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Irish Linen

Historical records show that linen was being made in Ireland through the Middle Ages: The old Irish or Celtic name for Flax was Lhin, and the term poll a lhin, yet applied to places in the country, shows that the steeping of Flax in pools was practised in Ireland at a very remote period. Irish Macpherson, in his " Annals of Commerce” says, " We learn from the chronicles of the period that about A.D. 500, fine Linen was possessed by the inhabitants of Britain and Ireland. The bodies of the dead, at least those of eminent rank, were wrapped in fine Linen."

It was not until the early 17th Century that the Irish Linen industry began to develop in any structured way. Production was concentrated in the north of the country, particularly in the area of land between the two great rivers of the north, the Bann and the Lagan. To this day, the area is known as The Linen Homelands. Linen industry flourished among the Scotch colonists in Ulster towards the middle of the 17th century. As soon as they entered into it with spirit, Linen yarn, instead of being exported to Manchester and other places of England to be weaved, was manufactured into cloth in Ireland. Linen then formed the chief article of its commerce, and it entirely superseded and supplanted the woollen manufacture there. Macpherson says that about 1670, or perhaps a little later, the Linen manufacture began to be encouraged in Ireland. " It began among the Scots in the north of Ireland, where it has to this day flourished more than in any other part. The vast quantities of Linen which England takes of the Irish enables them to pay for almost every kind of our product and manufacture which we supply them with. Before they made much Linen cloth, the people in the north of Ireland sent their Linen yarn to England." Sir William Temple in his " Miscellanies," published about 1681, says: " No women are apter to spin Linen thread well than the Irish, who, labouring little in any kind with their hands, have their fingers more supple and soft than other women of the poor condition amongst us." And this may certainly be advanced and improved into a great manufacture of Linen, so as to bear down the trade both of France and Holland, and draw much of the money which goes from England to those parts upon this occasion into the hands of his Majesty's subjects of Ireland, without crossing any interest of trade in England, for, besides what has been said of Flax and spinning, the soil and climate are proper for whitening, both by the frequent brooks and also winds in that country." Macpherson says, " Great sums being continually carried out of England for Hemp, Flax, and Linen, which might in a great measure be supplied by Ireland. If proper encouragement were given to induce foreign protestants to settle in that kingdom, the Parliament, in 1696, passed an act for allowing Hemp, Flax, Linen, and Linen yarn, the produce or manufacture of Ireland, to be imported into England by natives of England and Ireland, without paying any duty. And the manufacture of sail-cloth being already brought to good perfection in England, all English made Bail-doth was thenceforth allowed to be exported without paying duty, either in the piece or made into sails." Experience has shown that this law laid the foundation of the great and flourishing manufactures of Linen and cambric in Ireland. During the reign of Charles II. the woollen manufacture made rapid progress in Ireland. This roused the jealousy of the English manufacturers, and they got an Act passed in the British Parliament prohibiting any export of wool from Ireland, excepting to England and Wales. Not content with this, in 1698, both houses of Parliament addressed his Majesty William III. representing that in consequence of labour being cheaper in Ireland than in England, the progress of the woollen manufacture there was such as to prejudice that of England, and that it would be for the public advantage were the former discouraged, and the Linen manufacture established in its stead. His Majesty replied, " I shall do all that in me lies to discourage the woollen manufacture in Ireland, and encourage the Linen manufacture, and to promote the trade of England." However illiberal and erroneous these notions were, Government had no difficulty in getting the legislature of England to second its views, by restricting the exportation of all woollen goods from Ireland, excepting to England, where prohibitory duties were laid on their importation. In the Journals of the House of Commons, 1772 and 1774, it is recorded that in 1698 the Parliament of Great Britain recommended to the King a kind of compromise with Ireland, whereby England should enjoy exclusively the woollen manufacture and Ireland the Linen. Ireland accepted the terms and abstained from the woollen manufacture, and even imposed heavy duties on the exportation of woollen cloth. The effect of this was to ruin the woollen trade. Several thousand manufacturers left the kingdom, some of the southern and western districts were almost depopulated, and the whole of the kingdom reduced to the utmost poverty and distress by these improvident measures. By such unwise restrictions the woollen manufacture, which at an early period flourished in Ireland, was confined to the home consumption, and of course the trade rapidly declined.

