The Aran Sweater

The Aran Islands lie on the most westerly edge of Europe across the mouth of Galway Bay. Rich in antiquities and prehistoric Celtic remains and have a record of human habitation that stretches back some 4,000 years, or 165 generations. The first language of the islanders is Irish. Known in English as Inishmore ('the big island'), Inishmaan ('the middle island') and Inisheer ('the east island'), the poet Seamus Heaney describes the islands as "Three stepping stones out of Europe".

The physical starkness and exposure of these ancient islands can come as a shock to the first-time visitor: there are no high mountains, no trees and few sheltered places. Instead, the land lies low on the sea with great sweeping terraces of polished limestone and mile upon mile of dry stone walls enclosing hundreds of small fields like tracery.

Subject to continuous and often romantic scrutiny by generations of outsiders, particularly those curious and inquiring minds of the nineteenth-century, the islanders have grown used to what started as a thin trickle of academic travellers and evangelists in the 1800s to what is now an overwhelming tide of tourism. From those early scholars and other interested parties who made the often precarious pilgrimage from the quays of Galway out into the Atlantic there are many vivid descriptions and detailed accounts of the life and customs of the islands in pre-photographic days.

In 1934 Robert Flaherty's dramatic film 'Man of Aran' drew world attention to the islands and their ancient way of life. The island's most enduring symbol, the white, heavily patterned, hand-knit fisherman's 'traditional Aran' sweater, is not featured. The intricate celtic- and nature-influenced designs may have evolved between 1900 and 1920, transforming a simple 'fisherman's geansaí (jersey, sweater) into a work of art. Each hand-knit garment varies slightly from the next, making them each unique but recognisable as Aran.