Fashion editor Alice Keegan retraces the origins of the Aran jumper, from its humble beginnings near the treacherous Atlantic, to becoming an enduring emblem of the Irish spirit.
The Aran jumper is as quintessentially Irish as Taytos and leaving without saying goodbye.
Intricately designed and cherished for its connection to Irish heritage, the Jumper’s significance goes much deeper than just a piece of comfy clothing. It is intertwined with Ireland’s sociopolitical state and was even weaponised during the Troubles by IRA/Sinn Féin members - the “ultimate” Irish men wearing a truly Irish item. It experienced a massive resurgence in popularity following the release of Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, with tourist shops and entire streets in Galway City profiting from a fascination with the jumper’s rural, Gaelic roots. A cultural artefact in of itself, its folklore is shaped by migration and the Diaspora. The jumper’s massive commercialisation in recent years can even be seen as reflective of Irish history, politics, and culture capitalising off tourism.
The Jumper was invented in the 1890s and was deeply connected to its natural environment. Cable knit and off-white, it was traditionally hand-knitted by local women, using sheep wool - specifically, Báinín wool, which still contained its natural oils, lanolin, creating a water-resistant fabric. This composition was ideal for fishermen, who would brave the wild Atlantic Ocean, thus the jumper became known as ‘the fishermen jumper’. Following the establishment of the Country Shop in Dublin in 1930, the jumper began to be sold to the masses. After appearing in Vogue in 1956, the jumper was introduced to the mainstream fashion scene, later benefiting from a revived interest when trad group The Clancy Brothers wore the garment when they appeared on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in the early 1960s.
Untaintedly simple and innately Irish, it became a powerful political statement as tensions increased with the outbreak of the Troubles. During the conflict which divided Irish people into various groups, notably Unionists and Republicans, Protestants and Catholics, Northerners and Southerners, prominent figures such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness began to wear the Aran jumper, as did members of the IRA. It was a subtle yet potent way of embodying nationalism. In ‘Cable Crossings: The Aran Jumper as Myth and Merchandise’, Siun Carton writes: "worn by the public faces of republicanism...the Aran jumper is a comfortable, relaxed, confident way of saying I am Irish and so is the north of Ireland''. This phenomenon would continue until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Untaintedly simple and innately Irish, it became a powerful political statement as tensions increased with the outbreak of the Troubles.
Tony Candon, manager of the National Museum of Ireland-Country Life said, “Aran sweaters are a powerful expression of the creativity of the Irish folk craft tradition”. Carefully handcrafted, it is an enduring symbol of Irish history and a cornerstone of Irish fashion history. It was chosen to be included in the fashion exhibition “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York in 2017. The Aran Jumper’s popularity was further boosted in the aftermath of the release of Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin. Set on an island inspired by the Aran Islands, it brought the jumper under the spotlight once more when characters Colm and Padraig argued all while staying warm in the Aran. The film captivated audiences and led to a surge in demand once more.
Carefully handcrafted, it is an enduring symbol of Irish history and a cornerstone of Irish fashion history.
Tourists play a massive role in the Aran Jumper’s continued relevance in the couture industry. The jumper is the ultimate global market commodity, retailing for nearly €50 on both ASOS and at Carroll’s Irish Gifts, whilst Skellig Gift Store sells it for €59.95. Stores such as these profit from tourists’ affection with the Jumper, and benefit from their willingness to pay a high price for the “authentic” garment - although it’s now almost exclusively machine-knitted, and rarely even manufactured in Ireland, let alone on tiny islands off Galway’s West Coast. Despite this, it is a unique souvenir that carries stories in more ways than one would usually expect from a jumper.
Irish people’s emotional attachment to the jumper perhaps results from how it represents a connection to a bygone Irish past, with a country now changed as a result of mass emigration, decline of the Irish language and increasing modernisation.
Tracking the Jumper’s history, from its genesis in Galway to being modelled by icons such as Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe, proves that it is as integral to Ireland’s image internationally as Guinness or Riverdance. Irish people’s emotional attachment to the jumper perhaps results from how it represents a connection to a bygone Irish past, with a country now changed as a result of mass emigration, decline of the Irish language and increasing modernisation. When Taylor Swift wore the jumper on Folklore’s cover, we wondered whether she knew what a testament it is to Irish history, politics, and culture. Whatever the answer, the Aran Jumper has transcended its rugged origins, and its timeless appeal is a tribute to the cultural, political, and historical substance knitted into every stitch.