Lace at the end of Union

A century ago, the Lace Ball was a great social occasion in Imperial Dublin, but the early signs of Irish independence were also…

A century ago, the Lace Ball was a great social occasion in Imperial Dublin, but the early signs of Irish independence were also to be seen in the strands, writes Noeleen Dowling

Monday marks the centenary of The Lace Ball, hosted by the British Viceroy, Lord Aberdeen, at Dublin Castle. The Ball was a red-letter occasion for a craft that had become established as a Famine relief measure in many of the poorest parts of the country. And although it is now almost forgotten, the event even had a political dimension.

"It was an immense crowd that assembled in St Patrick's Hall by 10pm last night," The Irish Timestold its readers on March 6th, 1907. The Lace Ball was a big event in the Dublin social calendar, yet its impact was felt not just by the elite who attended in their diamonds, feathers, and silks, but also by the poorest of people on the margins of Irish agricultural life all over the country. Lace made in Ireland had finally taken its place in high society. It had come a long way from the days of the Great Famine in the 1840s when, in order to help women left alone by the deaths of family breadwinners, lace schools were established in many parts of the country by local philanthropists.

The Ball was organised by Lady Aberdeen, who had been interested in the development and promotion of Irish lace since the 1880s, when her husband spent his first term in Ireland as Viceroy. During those six months from February to August 1886, Lady Ishbel Aberdeen became deeply involved in helping with the establishment of many Irish home industries, including lace, founding the Royal Irish Industries Association which was to market the products of cottage industries through its depots in Dublin and London.


Her interest continued over the following two decades, during which her husband served, inter alia, as Governor General of Canada. (She went on to found the Women's National Health Association and was involved in the establishment of Peamount Hospital.) It was Lady Aberdeen who organized the Irish exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, which contained its own two-thirds scale reproduction of Blarney Castle, an exact copy of the Cormac Chapel from the Rock of Cashel, the Cloisters of Muckross, and several Irish cottages, including one for lace makers. Numbers of Irish craft workers were brought over to Chicago, including 40 girls whose safety Lady Aberdeen personally guaranteed to their mothers. The village netted an astonishing €50,000 for the workers, and a further £5,000 was invested in establishing a depot for the Irish Industries Association in Chicago. At home, lace makers were estimated to be earning from about 10 to 12 shillings a week) in the 1890s, a considerable income when compared with the average farming income (according to figures issued in its first annual report by the Congested Districts Board), which varied from £41 per annum for a prosperous family to as little as £8.3.0 per annum for those in the poorest circumstances.

When the Aberdeens returned to Dublin as Viceroy and Vicereine in 1905 (they were to remain until 1915) Ishbel continued her work and the Lace Ball was part of it. Lady Aberdeen's idea was to combine spectacle with a theme to benefit local industry. The ladies were expected to wear Irish lace or crochet, and gentlemen to appear in Court costume, Highland dress, or hunt coats, with cravats and ruffles of Irish lace. For weeks beforehand, the Ball was eagerly anticipated. The big department stores, Clery's, Kellett's, Switzer's, Walpole's and McBirney's, advertised that they had Irish lace for sale. Roberts & Co of 82 Grafton Street proposed lace cravats and ruffles for gentlemen. Clery's mounted a week-long exhibition of lace a few days before the ball. Atkinson's of College Green advertised that they had Irish poplin at two pounds and five shillings for dress lengths, and a new department of Irish lace in the newest designs and in large variety.

ST PATRICK'S HALL was thronged on the night. According to the Irish Times reporter, the mere announcement of the Ball "brought about renewed industry in all the lace-making centres, and though, of course, many possessors of rare old Irish lace were only too pleased to have so unique an opportunity of displaying their filmy treasures, still by far the greater part of the dentelles worn last night were of modern make and proved an object lesson in the vast improvement effected in the art of lace-making since good designs, carefully-selected materials, and advanced instruction have been brought within reach of the workers, who can now challenge comparison with the famed continental lace makers."

Lady Aberdeen's own costume was described as: "A magnificent robe of deep blue chiffon velvet, lavishly trimmed with Irish point lace made at the Youghal lace industry". Her pages, Master Thomas Arnott and Master Ulick de Burgh, wore pale blue poplin suits, with Irish crochet collars and plumed blue hats. The Lord Lieutenant wore a Scottish costume in the Gordon tartan, with scarlet and gold waistcoat.

"On every side, lovely gowns were to be seen on which Irish lace of every description was lavishly employed; flounces that must have constituted heirlooms met in friendly rivalry with the new and up-to-date panels and corsage trimmings that hailed from distant country villages, where deft fingers plied the needles quickly and skilfully with such charming results," said the Irish Times report.

