Engraving of linen-makers, 1782
A history of Ireland in 100 objectsThis engraving, one of a set of 12 by the Irish artist William Hincks, is a rare kind of artefact: it acknowledges the work of women. It is, as the title explains, a “View taken on the spot in the County of Downe, Representing Spinning, Reeling with the Clock reel, and Boiling the Yarn”.
The work is hard, but the relative prosperity of the cottage hints at the enormous impact the linen trade had on Irish standards of living in the 18th century.
Irish people had been growing flax and making linen since the Bronze Age. With Ireland largely pacified in the early 18th century, though, the authorities began to develop linen as the primary Irish industry. The wool trade was suppressed to avoid competition with English industry, and linen was an unthreatening substitute.
The Linen Board was formed with public money in Dublin in 1711 to regulate the growing industry. In the second half of the century, production expanded dramatically. Linen exports in the early 1750s were 10 million yards annually; by 1800 they had risen to between 35 million and 40 million yards.
Early linen production was not industrialised. It centred on farm family units, with the whole household involved in planting and harvesting the flax, the women and girls spinning it into yarn and the men weaving the yarn into cloth. Even when factories were established in the latter part of the century, domestic production persisted.
Linen had a particularly dramatic effect on the economy of Ulster, transforming a hitherto poor province into the most prosperous in Ireland.
Initially, the trade was centred on the Linen Hall, which opened on Capel Street in Dublin in 1728; the Ulster origins of much of the cloth was acknowledged in the surrounding street names: Coleraine, Lurgan, Lisburn.
Gradually, however, Ulster traders took control of the export business, a shift that was marked by the opening of Belfast Linen Hall in 1783. Drapers bought cloth from farmers and used industrial processes to bleach and finish it. Especially in the “linen triangle” between Lisburn, Dungannon and Armagh, these drapers formed a new capitalist class, typically Presbyterian and often open to radical ideas, especially during and after the American Revolution of the 1770s.
But linen transformed Ulster in other ways too. Hunger for land to grow flax led to the destruction of the last of the great Ulster forests that had terrified Tudor armies: the last wolf in the Sperrin Mountains was killed in the 1760s. The population rose rapidly: between 1753 and 1791 the number of households paying hearth tax in Ulster doubled. Market and estate towns such as Banbridge, Downpatrick and Newtownards were redeveloped in fine style.
This rapid change produced new social tensions, including a substantial insurgency in 1771-72 by groups called the Hearts of Oak or Hearts of Steel, enraged by bad harvests and rent rises. Emigration to America peaked again in the 1770s. Sectarian tensions rose high, especially in Armagh, now the most populous county in Ireland, where the Protestant Peep O’Day Boys and the Catholic Defenders engaged in low-level warfare. These tensions were fuelled, ironically, by the very success of the linen trade, as Catholic and Protestant weavers competed for business.
Thanks to Andrea Kennedy