Fabric of Kenmare: nuns' role in lace industry celebrated


KENMARE, CO Kerry, is celebrating the contribution of an order of nuns which was asked by a local priest to provide relief for a starving populace 150 years ago.

The order managed to set up an entire industry by educating girls and women in the art of lacemaking.

Kenmare had suffered appallingly during the 19th century, with famines lasting until the 1880s and the local absentee landlords insisting on drawing rents from starving peasant tenants.

The nuns, a teaching arm of the Carmelite Order of St Clare in Newry, Co Down, had been trained in design. Invited to Kenmare in 1861, Mother Mary O’Hagan and six sisters brought with them not just a soup kitchen but the seeds of an industry that became world famous.

Young women were educated as governesses and housekeepers so they could seek work. Just as importantly , though, a lace industry was established as an attempt by the nuns to relieve poverty.

Kenmare lace became much sought after for wedding dresses and altar pieces.

Having reached a peak, the industry declined after the first World War but is today enjoying a revival. Three-inch pieces of original Kenmare lace are fetching up to €2,300.

“When the sisters came, there were no women educated,” said retired teacher Sr Assumpta Hegarty. “Only the boys would be sent to the classical school. The sisters started a secondary school and they did not charge fees.”

To mark the 150th anniversary of the nuns’ arrival, the pupils of St Clare’s National School this weekend began work on a commemorative circle of lace. It will be finished by Christmas and a book will also be published.