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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Did You Know Islands, Sweaters, and Lambs = Imbolc?

Updated: Feb 24


It makes sense. Trust me.
It makes sense. Trust me.

All right. This is how my mind works. As I lay in bed pondering what to write about for this week’s post, the phrase “Aran Islands” kept repeating in my head. That was all. “Aran Islands” over and over again. I thought That’s a possibility. But (and no offense to the people of those beautiful islands), I decided to keep the idea in reserve in case I didn’t come up with anything else. Then Aran sweaters came into my head. Great! They’re a well-known symbol of Irishness. Plus making them is a folk craft that fits this blog’s usual focus. Even better: the details about how they’re crafted are cool. My mind awakened, got excited, and rolled down the hill of free association.

  

     It went something like this: Aran Islands—Oh! Aran Sweaters. Sweaters are made of wool = sheep. Sheep start off as lambs. Ah, Imbolc! Plus, it’s February right now. How perfect! Not following that last bit? Imbolc (February 1st) is one of the four Celtic fire festivals. Each marks the beginning of a season. Imbolc, meaning “in the belly,” (i.e. pregnant) marks the start of spring and the lambing season. So, my mind’s trip was not as random as it might have seemed. And here’s the resulting post. Let’s start with sweaters (or, as the Irish would call them, jumpers).

 

Aran Sweaters

 

     Iconic and world-renowned, Aran sweaters are made throughout Ireland, but the origin of the craft is attributed to the women of the Aran Islands. Hand-knitted, one sweater can take up to sixty days to create. Each one is made up of about 100,000 stitches of different types that create a pattern. There are a variety of patterns. Each represents a clan the way a Scottish tartan does. According to https://www.aran.com/history-of-aran-sweaters the patterns, historically, were used to help identify drowned fishermen when their bodies washed up on the beach. A bit grim, I admit, but that wasn’t the main purpose for the patterns. They were about clan pride just like a tartan.


     The type of stitch has a specific meaning as well. For example, the well-known cable stitch represents fisherman’s cords while the diamond stitch is symbolic of wealth and success. The half-diamond or zig-zag stitch is said to represent “the twisting cliff paths on the islands” (www.aran.com/history-of-aran-sweaters). Pretty cool, eh?

    

If you’d love to learn how to knit a traditional Aran sweater while sitting in a cozy Irish cottage, check out the Aran Island Sweater Experience workshop offered on Innis Orr by clicking this link http://discoverinisoirr.com/whats-on/traditional-irish-workshops-classes/  Full disclosure: I don’t represent Discover Innis Orr nor have I been to the workshop (although I’d love to do it). I’m just passing along information some of you might find interesting.


The Aran Islands

    

     Yes, islands, plural. There are three: Inis Mór (Inishmore), Inis Meáin (Inismaan), and Inis Oirr (Inisheer). Located off the west coast of Ireland and sparsely populated, these islands are a part of the Gaeltacht (the Irish-speaking regions of Ireland). They offer ruggedly beautiful landscapes and a taste of traditional Irish cultural heritage. Although improved technology and tourism have begun to have a modernizing effect on the culture of the Aran Islands, they still offer an opportunity to see traditional crafts and professions in practice as well as provide a quiet retreat from contemporary life in a big city. Meaning? The islands have roads, but the most common mode of transportation is by bicycle.

    

In addition to the natural beauty of the landscape, a main attraction of the islands is the abundance of ancient and historic sites. There are several prehistoric forts, a fourteenth-century castle, and a fifth-century church. Dun Aonghasa (aka Dún Aengus), situated on a clifftop on Inis Mór and Dún Conchúir on Inish Meáin are the two oldest sites (and are among the oldest archaeological sites in Ireland). The remains of Castle O’Brien can be visited on Inis Oirr. The castle, home to the island’s rulers—the O’Briens—until the 16th century AD was built in the 14th century on top of an ancient ring fort. The smallest church in Ireland (some say in the world), Teampall Bheanain is located on Inis Mór. Situated on top of a hill, it looks down on a Celtic cross and a round tower that were part of a long-gone 6th century monastic village.

    

While on Inis Mór, you also can snorkel with the seals or just take in the island's gorgeous land and seascapes during a three-to-four-hour tour of the island via a trap-and-pony ride. 

 


Ready to go snorkeling with the seals?
Ready to go snorkeling with the seals?

You can fly to the Aran Islands by way of Connemara Airport, but most people journey by ferry. Ferries depart from Galway City, and Rossaveal, both in County Galway and from Doolin in Cunty Clare. The trip will take approximately 30 minutes to an hour depending on weather conditions and your chosen port of departure.


Imbolc


As I mentioned above, Imbolc is one of the four major Celtic festivals that mark the start of a season. Although Imbolc technically is February 1st (aka Brigid’s Day), some people consider it a season in itself, running from the end of Samhain until the start of Beltane (May 1st). It’s appropriate, then, to discuss the themes of Imbolc in case you might want to incorporate them into your life from now until May.

    

Although Samhain (November 1st) is the start of the Celtic year, Imbolc is the start of spring. One of its main themes is new beginnings. Related themes are rebirth and renewal. Associated with this thinking is a focus on innocence and childhood. Also, remember that Imbolc means “in the belly,” so this is a time not only of rebirth but of being pregnant and giving birth. That doesn’t have to be taken literally.

    

Imbolc is an excellent time to put your energy into being creative. It’s also a time for growth, whether that means planting seeds (literal or metaphorical) or working on self-growth. There also is a focus on hidden potential (both seeds and unborn babies provide hope of good things to come). Of course, pregnancy results from fertility. Fertility is the ability to conceive and produce offspring. Again, that doesn’t have to be taken literally. Imbolc is a good time for seeking inspiration, coming up with new ideas and plans, then putting them into action.

    

As it is the herald of spring, Imbolc also is about the return of the sun, of light and warmth after a dark, cold winter. Take some time to reflect on what that would look like in your life. Is there a part of you that’s been languishing in the darkness of neglect? Is there some part that needs thawed out? Is there someone who could benefit from the warmth of your love and attention?

    

Finally, Imbolc is a time for cleansing and purification. This could just take the form of a good spring cleaning. Or you could explore ways to cleanse your mind and spirit.

    

For some concrete ways to express these Imbolc themes, please read my 2022 post Imbolc: Celtic Spring and New Beginnings.” 


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Slán go fóill


     All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.


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