By Máirín Ní DhonnchaThe following blog is by one of our designers, Máirín Ní Dhonncha, who hails from the Aran Islands. She's an expert in Aran knitting and will give tips and ideas on Aran knitting in future blog posts.
I’m a knitter who is very lucky to come from one of the most beautiful places in Ireland – the Aran Islands. The Islands have been inhabited for thousands of years, and have a rich culture.
They were known long ago as ‘Aran of the Saints’ (Árainn na Naomh) due to so many religious men and women making their homes there hundreds of years ago, building stone churches which are still there to visit today (albeit no longer in a live-in condition!) They have a really interesting history, due to their strategic value between counties Galway and Clare, and in a position to control access to Galway Bay.
I’m no historian, but I am really interested in the past, so I can’t resist sharing one little anecdote with you! During Queen Elizabeth 1’s reign, there was a dispute over ownership and control over the islands between the O’Briens and the O’Flahertys.
The O’Briens were the dominant clan in Co. Clare (descended from Brian Boru, the Irish High King who defeated the Vikings in Ireland), and they had a strong claim, having built O’Brien’s castle on Inis Oírr, and being geographically closer to the islands.
O'Brien's Castle ©Máirín Ní Dhonncha
The O’Flahertys were the dominant family in Connemara, Galway, and were known as the Fierce O’Flahertys (na Flahartaigh Fíochmhara). The merchants of Galway were so little fond of them that they ensured that the church clock, built high on a steeple, was left without a face on the side facing west, just to spite them!
The dispute could not be settled locally, and eventually wound up in Queen Elizabeth’s court. She was asked who the Aran Islands belonged to, the O’Briens or the O’Flahertys. ‘Neither – they belong to me!’ she said, and promptly sent a garrison of English soldiers to be stationed on the largest island.
In more recent times, some researchers (from the Irish DNA project, as far as I recall) thought that the Aran Islands would be interesting to study, being such a geographically contained area, and having had a reasonably stable population over so many years.
Would this reveal some insights about our early Celtic ancestors? The results were puzzling at first. There seemed to be matches with a very specific area in Yorkshire, England. Remember that English garrison? They were from that very area in Yorkshire! They had married local women, and fathered children who carried their DNA through the generations.
You might be wondering how this relates to knitting – it is my very roundabout way of getting to the ‘history’ of Aran knitting. A lot of us picture the Aran culture as having knitting embedded in it (like ancient DNA!) but the truth is that just like the garrison influencing the genetic makeup of the Aran Islands, Aran knitting is full of outside influences too.
The traditional costume of the Islands did not feature knitted items prominently. Men and women wore woollen shirts, with the men wearing waistcoats over them, and the women wearing shawls. In fact, the Aran jumper was not heard of in the Aran Islands until the 20th Century! Families (or clans) did not have a traditional style unique to themselves, but rather each knitter was free to choose from various motifs, which have since come to be seen as traditional Aran motifs.
The Aran style of knitting has established a strong visual identity (in a short time, historically speaking), but it is a flexible style. If you choose to knit an Aran jumper, please do not feel bound to knit a ‘Clan Style’ – you may mix and match motifs as you please, just like real Aran Islanders do! In my next post, I hope to write about some of these motifs and their symbolism – please let me know in the comments if there is anything you are particularly interested in!