What is it about sheep and Ireland? We have a huge variety of other animals here, from beautiful wild creatures such as foxes and deer to other barnyard buddies such as cows and pigs. Once upon a time, Irish coins featured a variety of animals including a sow with piglets, different birds, a hare, an Irish wolfhound, a bull, a horse and even a salmon. All of these creatures are as representative of Irish mythology and life as sheep, some clearly more so. The Salmon of Wisdom. The Cattle Raid of Cooley, aka Tain Bo Cualnge. Yet when you look at Irish gifts, you see far more sheep than salmon!
Now clearly the sheep is a lot cuter than the salmon, but it is hard to beat an Irish Wolfhound for adorableness and they certainly smell better than sheep. Is there a powerful cartel of sheep lobbying the makers of Irish gifts? Not likely. Sheep have many fine qualities, but no one has accused them of being that clever. So why do we associate them so strongly with Ireland?
They do look very pretty scattered and grazing in a lush, green field framed by a low stone wall. We get all kinds of literal and figurative warm fuzzies from sheep. But it might be something more pragmatic that earned sheep their place in our hearts and on our postcards.
It’s true that sheep can be found in many places around the world, but those woolly coats are just perfect for the damp cool Irish climate. Wool naturally repels water and provides insulation, so it is ideal for keeping sheep – and people – warm and dry. Sheep wool is the traditional and best material to spin for knitting. While North Americans refer their knitting and crochet material as yarn, in Ireland it is commonly known as wool, regardless of its actual wool content. That’s how closely linked sheep and knitting are here. Both the cutie in the field and the gorgeous sweater created from her fleece are called woolly jumpers in this part of the world!
Throughout the year, Irish gifts featuring images of sheep are popular. From framed prints and calendar photos to cute little dishes for our own sweet little lambs when they aren’t quite ready for adult-sized plates and cups, sheep adorn presents for every occasion. This time of year, however, another type of sheep themed gift comes to the forefront.
Woolly jumpers with intricate Aran knitting patterns are a practical and beautiful gift for men, women and children, especially those living in areas that get cold, wet winters. Of course, there are knitted hats, gloves and scarves too. But knitwear is not the only option for woolen Irish gifts. Wool is used to make a whole range of things to keep us warm all winter – cozy throw blankets; timeless, traditional flat caps; stunning capes of various lengths, and even rugs to keep bare toes happy in winter. When winter strikes, it is clear why sheep are so strongly associated with this chilly, damp island!