Tuesday 24 October 2017

Flashback 1983 - ministerial visit to the Aran Islands

This weekend 32 years ago Gaeltacht minister Paddy O'Toole and Fianna Fáil TD Bobby Molloy travelled to the Aran Islands

Wearing the local knitwear Gaeltacht Minister Paddy O'Toole, centre, and Fianna Fail TD Bobby Molloy, left, sharing a joke with Tarlach De Blacam, manager of the Coop on Inis Meáin.
Wearing the local knitwear Gaeltacht Minister Paddy O'Toole, centre, and Fianna Fail TD Bobby Molloy, left, sharing a joke with Tarlach De Blacam, manager of the Coop on Inis Meáin.

Ger Siggins

Politicians can often be persuaded to dress up in all manner of outfits when a press photographer is about. And there was nothing bashful about Gaeltacht Minister Paddy O'Toole of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TD Bobby Molloy when the Inis Meáin co-op opened its knitwear store in September 1983.

Irish Independent photographer Matt Walsh travelled to cover the event and captured the politicians resplendent in their báinín coats and jumpers as part of a stunning picture essay which captured the industry and a dying way of life on the island, which had a population of 154 at the last census.

The third man, in the middle of the photograph above, is Tarlach De Blacam, a Dubliner who, as a student of Celtic languages at Trinity, was sent to Inis Meáin by his professor to sample the rich language and folklore first-hand. Back in Dublin he met Áine, a primary school teacher and Inis Meáin native, and they returned to make their home on the smallest of the Aran Islands.

Tarlach got a job running the co-op and introduced a knitwear operation in 1976. Within a decade he and Áine decided to buy out the knitwear company and develop it into a proper business. They invested in new machinery and began 24-hour-a-day production.

"I aimed to be small and exclusive, targeting top-quality speciality stores," said De Blacam, but the company has proved enormously successful. Their handmade clothing is based on traditional island styles with a modern, luxury twist.

The old fisherman's jackets are now also produced in silk, cashmere and baby alpaca. The range sells in Bergdorf Goodman and Barney's in New York, as well as elsewhere in the US, Japan, France, Australia, Germany, Sweden, Italy and the UK. The knitwear is expensive, with the cheapest cardigan or jumper selling for €225 and scarves at €125. Prices for some items soar to around €1,500.

"From the beginning we were focused on a high-end export market," De Blacam said in an interview this year. "We thought this was the best policy, to sell and compete on design and quality rather than to compete in the volume market because of our remote location and all the disadvantages this location creates for us." Ironically, it was another Fine Gael politician who gave the industry its best publicity some 10 years after O'Toole's visit. After Pól Ó Foíghil was elected to the Seanad he successfully challenged the dress protocols in the Oireachtas to be allowed wear the traditional Aran woollen jacket, the cóta báinín.

Back in 1983 the visit of the politicians coincided with another significant event in the island's history - the switching on of the mains water service.

"You only have to turn on a tap. It's so mighty", marvelled Peadar Ó Conghaile, who spent the previous 70 years carting water to his thatched cottage from a well.

Three years later Molloy joined the new Progressive Democrats, served as Minister for Energy from 1989 to 1992, retiring in 2002. O'Toole served as Minister for the Gaeltacht, and several other ministries, until he retired from politics in 1987.

De Blacam still runs the Inis Meáin Knitting Company, whose most recent accounts showed a 10 per cent rise in profits. Nowadays, one in 10 of the island's population is employed by the company.

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