Guardian of Aran knitting is taking steps to ensure the skill is not lost

 

Oprah Winfrey may not have the Aran Islands on her travel list, but whenever the TV celebrity chooses to visit she will certainly be very welcome.

They might make her an honorary citizen there, while up in north Mayo also she might get red carpet treatment. Like John Huston, Maureen O'Hara and many screen stars before her, Oprah has given part of the west of Ireland's heritage a fresh lease of life.

The reason is that her new television channel and Website for women, Oxygen Media, has profiled efforts to safeguard the future of Aran knitting.

The heroine is Anne O Maille, manager of O'Maille's clothing shop in Hyde Street, Galway. "Guardian of Aran knitting" is how she is introduced on Oxygen's Womenshands Web page. The profile describes how she and the rest of the O Maille family have worked to keep a highly skilled tradition alive.

Anne, it says, discovered the singular world of Aran Island knitting when she first married into the O Maille family.

The clothing store, which was once on Galway's Dominic Street, already had something of a reputation. Among its clientele have been the makers of The Quiet Man - and the shop intends to mark the film's anniversary in May next year - and members of the Guinness family.

Anne's father-in-law, Padraig, began selling Aran sweaters back in the 1930s after meeting a "group of downcast Aran women who were heading back from Galway's Saturday market to their rocky island after failing to sell a single item all day", the Web page notes.

He bought up the stock, built on the contact, and the tradition has continued. Taken for granted by most of us now, Aran designs are intricate, and garments can take more than 150 hours to complete. However, most of the O Maille knitters are now between 60 and 80 years old, as the work is not that lucrative and many younger women are attracted to better-paid work elsewhere.

The custom has not fallen off, however, with the shop's sales base ranging from Nagasaki to New York.

E-commerce has had a major impact - the company set up its own Website three years ago. With the additional attention on foot of Oxygen Media, Anne has had to enlist knitters from outside the county to keep up with the demand.

Ironically, she found the skill still very much alive in north Mayo - a part of the Gaeltacht that has not "benefited" from major industrial investment. "Some of the women said they wish they had known earlier, because it would have helped to pass a long winter!"

The baby sets illustrated on the Web page have proved very popular, and many of the more senior knitters prefer to concentrate on them.

Anne is concerned about the future and has taken some active steps herself. She has been working with the Irish Countrywomen's Association and the highly successful EU-funded New Opportunities for Women (NOW) programme to maintain the techniques and promote the craft.

She will also be giving knitting classes this summer at the IrishFest in Milwaukee.

"The problem is that knitting is not taught in some schools any more, which is an awful shame. It is quite possible that before we know it, the skill could be gone."

Also on the Womenshands page is Anne Chambers, biographer of the Mayo pirate queen, Granuaile, and historian, whose book, Eleanor, Countess of Desmond, has just been published in paperback.

Oxygen.com has initiated a new Irish book club, and Anne's history, Granuaile, the Life and Times of Grace O'Malley, has been chosen as a book of the month.

To celebrate this, an "online" discussion takes place this evening, involving Anne Chambers and Des Kenny of Kenny's Bookshop in Galway. The "e-interview" between 8 and 9 p.m. Irish time can be found by looking up womenhands on the Oxygen parent site: www.oxygen.com