The story behind the cover art for Ruth Marshall’s Limerick Folk tales
‘A great queen, at other times Áine seems to be a young girl or an old woman. She is a lover, a rape survivor, a mermaid, mother of a poet, the woman who knits, the cailleach. She is a true goddess, and her presence can still be felt in the landscape, in the air, in the names given to landscape features’
When I came across this passage in the Limerick folk tales text I knew she had to be the subject of my cover illustration. She is every woman. She is also for me an image of my mother, who I remember knitting in the evenings when i was small, her long dark hair in bunches and her feet folded neatly underneath her in an armchair. That subtle but continuous clicking of the needles as she knitted for my younger sisters. I never became a knitter, my skills lie in weaving my dreams in pencils and paint but I still find the image of a woman knitting an evocative one and the idea of there being so much power in such a gentle process is one I am incredibly drawn to. As I dreamed and doodled, wondering how my knitting goddess should look, I received a message from the books author expressing the hope that I would choose this story for the cover image…
For me words conjure images which in turn conjure words… and so I was also reminded of this beautiful poem by Tom Leonard
I like seeing nurse Frieda knitting
As I like watching my wife knitting
As I like watching my mother knitting
Though she was more of a dabbler
(Plain and purl, plain and purl)
‘Women being in their place’
The future, knitting the future
The present peaceful, quiet
The same woman knitting
For a thousand years
As soon as I mentioned on social media that I was interested in photos of people knitting to use as resource material the response was amazing, I received dozens of pictures of exquisitely busy hands and although none that were quite what I was after, I suddenly became aware of the love and enthusiasm so many felt for this gentle art… I did find some very evocative pictures of ‘knitting Madonnas’ on the net though and knew I was looking for something that had the same sort of feel…
Then I came across this image below on my wanderings. Something about this pose, the shape of the face and the absorbed quality of the whole reminded me of the paintings of the knitting Madonnas I had encountered earlier and made it a perfect starting point
My knitter went through a few different ideas about hair…I have a bit of a thing for hair and what it does in my images matters very much to me…
In this image it needed to float about her somehow as if she were sitting below water and it just grew and grew until it became a very dominant feature, but that worked well when the rest of the painting was done as it was a great foil to the potentially overwhelming greenness of the whole.
The animals emerged from the background as I began to paint, the whale being the only one I had planned in my head before starting and the deer, frog and butterfly emerging last. They grew from the cloth as I painted in almost the same way they grew from her knitting.
Here is Ruth’s full introduction to the knitter and her story…
Áine is one of the oldest of the gods. She was/is a goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, and the land of Munster was her sacred ground. She oversaw the fertility, prosperity of the land and its inhabitants. Tuatha Dé Danaan means the people of the goddess Danu, and some scholars claim that Áine may be the same as Ana, Anu, or Danu. Perhaps she was the mother of this race of gifted craftspeople, seen as gods, and later to become the Sidhe or Fairies. Hers was the sovereignty of Munster, hers to confer on any man who sought to rule there. It is easy to see Áine as the sun, the light that sparkles on the waters of Lough Gur, the enlivened air. Her name means ‘delight, joy, radiance, harmony, truth, brightness’.
The wild herb, meadowas Áine’s plant. Also known as ‘queen of the meadow,’ meadowsweet has healing powers, containing in its leaves a substance that relieves headaches, inflammation and many other complaints. Its flowers are light and airy, and as the name suggests, they fill the air with their scent in late summer, the time of harvest.
A great queen, at other times Áine seems to be a young girl or an old woman. She is a lover, a rape surviver, a mermaid, mother of a poet, the woman who knits, the cailleach. She is a true goddess, and her presence can still be felt in the landscape, in the air, in the names given to landscape features.
She Who Knits the World’s Green Cloth
Beneath the enchanted waters of Lough Gur, there grows an ancient and enormous tree, concealed beneath a green cloth. Beneath the green cloth (brat ‘uÁine) a woman sits at the base of the tree. She is knitting with a green yarn, the fabric of the world, and will continue to do this until the end of the world, or until the enchantment on the lake is broken. Once every seven years, when the waters of the lake recede, the tree and its covering are revealed.
One day when the waters of the lake were low, there came a horseman riding by. Seeing the green cloth, so fine and beautiful, he snatched it up, revealing the knitting woman beneath it. She cried out to the waters of the lake:
Awake, awake, thou silent tide!
From the Dead Woman’s land a horseman does ride,
From my head the green cloth snatching.
