C Kennedy & Sons, trading as Kennedy of Ardara was established in 1902, soon after Connell (Con) Kennedy, one of five Ardara brothers who emigrated to the USA in the early 1880s, made what was then a rare journey back to his homeland. He was returning on holiday after nearly twenty years running saloons in the wild west mining towns of Gallup, New Mexico, and Winslow, Arizona.
However, after meeting Etta, a renowned milliner, seamstress and dress maker, he decided to settle back in Ardara, and sent the message for his belongings to be shipped home to Ireland. Months later, they arrived in a trunk (that we still proudly have to this day on display in our Kennedy of Ardara retail shop).
Con started working as a draper, and the following year, in 1903, he married Etta and purchased a property on Front Street, Ardara (now Gatsby House), in what would become the Kennedy family home for more than a century. Within the home, Con and Etta set up a general drapery and boots store.
The first day of store trading for Con and Etta was 2 March 1904, on what happened to be a Fair Day in Ardara. Their total taking from the first day’s trading was five shillings and seven pence.
In the early years, apart from managing the drapery business, Con focused on getting hand-embroidery or “sprigging” as it was known locally made in the cottage homes of Donegal for export to a market he was familiar with, the USA. The business also dealt in handwoven tweeds, which in those days was very much a cottage industry, and in a small number of hand-knit garments, which were produced by local women in their homes.
As a child, Con’s son Michael (Mick) would be allowed accompany his mother Etta during school holidays on her weekly trips by pony trap to Glencolumbkille to collect the finished sprigging from homes and give out fresh supplies of linen.
Mick worked in the shop from an early age, and after leaving school in his teens, served a retail apprenticeship the larger drapery store of ‘Greenes’ in the North Donegal town of Falcarragh, before returning to work full time in the family business. He went on to take over control of Kennedy of Ardara in 1928.
The embroidery or sprigging trade flourished until the mid-1930s when a slump occurred in the linen trade. When a further slump came, at the end of World War II, this time in the sale of tweeds, Mick and his wife Margaret, a former domestic science teacher, shifted their concentration to the hand-knit industry, after noticing a demand from the new wave of tourists visiting their shop from abroad for garments Margaret had designed.
Hand-knitting had a long history in Donegal, where hand-knit sweaters were traditionally worn by fishermen. Localities and families had their own distinctive combinations of stitches which had been passed down from generation to generation.
To grow the hand-knitting industry, the couple set about recruiting many more cottage workers, to ensure a steady flow of hand-knits, sourcing knitters from all over Donegal and beyond to turn out fashioned hand-knit garments for sale in the shop and supply to the home and export market.
From the start, they realised that if their hand-knit product was to compete with fashions in international markets, it would be necessary to refine the design while not losing the image and durability of traditional hand-knits. The couple engaged the services of Maureen Evans, an internationally known Irish designer, based in London.
Maureen visited Donegal to gain an appreciation of the wealth of lore attached to hand-knitting, and inspired by the tradition, incorporated it in her designs, successfully capturing the distinctive qualities of past and present. When presented by Kennedy of Ardara at showcases in Dublin, and fashion shows in London, her creations aroused considerable interest among overseas buyers.
The Kennedy of Ardara order book started filling up with international orders, and by the mid-1950s, a sizeable knitwear export business was in operation supplying boutiques and department stores across the USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and many European countries. Among the big name clients were stores like Macys and Bloomingdales, as well as Altmans in New York, Neiman Marcus in Dallas, and Trimingham’s in Bermuda.
By 1960, Kennedy of Ardara were employing 800 hand-knitters, and in 1963 were awarded the prestigious honour of ‘Exporter of the Year’ by the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland. Mick and Margaret attended an official banquet in Wexford to collect the award, which they received ahead of that year’s runners-up; the now world famous Waterford Glass/Crystal. After winning the award, Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE came to Ardara to film an item on the company.
Amazingly, despite its success, Kennedy of Ardara was still operating out of the same small shop that Con had set up within the family home 60 years before. It was in this home that Mick had been rared, along with his six brothers and sisters, and where he and Margaret were now raising their four children; Marie, Connell, Anne and Mairead.
A barn at the back of the home had been converted into a mini factory, where a small but industrious staff sewed and stitched garments before pressing and bagging them. Two further outhouses were used as store rooms. Meanwhile, a company van was driven throughout County Donegal, and beyond, supplying wool and collecting garments from the homes of hand-knitters, and bringing them to the factory.
The strength of the Kennedy of Ardara name, along with the blooming Irish tourism industry of the time, meant tourists starting to flock to Ardara in the 1960s to secure quality hand-knits.
Eventually, the growth in demand for Donegal hand-knits, led to a purpose built factory and shop opening in 1968, in Kennedy of Ardara’s current location across the street from the old family home.
At this time, Mick’s son, Connell, the current Managing Director, returned to work in the business, from three years training in Dublin’s largest department store, ‘Arnotts’, which had been a Kennedy of Ardara client.
By 1980, the company were employing 2,000 hand-knitters across the length of Donegal, from Bundoran to Fanad Head, with Maureen Evans still working as the company designer.
As tourism to Ardara thrived, the shop was extended to double its size in 1981, when Connell took over as Managing Director, complementing its stock with other quality Irish produce and gifts.
A keen golfer, Connell was inspired in 1991 to design a resilient woollen sweater for outdoor pursuits that would protect against cold and wind. A sweater for life, ‘The Hillwalker’ proved a huge success and has been deemed “the world’s best outdoor sweater” with many of its fans returning year after year to buy another of its 11 colour varieties.
The globalisation of the 1990’s, Nine Eleven and the Global Economic Crisis have presented challenges to the manufacturing and retail operations of Kennedy of Ardara,but the company continues to produce new designs every year in hand-knits, loomed garments and accessories, supplying customers throughout the world.
In November 2012, the company marked its 110 year anniversary and launched the retail website http://kennedyirishsweaters.com, by holding a celebratory event in the shop’s premises, with special guests Moya Brennan of Clannad, Noel Cunningham of TV3, and the company’s past and present staff. The joint occasion also attracted a high amount of positive media coverage which continued into 2013, when a profile feature on the company appeared in The Irish Times, just ahead of the company’s return to exhibiting at Showcase Ireland, the country’s largest international expo for creative industries.
The success of Showcase, along with the company’s unique 110 year heritage, continues to attract media attention with feature items appearing in The Irish Daily Mail, The Irish Sun, and national radio, as well as a recent programme item on RTE1 primetime TV show ‘Nationwide’, which you can view here