The location of the Aran Islands at the very edge of Europe, the final stop en route to America, lends an air of endless mystery to their already preternatural reputation. They form a cluster of three, just off the coast of Galway Bay (Inis Mor, Inis Meain and Inis Oirr) and their barren beauty signals the end of the continent, where land surrenders to the Atlantic Ocean.
Being so peripheral they have long captured the imagination of those for whom their towering limestone cliffs exist only in photographs, just as they have cast a spell over centuries of visitors. The islands’ hardy inhabitants have earned their place in popular imagination as romantic creatures filled with longing for those lost to the mainland, yet they remain tethered to their weather-beaten patch of land; they are the islanders and their hearts belong out on the sea.
The west of Ireland is a deeply mythologised landscape and it is the heartland of where the essentials of ‘Irishness’ are found. Accordingly we picture the sparse population nestling beneath towering mountains bereft of greenery and gathering at night in cosy snugs to drink whiskey, tell stories and sing magical songs. The men are big and brave and the women are elegant makers and doers tending to the earthy homesteads that lie at the heart of coastal life. Beguiling as it is, it can be tough to separate fact from the myriad fictions that engulf this stormy part of the world.
Around here, ‘truth is mixed with beautiful myth’ says knitter Edel Mc Bride. Fundamental to this myth making process is the Aran jumper and the complex narratives that are wound up in it. The Aran jumper was originally knit by the women of the islands using unscoured wool that retained its natural lanolin making it waterproof and invaluable to the fishermen out fishing in wooden currachs. The series of densely knit cable patterns that identify the Aran jumper have made it iconic, laden down as they are with all of our assumptions about this powerful life out in the ocean. Most famously a pattern knit into each Aran jumper was said to make the body of a fisherman lost at sea identifiable to his loved ones bearing as it did, insignia unique to each family. This story with all of its spectacular love and sadness and imagery has become something of a burden to contemporary Aran knitters.
Some, like Edel Mc Bride see the origins of this story in J.M.Synge’s mesmeric play Riders to the Sea. When a young man, Michael, is thought to be drowned it is his socks that are the harbinger of such sad news: ‘It’s the second one of the third pair I knitted. I put up three score stitches and dropped four of them’, offers his sister and for Edel ‘It is my favourite line in literature because I know that this is the heart of a knitter. It’s a very technical line, it’s not a made up line and I wonder if perhaps he overheard it’.
Synge spent many summers on the islands from 1898 onwards learning to speak Irish and creating in the process documents of unrivalled importance in “The Aran Islands’ and his play ‘Riders to the Sea’. In them island life has been petrified and the simple life of the people and the simple geography in which they live has become central to our understanding of the Aran jumper. Synge’s islands were a place where people spoke daily of fairies and life was an exchange between the land and the sea.
The myths woven into today’s Aran jumpers may be imperfect but they still seem to capture the simplicity of what we’re all looking for.
Words by Jeanette Farrell and images by Doreen Kilfeather.
See TOAST's Aran Sweater here.