the dismay of other sections of the church who claimed that shooting jackets were ‘coming in as a flood’ and, horror of horrors, they were even worn in colours other than black.

Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 23 Sept. 1892
Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 23 Sept. 1892

We recently saw a senior cleric attired in light grey, with knickerbockers and long stockings, etc., – all the attire of a cyclist’.

An editorial in the Gazette of 02 June 1893 condemned this ‘plague’ of shooting jackets which undermined the ‘simple, reverent dignity, which becomes a clergyman, both in and out of the church’. It insisted that a cleric who donned a shooting jacket was one ‘who sinks his own sacred character, thinking that he is more of a gentleman by dressing as a layman’. A half–hearted retraction was published two weeks later which conceded that cycling clerics might reasonably favour this ‘new–fangled fashion’; they were, however, were advised to discard their shooting jackets immediately after dismounting, rather than wearing them habitually ‘from sheer laziness’. The Gazette continued to insist on a distinction between clerical and lay attire, in the absence of which it would be difficult to recognise ‘a devout, earnest–souled parish priest in the modern garb of billycock, knickerbockers and shooting jacket’, an opinion supported by the Revd Edward Maguire, dean of Down whose letter was published in the Gazette of 30 June 1893.

Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 30 June 1893.
Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 30 June 1893.

Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 23 Oct. 1896
Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 23 Oct. 1896


The donning of shooting jackets by members of the clergy went from strength to strength in spite of advertisements for cycle capes which appeared in the Gazette from 1896.

The Gazette of 22 June 1890 reluctantly accepted that shooting jackets or ‘library coats’ as they were euphemistically termed, were increasingly worn – even at clerical functions; their widespread use was grudgingly accepted in the Gazette, in which the role of the bicycle in directing the trends of clerical fashion was noted in the following letter published in the Gazette of 16 July 1909:

But things have changed since then; the priest of today, the real priest, is a priest in a shooting jacket. Cycling may have something to do with this, but I don’t like it. I was at a “Quite Day” some time ago, at which many priests were present. All, or nearly all of them, “Priests in shooting jackets”. Some of them brought black–thorns also, to the service; and occasionally one of these rolled off the benches, with a disconcerting and disturbing sound. I don’t like this, sir, do you?

Advertisements for distinctively clerical attire continued to appear in the Gazette but their incidence declined early in the 20th century. The longer trajectory of clerical tailoring, and the increasing closeness of clerical and secular fashion, is more clearly revealed when earlier advertisements are examined as images of clergymen wearing a long black coat over black breeches and buttoned gaiters are replaced by images of clergy in short jackets. These advertisements also confirm that a market for a more traditional dress persisted into the twentieth century with frock coats being advertised as late as 1926.

Left - Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 07 Feb. 1890; Middle - Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 07 Apr. 1893; Right - Church of Ireland Gazette, 24 Mar. 1910
Left - Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 07 Feb. 1890; Middle - Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 07 Apr. 1893; Right - Church of Ireland Gazette, 24 Mar. 1910

This article does not to suggest that changes in clerical fashion are wholly attributable to the advent of the bicycle, but it is clear that the practicalities of cycling forced clergy to make decisions regarding clothing and that these decisions reduced the distinctiveness of clerical tailoring. Changes in fashion inspired by cycling were even more pronounced in the area of female clothing though of course, at this juncture, trends in women’s fashions were of little relevance to the clergy of the Church of Ireland.