Linen's Irish Lineage
Happy St Patrick's Day to all our Irish readers! Today we’re revisiting Issue 18 Island Life - where we examine Ireland's wonderfully rich textiles heritage, the lineage of linen, and how it is deep rooted in the history of the country, starting with this survey from the Living Linen Oral Archive and Collection.
Anyone looking for a brief introduction to the history of Irish linen should be warned; such a thing could only ever fall short of its aim. Draw out a single thread and you unravel a story that begins with the Phoenician merchant fleets and progresses to the Irish monasteries, takes in the high drama of the Flight of the Earls in 1607, the violent Plantation of Ulster and the horror of the Potato Famine. It’s fair to say the growth of the linen industry in Ulster has deep and political roots.
Image: Irish flax seed and stems © Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum.
The manufacture of linen existed primarily as a domestic industry in the 15th and 16th century. Evidence, such as the typical Irish costume with its extravagant use of linen, suggests flax grew in abundance and perhaps this is what attracted the attention of English. It was by kind “permission” of the English Lord Wentworth, Earl of Strafford that the linen industry was nurtured while the trade in wool was suppressed to protect this staple commodity of England. Appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland by Charles I in 1632 the Earl’s contributions to the industry are often noted; he imported Dutch equipment and high quality flax seed, improved weaving looms and consulted technical advisers from abroad but his methods were uncompromising and he cleared the way for technical innovations by punishing with fines or imprisonment anyone who worked in the traditional fashion. His indifference to the misery that resulted underlines the fact that his draconian measures to make linen profitable were in the service of the English exchequer rather than the Irish people.
Image: Linen fabric © Cloth House.
Nevertheless improved industrial processes, combined with the knowledge brought by the Huguenots who settled in Ulster when the Edict of Nantes was revoked, were the foundations of an industry that grew and prospered. In the 19th-century almost every town and village in Northern Ireland had a mill or a factory. By 1921 almost 40% of the registered working population depended on the linen industry but by the end of the 20th-century only 10 significant companies remained.
The Living Linen Oral Archive and Collection was set up in 1995 to preserve the knowledge of a nucleus of people who worked in the industry in Ulster and are held at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, County Down, Northern Ireland.
Read the full Deep Rooted article in Selvedge Issue 18 Island Life.