Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My father's Irish sweater

It’s April 16 in Wyoming, the snow is falling and I’m wearing my father’s cream-colored cableknit cardigan. Sometimes it’s called an Aran sweater or, in Ireland, an Aran jumper. It wasn’t made on the islands but in the village of Glen Columb Kille in Donegal. 

My father didn’t get the sweater in Ireland because he never traveled there. That’s what the Internet is for, to order Irish sweaters online and have them delivered a few days later by the UPS man. A few members of Dad's family have been back to Ireland since Thomas O’Shea and family departed the potato famine in 1848. My father was overseas just once and that was during WWII. He was stationed in England but didn’t make the jump over the Irish Sea.  He did make the jump over the English Channel, as did his father in WWI. They both got to France to fight Germans but didn't make it to The Old Sod.

Aran jumpers have a history. I didn’t know that until I looked them up on the Internet. Aran Island women used to make the sweaters from unscoured wool so that the lanolin remained in the fiber to deflect the moisture faced by their fisherman husbands. They didn’t keep them afloat, alas, as many went down to the sea in ships (and boats). In fact, once the fishermen went into the drink the sweaters probably got waterlogged and dragged the lads to their deaths.

My sweater was knitted with a rope design, meant for either a Boy Scout, a hangman or a fisherman. I looked it up on the Aran Sweater Market web site. I couldn't find my design there, although I was pleased to see that I could buy an O'Shea clan sweater for $199. More than 500 Irish clans have their own sweater design, according to the site. 
O’Shea is the Anglicisation of the original Gaelic Ó Séaghada, which comes from the personal name meaning ‘hawk-like’ or ‘fortunate’. The sept was located in the Barony of Iveragh in County Kerry, where they were lords until the 12th century. Some of the family migrated to counties Tipperary and Kilkenny as early as the 14th century. In Kilkenny the name is often spelled O’Shee. One of the most famous O’Sheas was Katharine, or Kitty, who was the mistress of Charles Stuart Parnell.
The hand knit O’Shea sweater (shown at right) incorporates the blackberry, rope, honeycomb, link, and zig-zag stitches. The blackberry stitch represents the Holy Trinity, rope represents good luck, honeycomb is symbolic of work, link stands for the unbroken chain between the Irish that emigrate and those who remain at home, and the zig zag stitch symbolises the ups and downs of marriage. This beautiful Aran sweater has been hand knitted in the traditional báinín (pronounced ‘baw neen’) colour, the natural white of the wool. It comes to you complete with a clan history and crest. It is made of 100% pure new wool, is water repellent and breathable. It has been hand crafted in the traditional Irish style, and, with care, will last a lifetime.
That's a lot of thought going into one sweater. And is there an "unbroken chain between the Irish that emigrate and those who remain at home?" I feel very Irish-American but not very Irish. Quite a few generations separate me from Thomas O'Shea. My maternal grandfather, Martin Hett, emigrated from Ireland to England when he was 12. He labored in coal mines for five years until he could afford the trip to America. Grandpa Martin lived to be 90. During his 72 years as an expatriate, he never returned to Ireland. His memories were of privation, a drunken father, an evil stepmother and sadistic priests. Not the kind of memories that breeds nostalgia.

Despite all that, I celebrate my Irish roots. I may even get an O'Shea sweater. It may never stop snowing here in The New Sod.

1 comment:

Eliana Cooper said...

Great information.
Aran Sweater