Perhaps I stamped when I should have stomped. Perhaps my bodily fluidity could have been better and my feet more obedient. It was more of a St Vitus Dance than a Riverdance.
Ostensibly, I went to the Aran islands to learn to dance. Instead, I learnt knitwear. I may not have mastered the art of dance but Aran taught me the art of keeping warm.
There are daily ferries to the Aran isles from Rossaveal harbour as well as “Aer Arann” planes from Connemara airport. The islands hold regular Irish set dancing masterclasses throughout the summer. Wicklow stages a dance festival in September and Co. Mayo has one in April. When you are on the very edge of western Europe dancing is a good way to keep warm when you have had enough whiskey.
The three islands lie off the rocky coast of Connemara and the burren limestone coast of Co Clare. Facing the open Atlantic on the west and Galway bay to the east , the eastern island of Inisheer ( Inis Thiar or Inis Oirr ) is only a bilious five-mile boat ride from Doolin in County Clare . Its most outstanding features are the fifteenth century O’Brien’s castle built inside a much earlier “cahier” or stone ring fort and the church connected with the female saint , Gobnait. The playwright John W.Synge lived for a while on “Inis Meain” or Inishmaan and no doubt visited Conor fort , the largest of all the Aran forts.
Thirteen-mile long Inishmore is the largest of the three isles of Aran, off the west coast of Galway in the Republic of Ireland. It is the home of Irish set dancing and no better place is there to learn. Dance historians go to Aran to pick up some ancient moves and traditional body shapes.
PJ Flaherty is an authority on Irish set dancing .By the age of four he was wearing “bawdeer” or musicians’ breeches and able to play all the accordion classics. Thigh-slapping evergreens like “ Sally Gardens”, “Bird in the Bush”, “ Dunphy’s Hornpipe”, “Stack of Barley” and “ The Bluebell Polka”.
“You can dance to any instrument. From a fiddle to the Uillean pipes, “ PJ assured me. “We’ll soon have you dancing to a tin whistle. We’ll have you doing the Dinky Dorian and the Lucy Campbell before you know it!”
Not wishing to jig before I could reel, I asked my Irish dance coach how long it would take me to master the art. He watched me “treble” and “blatter” for a while before saying , “Years” and then , after further observation , adding “ Perhaps decades.”
I learned to perform a slightly malarial hopscotch to Mrs Macleod’s Reel. Aerobically, it was very satisfying. Aesthetically, far from it. My interest changed from foot patterns to knitting ones.
Inishmore is also the home of Rosemary Faherty, one of the few professional knitters still on the Aran islands. “I can trace my ancestry back to 1798. I come from a long line of artisans. From basket weavers, cross and gravestone carvers, thatchers, dressmakers, pampooters ( raw cow hide shoemakers) and crios cord belt weavers. Knitting is passed down from one generation to the next. Or was!
“I can remember as a child washing, brushing and spinning the wool and watching my grandmother and mothers knitting, each combination of stitches unique to each knitter.”
Rosemary’s white walled cottage shop in the village of Kilmurvey is called An Tuirne (Spinning Wheel). Her business is called Aran Islands Sweaters. She knits on commission and for relaxation.
Your new Aran sweater is probably not as old as you might think. The first known example of Aran knitting appeared outside of Ireland in the 1930s. By the end of the nineteenth century, knitting was well established on the Irish west coast islands as a source of income. But it was for mainly for domestic use. For family.
The British Government set up the Congestive Districts Board to look after the welfare of the islanders and established knitting as a commercially viable Industry. A necessity became a croft hobby which grew into a nationalized cottage industry which is now a global industry.
The shortage of knitters has made authentic Aran sweaters (Gaelic “geansai”) highly sought-after luxury items.
One sweater may entail 100, 00 stitches and take 2-3 months to knit. A simple, bespoke hand-knit sweater starts at close on £300.
The Book of Kells make references to elaborately designed garments similar to the Aran Sweater. Originally, the jumpers were knitted with unscoured wool that retained its natural lanolin which made them wearable when wet. A traditional Aran jumper is made from undyed cream-coloured “bainin” sheep’s wool. Up to the 70s, the yarn was spun on spinning wheels.
Its likely that merino wool has been present in Ireland since the height of Spain’s sheep trade in the 16th century. Its substantially softer than lambs’ wool and naturally water-wicking.
Hand-knit Aran sweaters are without a doubt the warmest option. Because human hands aren’t as strong as machines, they can’t pull the wool as tight. This means that hand-knit sweaters require more wool to make. The greater amount of wool makes hand-knit sweaters significantly heavier than machine-knits, and thus warmer. You can tell an Aran sweater is hand-knit if it features the blackberry stitch, which machines can’t produce.
While hand-knits typically come in a handful of styles and 3-4 colour options, machine-knit Aran sweaters come in hundreds of different styles and colour combinations. Machine-knit sweaters tend to use finer wool and less complex patterns. Hand looming allows more complicated stitching. Hand knit sweaters are longer lasting.
The original Irish Fisherman’s sweater was boxy with saddle sleeves. Now you can get Irish rollnecks, grandfather cardigans, wool wraps, scarves, throws , shawls and funnel necks. Rosemary does mittens too.
An Aran sweater is water repellent, absorbing 30% of its weight in water before feeling wet. Wool has an excellent insulating capacity due to the high volume of air. The three-dimensional effect of the icionic twisted stitches also increased warmth lo by creating air pockets.
According to “The Sacred History of Knitting” written by Heinz Edgar Kiewe who ran a yarn shop in Oxford, certain stitches gave specific meanings. The Cable Stitch is a depiction of the fisherman’s ropes, The Diamond Stitch reflects the small fields of the islands. Diamonds are sometimes filled with Irish moss stitch, depicting the seaweed that was used to fertilise the barren fields and produce a good harvest.
The Zig Zag or Mraige Lines Stitch, a half diamond, represents the twisting cliff paths on the islands. The moss to Carrageen moss found on clifftops, Much traditional stitchwork has spiritual meaning such as Jacob’s Ladder which represents how the Islands worked together.
The Ox Diamond patterns might represent the fishing nets. Zig zag stitches, as Marriage Lines, can be used to represent the typical highs and low of matrimony and marriage life. A honeycomb pattern, signifying the bee, is often used to represent hard work and its rewards. The Trellis stitch recalls the stone-walled fields of the North-west Irish farming communities. A stitch means you are not up to Irish dancing yet.
Rosemary had the last word about whether machine or hand knit is best. “Why don’t you have one of each?”