ó’Máille’s - Telling the story of island life

Week II

The patterns tell the story of the islanders: Anne Ó’Máille traces ‘the Ladder of Life’ on an Aran Sweater.

The patterns tell the story of the islanders: Anne Ó’Máille traces ‘the Ladder of Life’ on an Aran Sweater.

Tourism in Ireland is changing. Yes, there will always be a market for the Book of Kells, The Ring of Kerry, the Aran Islands, and Paddy Reilly’s Fields; but we have seen this year how the call for The Gathering has worked a treat. Surely Galway has never had a busier summer? To achieve above average visitor numbers you clearly must offer more than the chocolate box Ireland.

Many potential visitors are looking for something that meets their particular interest, with a unique Irish twist. These can include chasing up lost relatives, or golf on one of our scenic courses; walks through the mountains, wild horse riding, tours of gardens, prehistoric monuments, or something that I had never heard of before...knitting.

This year alone two Japanese TV crews have made programmes on Irish hand-made sweaters. Two weeks ago Anne Ó’Máille hosted 39 American and Canadian life-long knitters for two intensive knitting workshops. Many of these ladies are into their mature years yet when it came to knitting they are as sharp as their needles. They had paid a lot of money to learn some of the Irish patterns, especially those used in Aran sweaters. When they left they did so with full notebooks, knowledge of the Blackberry, Honeycomb and the Tree of Life patterns, bags and bags of yarn, and the fun of a visit to Aran on a rough day, making new friends and contacts.

Anne is a gifted knitter herself. She first learned to knit at her school, the Mercy Convent, Loughrea, while her mother, Teresa Finnegan, knitted all the sweaters for her children. She was a stickler for perfection.

Three years ago, out of the blue, the textile editor of Vogue, regarded world-wide as the Bible of fashion, called into Ó’Máille’s. She was overwhelmed by the colours, the quality of the wool, the traditional hand-made items, the designs and patterns. She invited Anne to conduct a workshop on Irish knitting in New York. It was a sold out event. “On the coldest, snowiest, and most miserable day imaginable, hundreds of knitters came from all over New England. We just had the most marvellous time.”

Ladder of Life

One of the reasons for the growing interest in Irish hand-knitted crafts is that patterns on our Aran sweaters contain hidden symbols of an island people. Anne explains that in just one sweater you can experience the harsh, but the rich, natural life of the islands themselves. The chiselled Cable designs that stand out, are reminiscent of fisherman’s ropes, while the trellises remind us of the intricate island stone walls that criss-cross the islands; and the Blackberry fruits celebrate a new autumn season.

On the other hand the motifs express the religious faith of the people who harvest food from the sea for their livelihood. The intertwined Cable knot represents marriage, and an abundance of children; while the Diamond represents wealth and success. The Honeycomb denotes a ‘blessed sweet life’; while the Tree of Life is the hourglass, reminding us of the passing of our days. The Ladder of Life leads to ‘new possibilities,’ which a man or woman has to climb to eventually reach paradise. ‘In the midst of these designs lies the heart of the island people; a people who single-mindedly face the opposing harshness of the environment.”

Something incomparable

Ó’Máille’s is celebrating its 75th anniversary this blackberry season. It’s a shop and business very much associated with Galway city, with its creative Irishness, such as An Taibhdhearc, Ollscoil na hÉireann, Gaillimh, and its large Gaeltacht hinterland. Ger Ó’Máille inherited the business from his father Sean. He says himself that he has been working in the shop since he was four years old: “Wrapping parcels with my dad, and rushing to catch the post.” When he married Anne he not only found a gifted wife, but a natural business partner.

They have continued the tradition of supplying wool to about 100 knitters along the west coastal counties, and the islands. Anne explains that these women are very industrious, talented, and business-like. “ They enjoy it when the postman arrives with the wool. Sometimes we enclose special orders; or explain that we are looking for smaller size for a Japanese customer; or a large size if that is required. We get back exactly what we request.”

Generally the knitters are left to themselves. When their order is ready, or they require more wool, they will contact Ó’Máille’s; otherwise they work quietly away in their homes safe from the wind and rain sweeping in from the Atlantic.

“ The money they earn is regarded strictly as the woman’s.” says Anne. “ Many of these women inherited their skill from their mother or grandmothers, and have been supplying Ó’Máille’s for generations. That money is important to the household. I know that it was often spent educating their children.”

However, Anne also fears that the traditional hand-knitted sweater will soon be a thing of the past. Many of the present knitters are elderly; knitting is no longer taught in schools, and most young people are not interested in carrying on this craft. Of course there are always machines; but you can’t help feeling that something important will inevitably be lost. For the present Ó’Máille’s is both archivist and conservator of something incomparable.

Letter from a reader:

My mother's friend worked for a short time in O'Máille’s before taking up a job in Brennans and my old school friend's sister also worked there before taking up a job in Frank McDonagh’s.

John Small the tailor was the father of Angela who was in my class in school in the Mercy, and my father was well acquainted with the O'Mailles who were good friends of the late Paddy Ryan.

One day when going home from school with a friend we saw the rather conspicious figure of Claude Chavasse crossing the road; all dressed up in his saffron kilt/tweed jacket and beret with a pom pom. 'That's Chevasse' said Maura 'he won't speak English to anyone and if he gets an English coin in his change he gives it back and demands an Irish one'!

On another occasion someone told me that their daughter was named Eiri na Greine; I did meet Aebhgreine once and noticed that she has died, RIP.

You mentioned the freezing Ross Castle; Carraig Dubh our house until 1973 was like a fridge; it was also very damp. It had been the stable building of Forster House; just lately I learned that the crystals from horse urine get into the bricks, etc, of the stable building and even when such building is converted to a dwelling house the acute dampness remains and is almost impossible to eradicate. I have never been tempted to buy 'an old house with character'; give me my nice cosy 4 bedroomed semi detatched any day!

Good wishes and regards

Mary Johnson


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