The best of Irish

Ger and Anne Ó’Máille.

Ger and Anne Ó’Máille.

Although celebrating its 70th birthday this year, Ó’Máille’s store in Galway’s High Street is nowhere near ready to pick up its pension.

Ó’Máille celebrates its seventieth birthday

The iconic traditional Galway shop, which features in so many travel guides, has gently plied its tweeds, Aran knitwear, rainwear, and accessories through the Ó’Máille family since it first opened its Dominick Street doors in March 1938.

As one of Ireland’s oldest and most revered outfitters, Ó’Máille has marched through the austerity of the war years, served the great and good of Hollywood, fuelled the Celtic tiger, and is now quietly and stylishly getting on with what it does best — delivering the original and best of Irish.

The stewardship of Ó’Máille was handed over in the 1970s to Ger and his wife Anne, who together work seamlessly and professionally, dispensing knowledge on everything from local craftwork to Irish history.

“It all began with my uncle Padraic,” explains Ger. “Along with his brother Stiofáin, my father Sean, and my aunt Mary [Ciss].” They were the powerhouse of the Dominick Street business, selling homespun yarns, hand-woven tweeds and made-to-measure clothing.

“They were extremely hard-working, and originally cycled in and out of work from Brackloon, Corofin, Co Galway, before moving into town to be near the shop.

“In the 1930s and 40s there were no ready-made clothes, so my uncle Padraic travelled to Donegal to buy bolts of cloth, and Ó’Máille’s tailors and seamstresses would fashion these from scratch into outfits. Numerous family-run drapers serviced a huge customer demand from Galway city and county, Connemara, and the Aran Islands, particularly on fair and market days.

“Each drapery tended to have its own loyal clientele, and this led to trade by barter. We have found records of eggs and butter being delivered to Dominick Street during the war years, used in exchange for goods,” smiles Anne.

Much of the market then was from the ‘gentry’ who came to Ó’Máille to be fitted on the spot or have suits made through Magee of Donegal town.

Dressed the cast of The Quiet Man

The ‘movie gentry’ gave Ó’Máille a major boost in 1951 when the cast of The Quiet Man rolled into town. A striking photograph of John Wayne, dressed by two Galway men, hangs on the shop’s wall. Wayne’s Donegal tweed jacket was fashioned by Gerard O’Connor of Bohermore, and his báinín waistcoat by John Small of Ballinfoile. Ger’s aunt Ciss fashioned all Maureen O’Hara’s clothes using her Singer sewing machine, which is still displayed in the shop today.

“Ciss was brought out in a Rolls Royce from Dominick Street to Ashford Castle Hotel for Maureen O’Hara’s fittings, but it was all very low-key. No paparazzi in those days,” says Ger.

“Ciss had her own signature style,” picks up Anne. “When we watch the film we can spot Ciss’ own way of tailoring. She always made scalloped reveres [lapels] for example. In O’Hara’s opening scene when she is minding sheep in a wood, her red petticoat is pleated in a particular manner — a soft way that Ciss specialised in.”

Staying with movies, film director John Huston was a regular in Ó’Máille, and even had his own exclusive fabrics. Over the years most visitors to his St Cleran’s home became regulars too.

“What always distinguished Ó’Máille from other outfitters, then as now, was our concentration on producing originals,” explains Anne. “To this day we won’t compromise on quality, irrespective of price.”

Sewing and knitting skills not being taught

Tailoring and hand-knitting skills are unfortunately dying skills.

“We used to sell bales of tweed and wool fabrics in our Dominick Street shop, but since moving to our present High Street shop in 1997 we’ve had little demand,” regrets Anne.

Ger’s mother Brigid knitted in the shop for many years until she retired, after which Anne took on the mantle of developing the knitwear side of the business. A prolific knitter herself, Anne can be spotted ‘clicking’ daily and teaches the craft to many of the shop’s visitors.

“I’ve taught knitting in America, and been filmed here for various television programmes, including RTE’s Off The Rails, whose presenter wore one of our knitted Aran coats to the Galway Races last year.”

Anne has some 200 knitters outsourced in Galway, Mayo, and Clare, all middle-aged or elderly women who are expert at their trade.

“They work by hand, not machine, and are meticulous in their product. It can take up to 200 hours to produce an intricately patterned Aran sweater — that’s a huge commitment, but there is a story behind every sweater we sell, and most customers want to hear it.

“Each knitter has her own stamp,” explains Anne. “For example, Peggy King from Mayo is our only knitter producing a ‘cross-over’ collar.”

No imported sweaters here

“No knitwear is ever imported into Ó’Máille. We have wonderful knitters who can produce top quality and style, and can keep up to date with new trends, such as fingerless gloves in Aran stitch.

“We use Donegal wool and very fine needles to produce work that we are all proud of. I think it’s a great shame that we don’t encourage more indigenous production of crafts in Ireland.”

Ó’Máille’s market is roughly 80 per cent export to 20 per cent domestic — and not just to America.

“The American market is still very strong for us, despite the weakening dollar, but our internet sales across the globe, from Japan and Alaska to Australia, is meeting a rising demand for genuine Irish clothing,” states Anne.

Interestingly, there are differences in demand among European visitors. While the French favour chic capes, Italians love the Jack Murphy rainwear and Olney hats. Japanese appreciate top of the range goods, and Ó’Máille supplies extra-small sweaters for the petite Japanese ladies.

“One of our best customers is a Japanese man who lives in a very cold part of that country, and we’re knitting him some woollen vests and hats at the moment.

“For many years I joined the ‘Irish Fest’ group in Milwaukee, selling our goods, and teaching advanced Irish knitting to knitters from all over the USA at the fest’s summer school.”

Surprisingly, the summer months are the busiest for Ó’Máille, followed by Christmas. Ger and Anne know their customers so well that they are able to compile packages for international delivery, and they are already busy preparing festive hampers.

“Our website (www.omaille.com ) is a great marketing tool for us, particularly for Christmas presents. We have a number of very loyal customers from abroad who shop both in person and online. When we have a new line of clothing we photograph it, usually using our son Colm or daughter Niamh, who also knits and sews, to model. I then e-mail off the image, and the sale usually follows straight away.

“Once I know a customer’s height and build I can gauge the right size of jacket or sweater, and it’s lovely to hear how excited people get when they open their package.”

Babies and children are catered for too in Ó’Máille, and lots of little outfits in traditional patterns and soft merino wool are displayed around the shop.

Oprah Winfrey was a big fan

These very products for children were what caught the eye a number of years ago of Oprah Winfrey, who featured a range on her Oxygen TV channel.

“Oprah sent over her team to check us out, and I demonstrated to them on a Sunday morning how to knit Aran sweaters. As a result, we had to work flat out to produce thousands of the baby sweaters to meet demand.

“Another big order came a couple of years ago from a London company who were entertaining 16 of their best clients in Dromoland Castle for the weekend, and requisitioned me to knit a sweater for each of them. Never having met the clients, I had to work out the sizes myself, but it all worked out beautifully.”

The Ó’Máilles are no strangers to film and television crews.

“TV presenter and ex-wife of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Donna Hanover, came over to film Galway. She brought her two children along, and Donna filmed me teaching her children how to knit particular stitches,” remembers Anne.

Celebrities visiting Galway gravitate towards the renowned Ó’Máille shop — but usually undercover.

All the ‘celebs’ visit Ó’Máille

“We’ve served many movie stars over the years, such as Jessica Lange, Cheryl Ladd, and John Lithgow. Our son Colm modelled a sweater for Jessica Lange’s son to ensure the right size, but we never intrude on any celebrity’s privacy — we simply give them the same star service that we hope we offer everyone,” emphasises Anne.

One of Ó’Máille’s best sellers is its wide range of accessories, and Anne has difficulty keeping up with the demand from twenty-somethings for knitted berets and gloves, using traditional wool, but with a contemporary twist.

“Our major trade fair of the year is Showcase in the RDS,” explains Ger. “We use that to catch up on all the latest developments and trends, and to meet up with suppliers and designers.”

Anne’s love of Irish history, which she studied at NUIG, comes to the fore when she markets our national heroes.

We should be promoting our wonderful Irish craftspeople

“We work closely with Irish designers, for instance we sell a range of men’s sweaters, designed by Clonakilty man Neil O’Donovan, who is fascinated by the Antarctic explorer Tom Crean. Neil’s designs emulate the sweaters worn by Tom Crean on his voyages.”

Anne and Ger love to promote Irish designers and make a point of stocking their quality products.

“Weavers Eugene and Anke McKernan from Tuamgraney, County Clare, produce a beautiful range of goods for us,” explains Anne.

“Liz Christy from County Monaghan is a lovely weaver who hand-dyes her own yarns to produce exceptional wraps and scarves, inspired by the work of Claude Monet, and have found favour with singer Dolly Parton.

“Our hand-woven throws and blankets produced by Kevin Donaghy of Studio Donegal is another wonderful example of Irish produce, worked on hand-built looms to produce original pieces of intricate detail.”

Working six days a week until 7pm doesn’t leave much time for relaxation, but Anne and Ger enjoy precious moments on the water.

“I’m a member and past president of the Corrib Rowing and Yachting Club, and we also have a boat that we take out on the Corrib whenever we get the chance. We know every inch of the Corrib and love the tranquillity of it,” says Ger.

“I love classical music and am a board member of Music for Galway,” explains Anne. “I also love reading, in particular short stories, but our business is all consuming. Ger and I are lucky that we share something that we both care about deeply, and it’s wonderful that we can pass this love on to our customers.”

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