A history of Ireland in 100 objects
Youghal lace collar, 1906
This exquisite needlepoint lace collar, made in Youghal, Co Cork, and exhibited at the Royal Dublin Society in August 1906, epitomises one of the more remarkable achievements of Irish women in the second half of the 19th century: the creation from scratch of a world-class craft industry.
In 1847 Mary Anne Smith, a nun at the Presentation convent in Youghal, “conceived the idea of getting up some kind of industrial occupation amongst the poor children attending the convent school such as would help them to earn a livelihood or, at least, keep them from starving”. Smith found a piece of antique Italian point-de-Milan lace and was struck by the idea that lacemaking was a potentially lucrative activity that needed little in the way of initial capital. She unravelled the Italian lace, worked out its complex patterns and began to teach the techniques to those of her pupils most adept at needlework.
Within five years the convent had developed a regular lacemaking school, and by the turn of the century up to 60 women and girls were employed at the craft in Youghal. By then Smith had died and been replaced as head of the school by Sr Mary Regis Lynch. From Youghal the craft spread both to Kenmare and to New Ross. (A school at Tynan, Co Armagh, was founded around the same time as that in Youghal.)
Youghal lace was marked by the Italianate techniques developed by Smith and evident in this floral collar: flat cotton stitching made with fibre thinner than human hair, and motifs surrounded by shell stitches (made up of seven tiny stitches on each loop). But the Youghal women also added their own inventions; they developed 50 new stitches. They had to combine inventiveness with finesse to compete in a market flooded by machine-made lace. Irish lace was a niche product for the well-to-do, and its attractions were greatly enhanced by the cachet of the arts-and-crafts movement of the 19th century.
Irish lace quickly became a high- fashion item, worn by everyone from the pope to Queen Victoria. In 1886 a large quilt made at Kenmare was sold to an American millionairess for the then-staggering sum of £300. The industry spread outwards from the convents, with commercial production in Limerick and Carickmacross, each of which developed its own distinctive style, and lace design was taught and developed at colleges, notably the Crawford School of Art, in Cork. Irish designers such as Michael Hayes and Eileen O’Donoghue, both from Limerick, helped to create styles that appealed to a changing international market.
Young women didn’t make fortunes from these delicate skills; 18 shillings a week was regarded as top earnings for a diligent lacemaker. A Youghal ledger from 1906 lists rates for piecework as “handkerchiefs from 25 shillings to £12, scarves from £12 to £50 and babies’ bootees from £2 to £4”.
But these earnings were highly significant in households with very limited incomes. They gave young women a degree of economic value and independence they would not otherwise have enjoyed. One of the ironies of Irish life, though, was that many young women used their savings from lacemaking to buy their tickets to the US.
* Thanks to Alex Ward
Where to see itNational Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie