This is the final part in our series on the history of spinning in Ireland. Many thanks to Guild Member Elizabeth O’Connor for her original research and her generosity in sharing this with us.
By 1839, a French visitor to Ireland, Gustave de Beaumont, was able to write:
In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland. To explain the social condition of such a country, it would be only necessary to recount its miseries and its sufferings; the history of the poor is the history of Ireland.
From the 15th through the 19th centuries, successive English monarchies and governments enacted laws designed to suppress and destroy Irish manufacturing and trade. These repressive Acts, coupled with the Penal Laws, reduced the Irish people to “nakedness and beggary” in a very direct and purposeful way. The destitute Irish then stood at the very brink of the bottomless pit. When the potato blight struck in 1845, it was but time for the final push.
(Read more in MacManus, Seamus, The Story of the Irish Race.)
The Wool Act was passed in 1699.
When, subsequently, these restrictions were removed and trade was partially relieved, the remedy came too late. Some branches of manufacture and trade had been killed downright, and others permanently injured. A trade extinguished is not easily revived. The trade in wool, a chief staple of Ireland, which was kept down for nearly a century, never recovered its former state of prosperity.
(Read more in Joyce, P.W. A Concise History of Ireland and Restrictions on Irish Trade and Manufacture.)
In November 1779 the English prime minister, Lord North, introduced three propositions to relieve Irish trade: the first permitted free export of Irish wool and woollen goods; the second free export of Irish glass manufactures; the third allowed free trade with the British colonies. The two first were passed; the third after a little time. The news of this was received with great joy in Dublin.
The Wool act of 1699 was finally repealed by the Statute Law Revision Act 1867.
Recovery, of a Sort
The following excerpt is from History of the Commercial and Financial Relations between England and Ireland from the Period of the Restoration.
In 1891 the Congested Districts Board was established in order to better the conditions of life prevailing among the inhabitants of the poorest districts in western Ireland. The Congested Districts Board and the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction were involved in improving and enlarging holdings, improving live stock and methods of cultivation, establishing the fishing industry on a secure and self-supporting basis, and developing other suitable industries, such as spinning, weaving, lace making, and basket work.
Of the rural industries being revived at this time, the woollen hand-weaving industry is the most important. We have seen how it existed in Ireland from time immemorial, but how after the early part of the nineteenth century it sank into decay. But the progress recently made has been great. The industry flourishes all along the eastern coast, from Donegal to Kerry, where the people generally weave their own stuffs and dye them with those lichens and plants which the Irish peasant has always known how to use. In these western counties there is mountain grazing for sheep, and much labour running to waste in the winter months, while the peasantry have an inherited taste for weaving. As a rule, home-spun cloth is merely produced for local use, although it is finding its way more and more into the Dublin and London markets, and there has begun to be a considerable demand amongst ladies for Irish homespuns owing to their delicious softness and great durability. In South Donegal, however, great quantities of handwoven cloth is produced for sale outside the district, and the manufacture is conducted on strictly business lines. Hand-made cloth goes every month from the fairs of Ardara and Carrick to many of the chief towns of Europe and America, and at present the demand is good and prices high.
The industry was brought to its prosperous condition chiefly through the efforts of the Congested Districts Board, who, in 1893, introduced new looms in place of the antiquated ones then in use, receiving payment for them by instalments, provided instruction for their use, and for a short time gave a bonus on work of exceptionally good quality. The special arrangements for instruction and bonus-giving have now been discontinued and the industry thrives without outside assistance. The Board is now extending the use of the new looms into the more southern counties, and a school of instruction has been opened at Leenane, in Connemara. All over County Galway a soft durable white flannel is made. It is worn by the children in its natural state, but the women dye it red, dark blue, and black for their own use. Some of the flannel may be seen in the drapers’ shops in Galway, but little is as yet sold outside the county. In Kerry, strong home-spuns are woven, but they have not the richness of colouring possessed by the Donegal and Galway stuffs. It is thought that only instruction and encouragement is needed to enable the people of Galway, Mayo, and Kerry to reap the same profit from weaving as the Donegal peasants. At present, there certainly seems to be a future before hand-made stuffs>
In a book called ‘The Millers and Mills of Ireland of About 1850’ compiled by William E Hogg, I found a list of mills in Ireland from about the 1850’s. The following types of mills ones have to do with wool/flax/cloth: tuck, beetling, spinning and scutch or flax mills, plus I would imagine also the Bleach mills.
The mill types can be explained thus:
The tuck mill was used in the woollen industry to improve the quality of the woven fabric by repeatedly combing it, producing a warm worsted fabric.
The purpose of the beetling mill was to consolidate the woven linen cloth and to give it a sheen.
The spinning mill spun the fibres, be they wool, linen, or cotton into thread, ready to be woven into cloth.
Scutch or Flax Mills
The scutch mill was used in the linen industry to to remove the fibres from the flax stalks.
Compiling a few numbers from the list, I found:
Flax mills: 538 in total, of which 514 were in 8 northern counties
Bleach mills : 173, of which 130 were in the same 8 northern counties
Beetling mills: 203, of which 189 were in the same 8 northern counties
Spinning mills: 51, of which 36 were in the same 8 northern counties
Tuck mills: 226, which are much more widely and evenly spread around the country, with only 3 counties not listed as having a tuck mill, and two of the three counties without a tuck mill were Armagh and Down, both of which had high numbers of flax mills.
The majority of the cloth/wool/flax related mills were in the northern counties at this time.
Anyone who would like to read more about the mills can go to this site: http://www.millsofireland.org/index.html,
the website of The Society for the Preservation of Ancient and Traditional Irish Mills.
There is an extract from William Hogg’s book, on p 16 and 17 on this pdf of Grist to the mill, a publication of the above named Society for the Preservation of Ancient and Traditional Irish Mills. You can see the type of mill listed beside each one. The extract deals with County Galway.
Mills did go on to thrive and grow in Ireland. However, the harsh economic climate of the 1970’s and onwards meant that many mills closed, and now there are very few working mills in Ireland.
Let me mention a few: Kerry Woollen Mills outside Killarney; Cushendale Woollen Mills, in Graignamanagh, Co. Kilkenny; Foxford Woollen Mills, Co Mayo, and Donegal Woollen Mills. If there more, please let me know so I can add to the list.
Thanks again to Liz! If you are interested in writing for the Guild blog please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[…] know more, a detailed history is outlined on Ferguson’s Linen Mill website, and a three-part article on the the The Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners, and Dyers site gives some more context to the […]