The Galway shawl

The Galway shawl was a specific type of heavyweight shawl worn by women during the cold season. It was very popular during the 19th century and was still being worn by a few older, more traditional, women up until the 1950s. It was worn by women all over Ireland, but for some reason was known as the Galway shawl. It was a winter-weight outer garment and was worn over a lightweight one.

The Galway shawl was woven on a hand jacquard loom in Paisley, Scotland, but used neither the design not the construction of the Paisley shawl. The Galway version was woven on a cotton warp with a weft of botany wool. These reversible shawls were a solid colour in the centre with a decorative multi-coloured wide border and they were fringed. The solid colour was often fawn and the border design was usually in browns and reds. They contained neither velvet nor fur but were referred to as such because they were heavily milled in the finishing and a soft velvet-like nap was raised on the surface. In 1892, one Paisley company employed 40 weavers making these shawls. The garments were sent to the Galway Woollen Mills where the fringes were applied.

The pattern on the shawl and the way it was worn often identified the status of the wearer and, indeed, where she came from. Many areas had a border design that was exclusive to them, unique to their area. The shawl was square and worn folded over. It could also be used as a bed cover, and occasionally to carry goods. They were costly items, worn with pride with the good side out, and considered ‘Sunday best’ wear. They were usually inherited or acquired for a bride upon her marriage. The cheaper version of the Galway shawl was a plain black garment which would have been worn while working during the week.

The lightweight shawl underneath might have been hand knit, crocheted, or woven and might have been of solid colour, plaid, print, or paisley. They were worn directly over the blouse and were tied or tucked in at the waist. They were worn in all seasons both indoor and out.

As years passed, shawls became unfashionable and it was only older women who wore them. They were referred to as ‘shawlies’ and the garment became associated with poverty and backwardness. They have not been seen on the streets for a very long time. They still live on, however, in traditional song such as in “The Galway Shawl” or “The Shawl of Galway Grey”.

Our first photograph shows Mrs Bridget King, Claddagh Quay, Mrs May O’Donnell, St Nicholas’ Terrace, and Ms Nora Flynn, St Nicholas’ Avenue, modelling three fawn coloured shawls with three very different patterns. Our second image is of two Claddagh women, Mrs Kelly and Biddy Kelly (better known as ‘Bideen Swift’ or sometimes ‘The Queen of the Bonfire’ ) selling cockles and mussels in Eyre Square in 1939. They are out on the street in public but they are working and so are wearing the traditional fringed black shawls. Our final image is a posed studio photograph and shows a young Claddagh woman dressed for the fish market. It was obviously taken in a warmer season as she has no outer shawl. Her lightweight shawl is tucked in at the waist under her petticoat and apron.

Finally, apologies for a mistake I made in a recent article. I referred to Dick McKee as being one of the four Republicans who were executed by the Free State Government in 1922 in retaliation for the attack on Padraic Ó Máille and Seán Hales. In fact it was Joe McKelvey who was executed, not McKee. McKelvey was O/C of the 3rd Northern Brigade whose remains were released in 1924 ad taken back to Belfast for burial there.


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