The dress of male Aran Islanders in Seán Keating’s Slán Leat, a Athair/ Goodbye Father

When I was walking around the Irish art gallery in the Ulster Museum, I was immediately drawn to this oil on canvas painting by the Irish realist painter Seán Keating (1889-1977). The painting dates from 1935 and it is entitled Slán Leat, a Athair/ Goodbye Father. It depicts a scene of departure on Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran Islands, off the coast of Galway. A Catholic priest is leaving the island to return to the mainland and his parishioners are on the beach to see him off. It is possible to identify the islanders in the painting from their dress. As such, a lot can be said about the dress of the male Aran Islanders using this painting. In this blog post I am going to provide some context on Keating, and then explore the dress of the Aran men depicted.

The artist

Seán Keating was born in Limerick and he later went on to study at Limerick Technical College. In 1911, after winning a scholarship he attended the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin to study under William Orpen. Keating later taught at the Metropolitan School of Art where he became a professor of painting between 1936 and 1954. He was also the President of the Royal Hibernian Academy from 1948 to 1962.[1] Today, Keating is most known for his portrayals of rural Irish people, particularly men of the west of Ireland.[2]

After studying at the Metropolitan School of Art, Keating went to work in England, but when conscription was introduced during WWI, he returned to Ireland to paint as he sought to avoid being conscripted to fight in a war in which he did not believe. He, along with some other nationalist Irish artists and writers at the time, subscribed to the idea that Ireland should develop an aesthetic of its Gaelic heritage.[3] From 1915, after he returned to Ireland, Keating began painting the people of Aran.

Keating and the Aran Islands

The Aran Islands are a small archipelago off the coasts of Co. Galway and Co. Clare. Keating first travelled to the Aran Islands with his friend and fellow artist, Harry Clarke. He was taken with the landscape of the islands and the lifestyle of the islanders. In the years that followed, Keating regularly returned to the islands and painted the inhabitants. He had pride in the maintenance of traditional customs of the rural Irish and lamented their decline. Of the islanders, he was attracted to their strength and the way the community, the language and lifestyle traditions had been largely untouched by modernisation and political turmoil, owing largely to the relative isolation of the islands. Aran Islanders were, to Keating, a reflection of the ideal Gaels who were still in touch with their traditions.[4] As such, Keating depicted Aran Islanders in a positive and idealised light in his paintings. He tended to portray male islanders as heroic rural figures in a way that exudes masculine strength, energy, and vigour. The dress of the islanders seems to have been part of their appeal to Keating, as dress and textile traditions on the Aran Islands had largely remained unchanged in the early twentieth century.

Image: Seán Keating (1889-1977), Slán Leat, a Athair/ Goodbye Father (BELUM.U589)
Seán Keating (1889-1977), Slán Leat, a Athair/ Goodbye Father (BELUM.U589)

Islander dress

The geography of the Aran Islands and their relative isolation ensured that islanders were not as influenced by what was happening with clothing traditions on the mainland and the pace of change in dress styles was slow. These factors contributed to the dress on the islands remaining distinct and largely unchanged until the 1960s. The pace of change increased when there was more movement between the islands and the mainland with transportation developments. Nevertheless, until then, Aran Islanders had a dress culture of their own that was long-standing.

In the painting Goodbye Father there are mainlanders, including the priest wearing black, the two oarsmen shown wearing cream coveralls beside the boat, and a man with a walking stick with his back to the painting, who is depicted wearing grey trousers and a cream jacket. The islanders can be identified by their distinctive dress. Aran men wore wide-legged homespun woollen trousers, oiled wool jerseys, shirts, bainín (undyed white homespun wool) double-breasted waistcoats and sleeveless jackets with lapels. Collarless short coats were also sometimes worn made from light, undyed homespun flannel.[5] The men also typically wore knitted caps with a bobble on top, like the Scottish Tam-O-Shanter. These caps can be seen on two Aran men in the painting.

Another very distinctive element of Aran dress depicted in the painting are the single-soled pampootie raw-hide leather shoes. The pampooties are worn by all the male islanders in the painting. Pampooties were made from a single piece of untanned rawhide leather. They came to a point at the toes and they were laced up across the front of the foot with leather whangs or laces.  Pampooties were kept supple by being soaked in water and they only lasted about a month of daily wear before they were replaced.[6] 

Image: The circles show the pampootie shoes of the Aran Islanders in the painting.
The circles show the pampootie shoes of the Aran Islanders in the painting.
Image: These pampooties from the Aran Islands are on display in the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life in County Mayo.
These pampooties from the Aran Islands are on display in the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life in County Mayo.
Image: Simple sketch by the author to illustrate the construction of pampooties from a single piece of rawhide leather.
Simple sketch by the author to illustrate the construction of pampooties from a single piece of rawhide leather.

The most colourful element of Aran men’s dress was the ‘crios’, a belt worn by men and women Aran islanders. A crios can be seen coming out from underneath the waistcoat of one of the islanders in the painting (circled). An Aran crios was woven by hand by women on the island from homespun wool. They used a couple of methods of construction to weave them without a loom. A crios was either made by stretching the warp threads between two chairs or stools, or more typically they were stretched between the hand and the foot with the threads being tied and anchored to the weaver’s pampootie. If they were being woven for a man, they were made to a length of 3 ½ yards (3.2m). If they were being made for a woman, then they were woven to a length of 2 yards (1.8.). A crios was typically made with two white threads on each outside selvedge, and five or six different colours of thread were used between the white threads. The threads were dyed using mosses and lichens from the shores on the islands.[7]

Image: The circle highlights the crios on one of Aran Islanders in the painting.
The circle highlights the crios on one of Aran Islanders in the painting.
Image: Author’s photograph of typical Aran dress for a man and boy made by Islanders in the 1930s using traditional methods of home-manufacture and construction on display in the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life.  © By kind permission of the N.M.I.
Author’s photograph of typical Aran dress for a man and boy made by Islanders in the 1930s using traditional methods of home-manufacture and construction on display in the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life. © By kind permission of the N.M.I.

