A Warm and Woolly Welcome

When I’m out and about sketching, I’m struck over and over again how nice people are to each other. I find it inspiring and it makes me want to be nicer. Trouble is, I keep failing.

A couple of days ago I was in Ó’Máille’s, sketching away. It’s a special shop selling the most beautiful knitted sweaters, blankets, hats and ponchos: I was at the back of the shop where I had a nice view. A boy of about twelve came in. He had pink cheeks and was bundled up in a black puffa jacket. He made a beeline for me and started to say something. I cut him off, pointing to Anne, the owner. “Go to her,” I said. The lad said something to Anne. “Well, you’re extremely welcome,” she said. “I love to have you here.”

The boy went out. Anne explained to me that he was on a course for people who have a stammer: they are encouraged to go into a number of shops and say a few words.

“I couldn’t have chosen a worse person to be unfriendly to,” I said.

A few minutes later, two young men came in. One explained that they were on a course, and that they were to go into shops and introduce themselves. He stammered strongly. Anne gave them the same warm welcome she’d given the boy.

“Thank you for being so kind,” said the young man who had started the conversation, this time with no trace of a stammer. “It makes it so much easier.”

When they’d gone, I tried to ask Anne if she’d noticed that the young man spoke fluently after she’d been so nice. But I couldn’t finish the sentence, as the words got caught somewhere in my throat along the way.

Anne sells handknit sweaters from the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway.

“You can see by the quaver in their handwriting that they are knitted by older ladies,” said Anne to a customer who was interested to know more. “And I don’t know who is going to continue the tradition when these skilled ladies aren’t knitting any more. The trouble is, many of the shops are selling imports, and I’m not sure the customer knows the difference.”

I do: I’m a poor cold soul, and I only managed to beat the cold when I bought a sweater from Anne’s shop about a year and a half ago. I have worn it out sketching hundreds of times and it still looks like new. It’s not a handknit, but I love it.

I asked Anne if she had any special garmets I could sketch.

“Old or new?” she asked. Old, naturally! Anne disappeared to the basement and came back with these two sweaters.

“I rarely show these to anyone,” she said. The cream one is fifty or sixty years old, but it could have been knitted yesterday, apart from a slight darkening of the collar.

“It’s full of lanolin,” said Anne. “You know by the weight.”

The greyish sweater was a gift from her husband Ger, shortly after they met. It was knitted by a Mrs Keady, who reared her own sheep, spun her own yarn and knitted her own garments. The wool is the natural colour of the sheep.

“Look at this patch,” said Anne, turning the sweater over to the back. “You can see it’s a slightly different colour. I only discovered it when I washed it. Mrs Keady evidently ran out of wool, and it wasn’t possible to match it – even that is part of what makes the sweater so special.”

Anne’s shop is full of treasures, some new, like the sweater she showed a customer that had been knitted by a woman who’d had no training but who had learned the craft from her grandmother’s knee. The Irish phrase meaning “from generation to generation” translates as “from knee to knee”. The shop is all about traditions passed on.

Anne’s husband Ger, who also runs the shop, has a family connection with the movie The Quiet Man: his aunt made many of the beautiful garments worn in the film. The wall behind the till has some great old photos on it from the movie. This photo is of John Wayne and Andrew McLaglen, the son of Victor McLaglen who played Will Danaher in the film. If you think John Wayne looks small in this photo, that’s because Andrew was 6’9″.

Anne explained all the technical aspects of the actors’ jackets, which were made by a local tailor.

“Compra caro, que somos pobres” is a Spanish saying. Buy dear because we are poor. It’s not quite as poetic in English: you get what you pay for.

I’ll be back to Ó’Máille’s!

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