The Caubeen

Story

The dictionary describes a caubeen as 'an Irish beret, typically dark green in colour' with the origins of the word going back to the 19th century Irish for 'old hat' - cáibín, literally meaning 'a little cape'. There are tales of its origins in an Aran beret worn by fishermen, and a romantic suggestion that it dates back to the time of the Gaelic Irish general Owen Roe O'Neil. The Elizabethan-era portrait of what is believed to be O'Neill wearing what was described in an 1856 commentary as a 'plain dark blue bonnet, with its jewel' could be matched by others of that and later period characters, many of whom were not Irish. The ancient origins of the caubeen will likely continue to be the subject of romantic speculation.

There is no doubt that as a form of British military headdress, it did not appear until the 20th century, and was first worn by pipers. Along with saffron kilts, it separated the Irish from the Scottish regiments in an easily identifiable way. It was the London Irish Rifles who decided, in 1937, that it would become the regimental head dress for all ranks.

BredinWhen the 2nd Battalion The London Irish Rifles, during the Second World War, fought alongside their fellow Irish battalions in 38 (Irish) Brigade, the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Fusiliers and the 6th Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, through North Africa, Sicily and Italy, there was every reason to expect an envious eye being cast in order to establish an Irish identity. What could be more appropriate than headdress that was distinctive at distances greater than the easy identification of a cap badge. Commanding Officers and others were cross posted within the Irish Brigade as the grim reaper of war took its toll on those caught in the heaviest engagements. Bala Bredin, as a beret wearing Royal Ulster Rifleman, appears quite at ease wearing his caubeen when he was CO of 2 LIR (left). It was in Italy, when the then Brigadier Pat Scott was commanding the Irish Brigade, that its popularity spread. He wrote the often-quoted commentary of how it became the Brigade headdress:

The London Irish have always worn this form of headdress. About January 1944, the 2nd Inniskillings, then in the 5th Div, began wearing a similar hat made out of Italian great coats. It was not a very becoming colour, but it was the only material that was available. It was distinctive and it was national. It was based on the type of hat worn for years for by the pipers of Irish Regiments. The 6th Skins at once started copying the 2nd Skins lead.

About February 1944, the attention was directed within the Brigade to an Army Council Instruction (ACI) altering the type of headdress that was to be worn in the British army. This headdress was to take the place of the ‘fore and aft’ cap. Entering into the detail who was to wear what and when, this ACI referred to the Irish Regiments in detail.

The Royal Inniskillings and the Royal Irish Fusiliers were to wear an article called ‘bonnet drab’. Enquiries were made to find out what a ‘bonnet drab’ was, and it became apparent that it was precisely the same article of headdress as was at present worn by the pipers of all three battalions. It gradually became known as the ‘caubeen’ for short!

The Faughs were the only battalion at that time who had not started to make their own version of the caubeen, and they did not want to be left out. There was a strong feeling throughout the Brigade that this ACI ordered exactly what everybody wanted to do, and Ordnance supplied these bonnet drabs for the entire Brigade without a murmur.

At a later date, the ACI referred to was amended to read ‘pipers only’, but it was too late to go back on it then. There was not a single man in the Brigade who would have been prepared to willingly submerge his distinctive headdress into the very ordinary cap worn by the rest of the army. This was also the view of Ordnance, who continued the issue.
Everyone who has known the Brigade in this theatre, from the Army Commander downwards, has acknowledged the great value to morale, self-esteem and turn-out that the caubeen has given to its wearers.

NIBRgrCBdgeWhen the North Irish Brigade was formed in 1947, it ensured continuity of the caubeen as the headdress of the Irish Infantry of the Line regiments in the British Army. The Brigade also devised a new Brigade cap badge that was worn by all three regiments although they retained their hackles - grey for the Inniskillings, black for the Ulster Rifles (although they at first had no hackle) and green for the Faughs. In 1968, following the disbanding of our antecedent Regular regiments, and the merging of manpower and battalions to form The Royal Irish Rangers, the green caubeen became the approved headdress for The Royal Irish Rangers and the green hackle was worn by all battalions with the cap badge modelled exactly on the Brigade cap badge, the major change being the scroll with the words 'ROYAL IRISH RANGERS' replacing 'NORTH IRISH BRIGADE'. There was an officer's caubeen known as a 'Herbie J' (after the makers Herbert Johnston) and both a superfine and rougher finished caubeen for all other ranks worn in parade and working dress.

When the founding Ranger and UDR regiments merged, the caubeen became the form of headdress worn with service dress for formal duties and the green beret of The Ulster Defence Regiment used only for working dress. This was later reduced to the caubeen only worn with the cap badge as seen in the lead image above

Although no two caubeens are ever going to be exactly the same, styles vary between what can only be described as an RSM's nightmare of desecration and that straight-out-of-the-Quartermaster's store appearance. Shaping is an art form for many, but there are some simple rules for wearing a caubeen. The badge is inserted as per detailed instructions with it becoming the reference point for positioning on the head. The Caubeen is then placed where the cap badge is not too aft of the left corner of the left eye. The right thumb and forefinger grip the seam of the right side which is then pulled down to hide the top of the right ear. Fortunately, the proportions of the cloth in manufacturing the Caubeen have been much reduced since the early days of the first 38 (Irish) Brigade model, hence today's more refined appearance. The London Irish of course continue to wear it with the cap badge over the right eye and pulled over the left ear.

(Below, Old Soldiers proudly wearing their caubeens of The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, (detail from © Copyright image by kind permission of W McKenna) - to find out why the Inniskillings, less Pipers, wear the red triangle behind their cap badges please click on, The Inniskillings at Gallipoli)
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