To preserve a record of typical clothing worn on the Aran Islands using authentic techniques, the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life commissioned Aran people to make the clothing depicted in the above image for the museum in the 1930s. The clothing depicted is the typical clothing items worn by men and boys. The tam-o-shanter, colourful crios, homespun trousers and sleeveless jacket can be seen alongside the pampootie shoes. Particularly notable is the cable hand-knit jumper.

‘Ganseys’ or jumpers cannot be seen on the men in the painting owing to the way they are situated. They are probably worn by the men underneath their sleeveless jackets and short coats as depicted in the dress from the Museum of Country Life. Today, the jumpers have become known as ‘Aran jumpers’, ‘Aran sweaters’ and sometimes ‘fisherman’s sweaters.’ The jumpers were made with dense cable stitch patterns. Like with all items of Aran dress, the jumpers were manufactured by hand on the islands from locally acquired raw materials.

Today, the Aran jumper is the most well-known item of Aran dress. The jumpers have become fashionable and internationally marketed as symbolic of Ireland and of Irishness more generally. Migration, tourism and international marketing have affected beliefs on craft and the authenticity of Irish dress traditions, which has contributed to the narratives around the jumpers. The knits have been marketed by tourist companies and shops purporting to sell traditional Irish crafts. These jumpers are also sold by fast-fashion companies. With the globalisation of the fashion industry, most ‘Aran jumpers’ are now machine-made, not hand-knit, and they are truly a global item. Indeed, the jumpers sold by most international brands or even by Irish companies are usually not made locally.  The wool often comes from sheep in Australia or New Zealand, then the wool is dyed using synthetic dyes in a different country, before being machine-knit in a factory in another country.  

Myth debunking

A myth has accompanied the jumpers that has been perpetuated by these tourist and craft companies. The myth is that the jumpers worn by fishermen were knit by female relatives with stitches associated with their families. The myth goes that when the Aran men went fishing in the Atlantic Ocean, the cables could be used to identify the fishermen if their bodies washed ashore.[8] Suín Carden completed an anthropological study of the Aran jumper as an internationally recognised symbol of Irishness. Carden explored the myth surrounding the jumpers and found that the exact origin is unknown. However, the play Riders to the Sea (1904) by James Millington Syne included a scene where a man’s body was identified by his sister owing to a dropped stitch on some socks that she had knit for him. Then in 1930, at a similar time to when this Keating painting was produced, Muriel Gahan (1897-1995) opened a shop in Dublin to sell items produced by rural women, particularly goods manufactured as part of the cottage and craft industries.[9] Gahan sold knitwear in Dublin that came from the islands and the regional identity of the clothing items was emphasised as a selling point, which played a part in the Aran jumper being considered a marketable product. Thus, it was from this time in the 1930s that some Irish companies started to produce Aran jumpers as a commercial product and a symbol or Irish or Gaelic identity. In addition to these ideas around national identity and capitalist economic motivations, Carden found that the myths associated with the Aran jumper developed further from diasporic narratives, and transnational longings of kinship and the homeland.[10] The unidentified fisherman became a metaphor for the Irish diaspora seeking to find identity in the homeland of their ancestors.

Aran jumpers seem to evoke a ‘true Gael’ image of the like Keating was interested in. The idea of an ‘Aran jumper’ as a dress item with cultural significance on and off the islands gained ground at the time this painting was produced by Keating. Ireland was also in the process of state-building and constructing ideas around the Irish nation.[11] As Carden argues, ‘romantic nationalism was fashionable across northern Europe at this time, and Irish eagerness to link Ireland’s pre-conquest past with its untested present chimed with international enthusiasm for this kind of historical imagining.’[12] It is a theme that also seems to run through Keating’s depictions of the Aran Islanders too.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this insight into the dress of male Aran Islanders depicted in the Keating painting. To understand the painting and the myths and ideas around Aran dress, it is important to consider the development and context of Irish politics and what was going on culturally and politically in the new Irish state. Keating’s paintings of the west of Ireland were part of his representation and commentary on Irish identity in the new Irish Free State. The relatively unchanged dress of the islanders in “Goodbye Father”, including their Aran jumpers, became symbolic of Irishness and the idea of a ‘true Gael’ identity.

[1] Seán Keating, (1889-1977) https://imma.ie/artists/sean-keating/

[2] Seán Keating (1889-1977)  https://artuk.org/discover/artists/keating-sean-18891977

[3]  Ruth West, ‘Men of the West by Seán Keating’ https://www.hughlane.ie/curators-choice/1224-menofthewest; Eimear O’Connor, Sean Keating art, politics and building the Irish nation (Sallins, 2013).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mairead Dunlevy, Dress in Ireland (Cork, 1999), p. 166.

[6] Dunlevy, Dress in Ireland, p. 166.

[7] David Shaw-Smith, Traditional crafts of Ireland (London, 2003), p. 27.

[8] Siún Carden, ‘Cable crossings: the Aran jumper as myth and merchandise’ in Costume: the journal of the Costume Society, xlviii, no. 2 (2014), p. 260.

[9] Carden, ‘Cable crossings’, p. 261.

[10] Carden, ‘Cable crossings’ pp 260-272.

[11] Carden, ‘Cable crossings’ p. 261.

[12] Carden, ‘Cable crossings’, p. 262.