As she spoke, the waters of Lough Gur began to rise. The rider kicked his horse into action and raced off, but the waters came leaping and foaming behind him. Horse and rider were swept into the lake and were lost beneath its waves. The green cloth slowly drifted down through the water until it came to rest once more over the tree and the knitting woman.
Some say that had the cloth been stolen, the fertility of the land would have been destroyed.
In our own time, where soil and crop fertility is sorely threatened, not by horsemen riding by, but by man-made causes ranging from artificial fertilisers, the death of bees, genetic manipulation, and climate change, perhaps we should all be taking up our knitting needles and green yarn to help ‘knit the world better!’ Áine urges us to join her, to do what we can to re-create the green fabric of life.
Today there is a large stone called the Cloch a bhile, which means the ‘stone of the tree’, not far from the great stone circle at Lough Gur.
This is cover story was one where the collaboration in spirit between author and artist was instant, Ruth and I have never met and until I started to write this blog had only had a few small exchanges with each other, but she has sent me this contribution which I am pleased to share with you here:
Knitting the world better – a brief personal history in wool and words
I have been a sporadic knitter all my life, my most recent return to knitting inspired partly by my Son’s requests for useful items and love tokens for his girlfriend.
Then on a visit to family in Scotland I saw an exhibition of Donna Wilson’s quirky knitted work in Glasgow’s Lighthouse gallery. Odd creatures and landscapes included the squirrel-fox and trees. I wrote in the visitor’s book, “Knit the World Better!” When I got home, this became a slogan I signed my emails with.
I waxed lyrical about wool as metaphor for the creative process. I got smelly Shetland fleeces from an artist on the Burren, carded and spun them into yarn, in the same way that I draw ideas down from the clouds and spin them into stories to tell. I knitted sheelagh-na-gigs and gnomes. I gave workshops on ‘how to knit the world better for ourselves and others’. I found traditional stories that featured balls of yarn, seamless garments, knitting women. On the isle of Colonsay, I heard about the Witch of Jura, who could draw any man into her arms by winding up her magical ball of wool.
Some of these woolly tales turn up in my books for The History Press’s Folk Tales series.
In Clare Folk Tales, I included the story of an old woman, angry to be disturbed at her knitting, who pierced the ground with her knitting needle, causing a spring to burst forth, that became Inchiquin lake. A warning: you should never disturb a woman at her knitting!
Researching for Limerick Folk Tales, I found reference to a knitting woman who sits at the base of a tree submerged beneath Lough Gur, at the heart of a magical sacred landscape. I thought of her as “She who knits the earth’s green cloth” and I identified strongly with her at this time when we must be so conscious to reweave the threatened web of life, the torn fabric of society. When the text of the book was finished, I drew so many version of this image. I knew what story I wanted to see featured on the cover, and requested that Katherine portray “She Who Knits”. I knew she would do this beautifully, and I was not disappointed, she had already found the passage and become enchanted with it.
My own knitting story continues: there is an endless thread, a red thread I like to think, that connects us, and leads the way forward.
I will always welcome more stories, from anywhere around the world, that feature knitters, wool, yarn, etc.
Ruth Marshall 2017
Ruth also sent me several lovely poems, one of which I would like to share with you, enjoy.
I wore a purple wool jumper
The way Pablo Neruda wore his hand knit socks
With a reverence
for the unknown hands that clicked the needles
And a love for the rich deep colour of the wool
From the purple sheep that dwelt in the fairyland dusk
I witnessed only through the haze of smoke.
And there was no risk of saving it for best
For it was all I could bear to wear
while the sleeves wore thin
and my mother sewed leather patches
on the elbows for me
just as she sewed the hems
I had no patience to take up
on skirts I made from curtains snatched at jumble sales.
I knitted socks and gloves,
colourful and Fair-Isled, on four needles
at the interminable meetings of my twenties
in wholefood shops, back rooms and basements
through talk of poetry, brown rice and disarmament;
and sweaters for my lover,
full of spells and symbols,
through northern winters warmed by blackcurrant wine,
that his next girlfriend wore
By the time my son arrived
The auntie who knitted shawls
Fine enough to pull through a wedding ring
Had knobbly twigs for hands and clouded eyes.
Gifted a lambskin for his bed,
I made vests, jumpers, hats, shoes, blankets
And wrapped him in the warmest woolly love.
Though moths and time unravel the finest work
I have learned the magic that transforms
the dung-caked fleece to pure cream yarn.
Now, when I have carded, spun and washed,
I knit my own tiny woollen sheep.
Ruth Marshall, October 2003
http://www.ruthmarshallarts.weebly.com : “Ruth Marshall Writes” on Facebook
Email: ruth.a.marshall at gmail.com