Coat of many characters — Frank McNally on a life-changing pilgrimage to Kildare Village

Concerned friends have taken to buying me overcoats lately

Despite many years’ exposure to the orgasmic radio ads of Kildare Village Woman, I had never visited that famed retail experience until recently. Nor was it on my to-do list.

Then some friends bought me an overcoat there as a birthday present (partly because they thought I didn’t have a coat, whereas I did, bought by another friend only last year, although don’t tell them that).

Unfortunately, as even my mother used to do, they mistook me for a large size – it must be because I talk big – when in fact I’m a medium. So then I had to bring the coat back and change it.

There was an element of pilgrimage in this. Kildare is of course synonymous with St Brigid, one whose feast day my birthday falls. And among the many legends associated with the goddess/holy woman, a coat is fundamental.

Unable to persuade the local king to donate land for a monastery, she resorted to a ruse involving her cloak, asking only for a site the garment could cover.

The king should have known what would happen – saints were always pulling off dodgy land acquisitions like this back then. But he said yes. Whereupon Brigid got her followers to stretch the cloak in all directions, magically, until it had rezoned a large tract of Kildare.

Before discussing the retail village, I suppose I should explain (or try to) why concerned friends have taken to buying me overcoats lately.

It’s not like I couldn’t buy one myself. For whatever reason, though, I have never considered a full coat essential in Ireland. And as a correspondent on this page noted a while ago, there are many men like me.

Writing in 2018, Pádraig J O’Connor from Dublin 14 lamented:

“If you go into town and look around you carefully, you will observe that hardly any male (at least under 60) is wearing a full-length overcoat, even in the dead of winter.”

He asked: “Could this phenomenon be associated with climate change, or could it be the often brain-numbing influence of fashion?”

Being brain-numbed, perhaps, I would say climate has a lot to do with it. In any case, I overheat easily.

But I may also be prey to a mysterious condition whereby Irish people secretly believe themselves to be Mediterranean, despite all evidence, and dress accordingly.

The friends who bought the coat – we’ll call them “Sarah” and “Paolo” to protect their identities – have no such delusions, however.

Paolo is Mediterranean, as it happens. He is also, however, from Italy, where possession of at least one designer overcoat is required by law. And despite being a style icon, whose sartorial advice is much sought after here, he always dresses to suit Irish weather.

Sarah, for her part, is a self-confessed martyr to respectability. She descends from a long line of women who have been at some time or other scandalised by the spectacle of “men at funerals in bad coats”.

In my case, the catalyst was not even a funeral. It was a January hike on Howth Head when, despite wind and rain, I wore the usual short fleece jacket (in fairness, the temperature was a balmy seven degrees).

She decided then on the birthday present plan and roped others in. But a split followed. Another friend – we’ll call her “Fiona” – was supposed to be involved in the consortium but on hearing Sarah’s chosen brand, refused on principle. I won’t use Fiona’s exact term because this is a family newspaper, but to paraphrase, she considered the brand synonymous with smug English Tory types who drive Land Rovers. So she bought me a book instead. When the need to change the coat arose, she also offered emotional support and a lift to Kildare.

The inner sanctum of St Brigid’s monastery was a no-man’s land. Central to it was an eternal flame she and her helpers tended around the clock.

As late as AD 1188, Giraldus Cambrensis tells us, the fire was kept alive by followers, who took turns to mind it during the day but left the saint herself in charge overnight.

It was still barred to men then “and if anyone should presume to enter, which has been sometimes attempted by rash men, he will not escape the divine vengeance”.

Kildare Village is not quite so female-dominated – there were a few rash men there too when we visited. But I did feel like an interloper in an otherworld as we wondered around its weird, pedestrianised streets through a bewildering range of designer stores, half of which I’d never heard of before.

We also started at the wrong end, which was financially dangerous. En route to the coat shop I somehow bought a long-sleeve running top, shorts, and a half-price shirt, none of which I knew I needed beforehand.

Luckily it was nearly 8pm closing, when St Brigid arrives to take over the night security shift. There was just enough time left to change the coat. As well as medium, true to form, I chose the shortest style.

But even so, my friends can hope that, if magically stretched in all directions, it may in time cover all my social inadequacies.

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