A woman in Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, realising there was a harsh winter in New York around this time 60 years ago, did what any Irish mother would do — she posted hand-knit wool pullovers to her sons to keep them warm.
Johanna Clancy’s sons, Paddy, Tom, and Liam, who had formed a ballad singing group with a friend from Keady in Armagh, began wearing the jumpers, named after the Aran Islands off the Galway coast.
Marty Erlichman, the group’s manager, saw the garment on the brothers one night in a Manhattan folk club, realised the promotional potential and shouted: "That's it. That’s what you're going to wear."
Shortly after John F Kennedy was inaugurated the 35th president of the United States in 1961, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem each wore an Aran geansaí during a record 16-minute slot on the Ed Sullivan Show, which had a television audience of 80m people.
The popularity of the group, which another Clancy brother, Bobby, joined after Tommy Makem left in the 1970s, went global with recordings influencing a new generation of artists including a young Bob Dylan.
Demand for their trademark attire also soared after the television show appearance. American film stars Steve McQueen, Marilyn Monroe, and the future Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco were soon being photographed or filmed wearing the Aran or Aran-inspired knitwear. Elvis Presley was also spotted wearing one.
Earlier this year, American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, who has 140m Instagram followers, also wore the jumper to create an authentic image in a photoshoot to promote her new album.
It was a timely boost for the sheep industry and those farmers who supply it with wool sheared from flocks on the hillsides and lowlands of rural Ireland against a challenging backdrop of volatile global markets and cyclical prices, which recently hit rock bottom levels.
The oldest known European wool textile dates from around 1500 BC, when it was discovered in a Danish bog, and it still has many opportunities in the world of fashion, farming, and
Aran jumpers are part of that rich history and became hugely popular with Irish Americans in particular, especially after being worn by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and other celebrities.
Over the years the number of skilled knitters in rural Ireland dwindled but the designs and stitches that had been handed down through families for generations were incorporated into the modern machine production era.
The heritage, economic and environmental contribution that sheep and their wool are continuing to make was recently highlighted at Project Baa Baa in Galway, part of the city’s 2020 European Capital of Culture.
Themes were presented through a programme of online events and exhibitions to showcase the different breeds and the many people whose livelihoods are connected to farming and wool.
Farmers, researchers, innovators, artists, and designers, as well as craft and food producers from across Ireland and Europe participated.
Sheep breed development, creating a sustainable local supply wool chain and the agritourism potential were among the issues addressed at a conference hosted by RTÉ broadcaster Damien O’Reilly.
Part of the overall programme involved textiles design students from the Centre for Creative Arts and Media at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology.
They spent a field study and photography day at the Aran Islands. Their brief was to use the natural environment as inspiration for creating new wool colours and designs in their textiles and garments.
A dozen primary school pupils in Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon also took part in a project with themes that included sheep farming, agritourism, food, meat, milk, cheese, wool, craft, eco, and innovation.
Project Baa Baa also highlighted Irish wool designers and makers including West End Knitwear in Monasterevin, Co Kildare, which Molly Cullen set up in 1957, having recognised a market for fashionable Aran style knitware. Her grandsons Niall and Barry now run the business.
Molly’s grandmother, Kate O’Shea, was the first craftswoman in Ireland to commercially market her robust, hand knitted woollens in 1856.
Also showcased was Cushendale Woollen Mills, in Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny, where Cistercian monks established the first mill on the site in 1204. The Cushen family can trace their own weaving heritage to 1778.
“Inspired by our history, we are always looking forward through a prism of innovation and design, shaping our legacy for the next generation,” the company’s website explains.
Wool production, according to Agriculture Food and Marine Minister Charlie McConalogue in recent replies to Dáil questions, is an important component of the agri-industry in Ireland.
“The current market uncertainties should provide an impetus for the industry players to come together to see what business opportunities are out there and try to promote the excellent product in as many markets as possible,” he said.
Mr McConalogue said a review of the potential demand in domestic and international markets for wool-based products such as insulation and fertilisers is currently being carried out.
Meanwhile, the farm lobby has welcomed the Government’s budget decision to allocate €100,000 for a feasibility study on the wool market.
IFA Sheep Committee chairman Sean Dennehy said the study will hopefully identify the market outlets for wool, be it in insulation, construction, fertiliser products, or bedding.
Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association national council member Pheilim Molloy said the Government’s new retrofit scheme for older houses and public buildings provides an opportunity for the State to prioritise the use of wool as an insulation material.
Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association sheep committee chairman Sean McNamara said there is massive scope to revitalise the entire Irish wool industry.
“There is a wealth of uses for wool which span across a whole range of sectors, and the priority now must be capturing that potential. It is time for wool to take its place as a valued and valuable natural resource,” he said.