A Letter From Beragh, 1984

Mary Ellen Quinn of Aneeterbeg

A while back, at the Mission, we all heard Fr Tom Hogan praising a certain lady’s home cooking. Then we discovered that she is also an expert with the knitting needles and her Aran sweaters are among the best around. Now we hear she is an expert on earthworms and hunting dogs. Of course, we are talking about Mary Ellen Quinn, who will be three years among us come August: she arrived in Beragh with Father McParland. We went to visit her on a very cold Wednesday evening.“Where I come from in Moortown this would be classed a warm March day,” she told us, “Around the shores of Lough Neagh the east wind makes March the coldest time of the year.”

Mary Ellen has been working for priests for twenty-five years. For twenty-two of these she was housekeeper for Father Byrne, living in Newtownhamilton and in Meigh. Back at home in Aneeterbeg Mary Ellen’s family are farmers and fishermen, and they also had a shop. Since her father died the shop has gone. Her two brothers are still fishing. Hence her interest in worms. When Mary Ellen was a schoolgirl she often went out with her father after dark (and following rain) to look for earthworms. A strong battery lamp, a can or bucket, and a quick hand to catch the worms as they emerged from the ground. Her father needed the worms to bait the hooks on his eel line – up to 1600 hooks on each line, five yards apart. The eels were exported to Billingsgate in former years, now they are sent to Holland. Eight or nine tons of eels are shipped to Amsterdam by plane each week of the fishing season. Mary Ellen tells us that there are 210 boats fishing on Lough Neagh, and over 400 fishermen make their living on the lough.

And her interest in hunting dogs? Part of her job is to keep Father McParland’s red setter fit and keen. The dog’s name is Grouse and Grouse needs a five-mile walk every day. On the day we visited her in the parochial house, Mary Ellen’s four-year-old niece, Sarah Ellen O’Hara, was wearing an Aran sweater knitted by her aunt. And that leads us to the fancy and intricate stitches in an Aran jumper.

Mary Ellen has nine separate knitting patterns, each of which has a meaning. The blackberry stitch stands for the Trinity. The knitter puts three stitches in each blackberry. Cables stand for the fishermen’s ropes. The plaited cable represents the interweaving of family life. The honeycomb stitch stands for the hard work and toil in the beehive. The trellis signifies the small fields of Connemara, surrounded by stone walls. The zig-zag suggests rugged cliffs and winding paths. The ladder of life denotes the desire to reach heaven. The moss stitch represents the abundant growth on mossy soil. The diamond is the symbol of success and wealth. Now you have learnt the secrets of the various stitches which can be found in an Aran jumper. And Mary Ellen will continue to knit and to exercise Grouse the red setter. From her and from all of us here in Beragh – greetings to Mary Ellen’s family circle down in Moortown.

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