Among the guests was Countess de Markiewicz (as she was then known), taking part in one of the eight-handed reels. The Countess wore emerald green chiffon over silk, entirely veiled with Limerick lace, caught with black velvet rosettes, and finished off with a black velvet sash. The other ladies in the dance were dressed in white satin, with Limerick lace fichus.

THE COUNTESS OF Granard's black satin, trimmed with magnificent point lace was among those noted. Lady Massareene had an overskirt of fine Limerick lace mounted in white satin hemmed with gold tissue and draped with the same on the corsage; Lady Grenfell's black satin mousseline was embroidered with aluminium and diamante ribbons and clusters of silver rosebuds, with berthe (a wide, deep collar) and sleeves of superb old Carrickmacross guipure, while Mrs Greer had a lovely toilette of Malmaison pink satin, with two wide bands of Clones crochet. Lady Arnott's gown was embellished with "lovely School of Art embroidery on pale blue satin, the corsage draped with Youghal Point lace". Mrs George Pim wore a "maize chiffon robe, covered with Carrickmacross appliqué" and over it a shaped coat of lace embroidered with pearls and crystals and raised roses - the lace "specially supplied by the Royal Irish Industries Association". There was a certain patriotism evident in the evening as well - the report mentions gowns trimmed with "exquisite shamrocks made at the North William Street artificial flower industry"; and green silk stockings worn with gold shoes.

There was more involved in the development of lace as an Irish home industry than fashion or heritage. It was intimately connected to the emerging sense of national identity and national aspiration to statehood existing at the time. At the opening of the Chicago exhibition , Lady Aberdeen had referred to the development of home industries as "a great work to be done for Ireland" a new and different Ireland, an Ireland with a degree of self-determination, an Ireland economically self-sufficient, an Ireland governed by Home Rule. So unlikely though it might seem, that "filmy treasure" was part of an emerging political consciousness.

The Ball was not the only mark of approval which society gave to Irish lace. It had also recently acquired an international reputation. In Paris, couturiers had been using it for several years to embellish their designs.

Through the efforts of the South Kensington Museum's needlework expert, Alan Cole, and others, the design, production and promotion of Irish lace had been greatly improved. This was necessary: Lady Aberdeen in Chicago spoke of people buying Irish lace from the hawkers who came on board the Atlantic liners at Queenstown (now Cobh, Co Cork) and how they were being misled as to the quality of Irish lace by "these wretched specimens". She added that Irish lace had often suffered by the poorness of its design and "by the want of knowledge of both art and fashion by those under whose guidance it had been made." Because it was often made in very poor surroundings - smoky cabins with earthen floors were not conducive to cleanliness - and because those instructing the lace makers were often either nuns or philanthropists, this was entirely understandable. Indeed, poor girls often kept the lace pieces they were making in their beds to keep them clean.

BY 1899, IRISH lace had assumed a professionalism that gave it a cachet in high fashion couture and, according to Mary Gorges, writing in Chambers Journal, in June 1899: "Last Autumn, one hundred new designs were made by the Irish Lace Depot for a leading Paris merchant in close touch with the celebrated House of Worth, the designs being for the pattern costumes of this year." In 1902/3 the society ladies of Paris were appearing in gowns and hats "encrusted with Irish lace", according to the Draper's Record, December 1902. Fashion shops in Vienna and Brussels followed the lead of Paris, using Irish lace, crochet and linen. The Irish Draper of July 1904 considered a costume of chalk-white Irish linen particularly successful as it was encrusted, inserted, and trimmed everywhere with Irish crochet lace.

If the Lace Ball was the red-letter day, then for various reasons the early years of the 20th century saw a decline in the popularity of Irish lace. But it began a come-back in mid-century. Princess Grace of Monaco had at least one blouse in Carrickmacross lace and Princess Diana's wedding dress had sleeves trimmed with old Irish lace that had belonged to Queen Mary. Irish designers with international reputations such as Sybil Connolly, Irene Gilbert, Vonnie Reynolds and Mary O'Donnell, in the 1950s and 1960s, and Pat Crowley in the 1980s, were noted for using it in their signature gowns.

The New Romantics of the 1980s gave lace street credibility, and today it has resumed its place as a high fashion item on the catwalks of international designers. It is still made by dedicated Irish lace-makers, and classes in lace-making are sometimes available in An Grianan, organised by the Irish Countrywomen's Association. So if you have a piece, perhaps you might consider wearing it on March 5th in memory of all those Irish women who made lace something more than a mere sartorial decoration.

Noeleen Dowling is a freelance journalist with a master's (history) degree in the Irish lace industry