Sheep and wool products have always been at the forefront throughout Irish history. The first settlers in Ireland kept sheep for their wool, milk and meat with wool being the most important product from the sheep.
In 600-800 AD The Brehon Laws laid down a wife's settlement in case of separation or divorce that stated she was entitled to keep her spindles, needles, weavers reeds and a share of the thread she spun and the cloth she had woven. Since then the West of Ireland and particularly Connemara has been the home of knitwear for generations past.
In the late 1880’s the Congested Districts Board established a wool craft industry in the area operated out of the Leenane Hotel. The role of the Congested Districts Board was to provide education and employment to poverty-stricken areas by developing local craft skills. Making products such as wool sweaters from tweed. Robert Mc Keown the owner of the Leeane Hotel helped develop weaving locally by supporting workshops for preparing and weaving wool.
The finished product was even sold in a wool shop in the hotel. While the work of the Congested Districts Board ended with Independence the wool weavers continued to work producing wool for the local community in Connemara.
In the 1950’s the trading of wool provided seasonal employment on a large scale. John M. Joyce was the predominant merchant in Ireland at the time, would go along the west coast of Ireland buying the best quality of wool from the farmers. His operation was run from the purpose-built Wool Store on Westport Road.
Since 1992 the Connemara Sheep & Wool Centre in County Galway has celebrated and preserved the traditions and skills of the local sheep and the woollen industry. Originally set up by Michael and Kathleen O’Toole, the Connemara Sheep & Wool Centre was inspired by Michael’s many years as an agricultural scientist, specialising in sheep.
Today their daughter Áine and her husband Gregg carry on the family tradition of warmly welcoming visitors to this very special corner of Connemara. Visitors from far and wide are drawn to the Connemara Sheep & Wool Centre to experience traditional looms and the spinning wheels used in the wool industry revitalised through tours, experiencing first-hand how sheep fleeces are transformed into tweed by traditional methods.
If you would like to go back in time and explore the history of the Irish wool trade for yourself, book a woolcraft demonstration with our head weaver Seamus here. This 45-minute tour, suitable for all ages, will take you on a journey through the woollen industry and see the process of how a sheep’s fleece is made into wool clothing using traditional Irish tools that were created to make wool yarn.