Fortunately for Ireland, its place was soon taken up by the linen manufacture, which from that period until now may be said to have had a prosperous career. It is to she feared that the ostensible reason, for suppressing the woollen manufacture and establishing that of .linen in its stead was not the true one. The woollen trade had been in a great measure carried on in the south and west of Ireland, which were popish districts, whilst the chief seat of the Linen manufacture was in protestant Ulster. Protestant Linens were upheld and encouraged, whereas Popish woollens were suppressed. Besides other evidence of the spirit which dictated such proceedings, the records of the British Parliament prove it In an act passed in the year 1704, the preamble commences thus: "Forasmuch as the Protestant interest in Ireland ought to be supported by giving the utmost encouragement to the linen manufactures of that kingdom. It is unfortunate that such unjust enactments should have been passed by either the British or Irish legislatures of William or of Anne. They look more like the persecuting bigotry of the sovereigns of popish countries, than the enlightened spirit of protestant lands. The Linen trade deserved all encouragement, but not at the expense of the woollen manufacture, even though it was in the hands of papists, and it would have been far better had both been upheld and stimulated. Louis Crommelin, after the repeal of the Edict of Nantes A.D. 1699, fled from France with a number of other refugees, and settled near Lisburn. These persons being acquainted with the French mode of manufacturing Linen, introduced the system into Ireland, and by this means greatly improved the trade there. At this period curious expedients were adopted to increase the demand, for Linen, one of them being an order by the Lord-Lieutenant to wear hat bands and scarfs of Linen at funerals, a custom which still exists. The machinery then used in the Linen manufacture was of the simplest construction, and principally worked by hand, but in 1725 new machinery was invented and applied in some of the processes. In Queen Anne's reign the Irish House of Commons sent a bill in favour of the Linen trade to Her Majesty, accompanied with an address requesting permission from die English Parliament to export Linens to the British colonies . The English ministers, after crushing the woollen trade, always appeared desirous to encourage and foster the Linen manufacture, in1 which the Irish had for competitors the French and Flemish artisans. Lord Strafford while Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, not only countenanced and protected this new branch of industry, but also embarked a considerable sum himself in the trade. Among other improvements originated by this nobleman, he brought over from the Continent a number of spinners and manufacturers, who taught the Irish the superior system of treatment in operation there. By an act passed in the 9th year of the reign of Queen Anne, a " Board of Trustees of the Linen and Hempen manufactures " was appointed for the encouragement of the cultivation of Flax, and the improvement of the manufacture of Linen in Ireland. In 1707 the Irish Parliament confirmed the establishment of the Linen trade in Ulster, and this Board was formed to foster, encourage, and extend the rising manufacture. The most liberal means were placed at the disposal of the Board by Government, and for several years £20,000 were annually distributed under its management. The Trustees were almost always composed of the leading men of the country, and often the highest nobility and gentry were among their number. These parties always took an active interest in the proceedings of the Board, and often considerable share in its management This shows the interest then taken in the nation by the great landowners of the country, especially in the infant Linen trade, and it speaks well for the patriotism and catholic spirit by which they were animated.

Weeky Market 1816 Nb of Weavers £ Sales
Cookstown 450 1200
Coleraine 250 850
Armagh 300 3800
Lurgan 400 1860
Dungannon 1200 4000



The establishment of the Royal Dublin Society also materially contributed to the introduction of improvements in the agricultural management of the Flax crop. This was the parent of Irish Industrial Institutions, and so early as 1739 the members held enlightened views of the advantages to be derived from the proper cultivation of the crop. They exerted themselves to instruct the farmers practically in the culture of Flax, and for that purpose persons trained under the skilful Flax growers of Belgium were sent among them, who circulated excellent directions for the management of the crop in all its stages. The Trustees of the Linen Board met every Tuesday, at their house near the Linen Hall in Dublin, for the transaction of business. This Hall was, in the olden time, the mart to which all the merchants repaired with their cases of bleached Linen, finished and ready for sale, and there the English traders attended and made their purchases. It was, in these times, a great convenience, as ihe means of communication in the interior were few, and the system of one grand central market answered all parties admirably. In going over the transactions of the Trustees, it would appear that many important subjects occupied their attention, and that the labour imposed upon them was considerable. They appointed intelligent inspectors in the country districts, to look after the interests of the linen trade, and see that it was not interfered with prejudicially by any party; and many of them were very zealous in the discharge of their duty, and no doubt did good service to their employers and to the country at large. The following abstract of the amount expended by the Board of Trusteee in 1815, shows how the sum granted yearly by Parliament for regulating and improving the Linen manufacture in Ireland was applied.


Year 000 Yards £ Value
1710 1688 105535
1720 2437 121899
1730 4136 206810
1740 6627 441851
1750 11200 653360
1760 13375 891697
1770 20560 1542056
1800 34563  
1810 36898  
1820 43613  
1825 55113  

Linen Cloth Exported from Ireland The brown Linen trade was almost wholly transacted in the provincial towns. The weavers, who were chiefly small farmers or cottagers, grew the Flax, spun the yarn at home, or purchased it, wove the cloth in their own houses, and took the pieces to the nearest market for sale, where they were purchased by the merchants. The purchasers bleached the pieces, then sent them to the white Linen Hails for sale. After these Halls were superseded they sent the cloth to England, or shipped it to foreign countries. For the regulation of these provincial markets, intelligent inspectors called " Seal-masters" were appointed by the Linen Board, for each district, whose duty it was to examine the Linen brought for sale, and to certify to the quality being sound and genuine. Each piece, before it could be admitted to the Hall, had to be stamped and sealed by the inspector, and he was responsible for the perfection of the pieces to the buyers; but should he be called upon to make compensation for faulty pieces, he had recourse against the weaver for the same. In many cases the manufacturers were allowed, under certain restrictions, to stamp their own cloth. As soon as he could find security, himself in £50, and two securities in £100 each, in all £250, he was instantly, and as a thing of course, directly invested with a seal to stamp his own cloth. From 1782 to 1816 no fewer than 1616 brown seals, and 1596 white seals, had been issued by the Board of Trustees, to manufacturers in the province of Ulster alone.
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