Aran yarns unravel: Shawl stories explained

 

THE WOOLLY geansaí or jumper, the heavy brown shawl and the red petticoat may be indelibly associated with the Aran Islands, but not one of them can be regarded as traditional dress.

A new exhibition opening next week on Inis Oírr explains how the geansaí was actually an early 20th century adaptation of a jumper worn by Guernsey fishermen – who influenced its Irish name – while the red skirt was not unique to the islands either. The heavy brown shawls were “expensive” Scottish imports which were popular throughout Co Galway, and the only truly “unique” traditional island clothing items are the crios or woven belt, and the bróga úrleathair or “pampootie” cowhide shoes.

The exhibition was put together by a group of island women, Comhrá na nAosac, who would have been children when some of the items were still worn in the 1960s.

Researcher Mary Owens says that the women rooted in presses, attics and trunks of family and neighbours to find samples of clothing relating to the original “Aran look”.

Writers such as John Millington Synge, film maker Robert Flaherty, along with visiting artists and photographers, did much to popularise “notions” of Aran identity, equating it with “simplicity, self-sufficiency and fragility”, the exhibition material explains.

The geansaí was adapted, with distinctive knitting styles helping to identify fishermen lost at sea. However, photographs – including those taken by Thomas Mason on the island in the 1930s – show that the original fisherman’s dress was the léine ghlas or light- weight woollen collarless shirt, covered by the heavier léine ghorm or blue shirt, and an outer sleeveless vest or jacket, along with several pairs of wide woollen trousers.

Stitches in Time/Seanstíl Éadach, will be opened at Áras Éanna on Inis Oírr next Tuesday by Galway historian and art gallery owner Tom Kenny. Admission is free and it runs until the end of the month.