Sunday, 25 January 2015

Aran Islands of Legend review



Dublin City Public Libraries

Oh man, this is going to be a cranky review, he made me so annoyed with his paternalism and patronising attitude and how he regarded Christianity as the only logical choice and how there were no pagans who could have any virtue and how only with Christianity could there be honour.  I've read too many legends and stories to fully trust that attitude.

And then I have to remember that it was written in 1962, that this was the attitude of many at the time, that the paternalistic attitude of both lauding traditional societies while at the same time questioning why they modernised and left tradition behind.  Mourning the fact that people didn't embrace the past and keep things the way they were while not realising that he himself was doing the very same thing, that he was looking at a world his ancestors had lived in and had moved on from.

He also decided that Dun as not a word to use but insisted on using Doon, which wound me up a bit too. I read this in short bursts because I kept getting annoyed with him.

P A O Siochain wrote this, mostly about the myths and legends of Aran.  Mostly about the Christian legends of the islands, an easy enough topic with the proliferation of sacred spaces on the islands. I was reading it more for details of costume and mention of knitting.

So we have on page 117: "The excursionists [from A report of the Excursion of the Ethnological Section of the British Association to the Western Islands of Aran in September, 1857 by Martin Haverty] found that the costume of the people had not changed with the centuries. The men wore the costume of fishermen. The women and girls wore the characteristic red petticoats, which with their red or blue bodices, which, for the most part they then wore - "made the effect very striking in the eyes of the stranger.""

The red petticoats were also found until the early 20th century in Galway. mostly in Claddagh and Connemara.  My great-grandmother wore a red petticoat.

p120, he describes an interesting cliff-cimbing event, dating from the same time with the climber throwing himself about the cliff face with abandon, and then you think about modern ropes and the peril...

"After the banquet, the party were to witness a remarkable exhibition of cliff climbing and searching for sea fowl and their eggs. From the top of a three hundred foot cliff, three Islanders, one after another descended the sheer cliff. The end of a great length of rope was tied under their armpits. Fifteen to twenty men then paid it out as the Islander stepped backward off the cliff. Gripping the rope with one hand, and using the other to keep his balance, the Islander descended in a series of leaps. Striking the rock with one foot after another he propelled himself out into space. He then "flew, as it were, outward and downwards, his feet constantly moving like paddles in the air."
Haverty described the return ascent as "graceful movement". As the cliff searcher gained momentum, the men at the top pulled in the rope at such speed that he was able to make fifty foot leaps up the cliff face.  When he reached a point thirty feet from the top, he ran up it with his body laying out horizontally from the cliff face.  Not only the daring but the incredible skill of the feat made deep impression on the party."
He records the last of the Ailleadoiri, the cliff climbers, died 30 years ago, so in the 1930s.

 p177. "Synge noted the various accomplishments of the Islandmen, but he did not note the many accomplishments of of the Islandwomen who are expert seamstresses, tailors [I sometimes wonder what the distinction between these two is] shirtmakers and knitters, fish-curers, bakers and cooks. They assist generally on the little farms. The cows and calves, pigs and hens are usually their particular care."

p183-184. "Tourism has undoubtedly put a lot into the pockets of the people of Inis Mor, particularly in Kilronan and Kilmurvey, but it has taken away a lot of their old independence and pride, to leave a drab nondescript character in parts. This is not, of course, true of the real Islander on Inish Mor, and in the parts away from the tourist trade they still retain their old character.
...
"More than all the rest of Ireland, bochtanas, poverty, was something of which they knew the real meaning in the unhappy past. It was in the long long ago that they learned to help those in need."
 and he wonders why they embraced tourism as a way of getting out of the poverty trap.

p185-187
"Unique folk art.
"Aran Knitting has long been known to the experts but, until recent years, to very few others outside of Ireland.  It is a creative folk-art of exquisite beauty and quality, and is the only one of its kind in the world. It has been defined as sculpture in wool. Some of the imitations are often quite wrongly described as "Aran" ganseys, so it is essential to ascertain that a garment styled as "Aran" has actually been made on the Islands. The number of genuine Aran ganseys available in any one year is limited.
"The style of knitting is that known as traditional. On the Islands it is distinguished by the fact that each knitter has her own particular pattern or patterns of stitches. Some, even, change the pattern at will and today with its development on an organised basis, full scope is given to them to create not only changing patters of stitches but new stitches and new forms and varieties of stitches.
"Many of the stitches in use are exclusive to the Islands. Many of them, in form, have been copied in imitations. But no matter how good the quality of the imitation it can never equal an original garment, with its everchanging and incredible variety and combination of stitches and patterns.
"The speed of the Islandwomen's knitting is another feature of their accomplishment. To watch them is to wonder at this rare gift. Even the simplest pattern of traditional stitches involves constant changes in each successive "line" across.
"This art has been handed down for untold generations from mother to daughter. One sad feature has always been associated with the Aran gansey: it has always been an unfailing source of identification of Islandmen at sea.
"The most famous of these traditional Aran stitches are as follows:
"The Tree of Life: Crann na Beatha. This is sometimes known as the Fern Stitch.
"The Crooked Road: An Bothar Cam. It is also known as the Marriage Lines.
"The Carrageen Moss Stitch: Lub an Charraigin. This is named after the edible seaweed.
"The Tobacco Stitch: Casadh an Tobac. This is a form of the Cable or Rope.
Stitch.
"The Castle Stich: Lub an Chaisleain. An unusual stitch, not unlike another stitch known as the Anchor Stitch named after an unique type of anchor used on the Islands.
"Other stitches in general use are well known, such as the Diamond, the Net, the Honeycomb, Figure of Eight, the Tree, the Ladder.  Finally, the Bobaleen, the Bobble, is popular with a number of knitters. This is a little ball of wool introduced into the pattern. [I love his descriptions, sadly there are no illustrations]
"Some of these stitches in miniature form are incorporated into wool caps of distinctive character.
"Another form of this folk-art exclusive to the Islands is the handcrocheted multicoloured shawl so favoured by the Islandwomen.
"A third distinctive folk-art on the Islands is the hand-weaving of the belts, known as crios (plural criosa), worn by the Islandmen instead of braces. They are multicoloured but always in an unceasing and lovely variety of designs and colour combinations.
"Their sense of colour is unfailing, as is their natural talent for design. They can create a design in colour in their heads in a moment, which would take an industrial artist upwards of a week to work out.*

"*Note: Full particulars regarding the handcraft products of the Islands can be obtained from Galway Bay Products Ltd., 102 Sraid Grafton, Dubhlinn, Ireland, through whom they are marketed at home and abroad."

These are a few passages that struck me, and that add to the legends and also what was being said in the 60s about the Islands and their heritage.  I didn't enjoy his writing and I really wish there had been some more detail about the knitting.

This book made me want to do more research on the crocheted shawls of the Islandwomen.  I also have a deep-seated urge to learn how to make the crios too.

Forgive missing accents, I keep poking my computer and hoping I will make it do them but failing to make it happen.

This copy was got in Dublin City Public Libraries who provide me with no incentive to do this other than a generous lending policy to staff and access to too many books and provide me with a wage.  

2 comments:

  1. I've heard a small amount about the shawls, but nothing about the criosa (except that they exist) or their construction - do you know of any images? Tablet weaving is running through my mind here...

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    1. Here's some stuff that tallies with some things I've seen on this blog http://irisharchaeology.ie/2014/09/crios-cords-traditional-irish-woven-belts/ and this is a woman determined to keep the tradition going http://www.niamhtrua.com/
      I remember seeing a documentary on RTE once with someone making them with acrylic (for the colours and colourfastness IIRC) and she attached them to her shoes at one end and to her waist on the other. I like the image of the islandman with the end attached to a piece of wood that he stood on in one of those links. It seems to be a basic warp rather than true tablet weaving, though it may have roots in tablet weaving. A back strap loom like this one http://www.eugenetextilecenter.com/home/etc/page_931_113/backstrap_loom_w_accessories.html seems to be the closest similar technique.

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