An Irishman’s Diary on the Belgian refugees of 1914-18
A lingerie legacy of war
“About 2,000 Belgians came, many settling on the fringes of Dublin in such places as Bray, Balrothery, and Dunshaughlin. Further south, in Wexford, they included a community of monks”
My native Monaghan is famous (nearly) as the “county of the little hills”. Less well known is that for a period after the first World War, it was also the county of the little lace numbers – a brand of high-quality lingerie introduced by Belgian refugees.
Actually, the numbers weren’t that little, by today’s standards. And they were more embroidery than lace. Even so, the theory that there was no sex in Ireland until “the bishop and the nightie” affair of 1966 may need to be revisited in light of the fact that, 45 years earlier, continental-style camisoles were being mass-produced among the drumlins.
Circa 1920-21, a time when passions of all kinds were being inflamed in Ireland, this newspaper carried prominent advertisements inviting ladies of discernment to the Dublin salons of “Bel-Broid”, where they could try the products on.
Any nervous bishops reading were assured that the designs were “chaste”. But, treading a fine line, the copywriters also noted their “alluring” qualities. And although the ads stopped in December 1921, as if part of the Treaty negotiations, the company continued to thrive. By 1924, it was employing 180 people in Monaghan town, almost all of them natives.
In fact, most of the Belgians were gone by 1919. It was a Charles McNally (no relation to the diarist, unless there’s an unclaimed legacy somewhere) who, spotting a gap in the market, set up the factory with his wife Rose.
McNally was a regional postmaster. His wife’s family had a lingerie factory in Strabane. This was, explains Grace Moloney of the Clogher Historical Society, who has written an account of the Monaghan-Belgium connection, a perfect match.
Between them, the couple built a very successful business, most of it mail-order. Advertising in Tatler and Vogue, they skilfully played up the Belgian angle. But the original designs, by three sisters from Antwerp, the De Neves, long outlasted the refugees.
It was the famed Leslies of Glaslough, by the way, who first brought the Belgians to the area, in part as a response to personal tragedy.
Norman Leslie was one of the war’s early casualties, killed by a German sniper near Lille in October 1914. While grieving him, his mother Leonie (an aunt of Winston Churchill) threw herself into organising the reception of a small group of the refugees then fleeing from Ostend in their thousands. She was later awarded a medal for her work by the queen of the Belgians.
And although the Leslies’ guests were few and fleeting, they left a permanent trace. To this day, the converted military barracks where they were housed is known as Belgium Park.
In general, the influx of such refugees to Ireland was modest compared with Britain. It might have been much greater except for the torpedoing of a refugee ship in late October 1914.
But about 2,000 Belgians came, many settling on the fringes of Dublin in such places as Bray, Balrothery, and Dunshaughlin. Further south, in Wexford, they included a community of monks – not the brewing kind, unfortunately, or Ireland might have gained another useful niche product, but Benedictines, who were in any case soon returning to the war zone as stretcher bearers.
There were a few controversies, inevitably. Some of the refugees were placed in workhouses, and although they were special category inmates, their experiences were not always happy. Also, according to the minute book of the Belgian Refugees Committee, held in the UCD archives, one “not too desirable family”, accommodated in Laytown, had to be quickly deported, again for unspecified reasons.
But good and bad, there remain little corners of this foreign land that are forever Belgian, as was noted in a ceremony in Kildare recently. The speaker was Catherine Fleming, a teacher at Scoil na Mainistreach in Celbridge, whose pupils had taken it upon themselves to research the local experience of the refugees for a schools history competition.
A particular focus was the unmarked grave of a man named Jean de Kock, a house painter forced to flee Belgium with his wife and five children. The De Kocks were among those welcomed to a Celbridge that, in late 1914, decked itself out in black, red and yellow for the visitors’ benefit.
Alas, the painter didn’t live to enjoy their hospitality long: dying in February 1915. So 100 years later, last month, Fleming’s pupils placed a wreath of yellow and red flowers, with black ribbons, on his grave – their own small contribution to the decade of centenaries.