Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I have been visiting Arainn Mhor, the largest of the three Aran Islands off the west of Ireland, in Galway Bay, courtesy of Tim Robinson, again. Known as Inishmore on National Geographic maps, and not to be confused with the Aran Island off the northwest coast of Ireland, nor the Scottish Arran Island, nor even the romanticized and fictionalized place in Robert Flaherty’s famous documentary Man of Aran, the Big Island (“more” is an Anglicization of mor/mhor, which is “big” in Irish, and inish is island) of the Arans is a rough limestone outcropping of some 12 square miles. Robinson, cartographer, painter, and mathematician, walked around the island and then across it, producing over one thousand pages in two volumes under the slightly confusing rubric Stones of Aran; the volumes are subtitled Pilgrimage and Labyrinth. It is an amazing work of geography, in the ancient sense of writing about the earth, albeit a postage-stamp bit of it in this case, and the people upon it

Tangentially, somewhat: the famous Aran sweaters. I’ll admit I’d never even heard of them, but they’re an item of note in the serious sweater world. The story has it that mothers have taught their daughters for generations the family stitches, but Robinson says that they are largely a 20th century invention, (and very few are made there today by hand). The reason this strikes my fancy as a ploughman’s lunch (the supposedly traditional English pub fare that turns out to have been the 1960s invention of PR flacks) is that I have a lot of connections to another island, Nantucket, where the lightship basket is a thing of serious fashion, too, much weighed with traditional trappings. And it really only became so after the 1920s, when a visiting Filipino wondered why the woven baskets made by the bored-out-of-their-gourds (you'll recall that masturbation was still illegal in those days) lightship crews didn’t have lids. Voila, a handbag for rich dames who winter in Florida!

The Aran islanders called sweaters geansai, or gansy; in other words, derived from Guernsey, the British Crown Dependency in the English Channel that is even more famous for its sweaters. Now, I’ve always thought the Channel Islands were part of the UK, but technically they are independent bailiwicks, last remnants of the Duchy of Normandy, to which Queen Elizabeth II is head; technically, she’s the Duke of Normandy, not to mention Lord of Mann and, antipodally, the Paramount Chief of Fiji, which somehow all doesn’t quite add up her great great grandmum’s title of “Empress of India.” I bring this up because my great great great grandmother Lucy Tracy Le Breton’s father John Le Breton was a Guernseyman. He was born there about 1782. How or why he was on St. Helena when Lucy was born there in 1815 (the year Napoleon was exiled there) are unknown to me, but chances are good he was with the British East India Company.

Consider that “John the Breton.” From Brittany, which was settled by Britons during the Late Roman/Early Middle Ages. Breton is a Brythonic, or British Celtic, language closely related to Welsh and more closely to Cornish. Cornwall is directly north of Brittany, about hundred miles as the whale swims. Cornwall is right next to Devon, ancestral homeland of the most well recorded shoots of my family tree. Devon and Cornwall were the major source of tin for the Western European Bronze (made of copper and tin) Age. Man, the joint was jumpin’ four thousand years ago.

Like a magpie, I just pile up the bits and pieces, making nests of history.


Beth said...

It's interesting to me to find a blog that mentions the Aran Islands. My maternal grandmother came from there to the US when she was only 12 (in about 1903). She came from Gort na gCapall, Inishmore. I still have not made it to Ireland, although it is #1 on my list of countries to visit.

Beth said...

Also -- about the sweaters -- I think each family had a particular pattern that they knitted into their sweaters so that if someone drowned (they were mostly fishermen, after all) the sweater would help identify the person.

Matthew said...

I highly recommend Robinson's books. It's over a thousand pages of prose, combined, but I think you'll find out an awful lot about your grandmother's birthplace.

amarilla said...

Sounds like the sweater patterns functioned something like bouy colors among Yankee lobstermen. Sweaters and buoys!

Lovely weaving Magpie, I really enjoyed this inish tour. Nothing's quite like island hopping!