`Titanic' spin-off for Abbeyleix tourist venture


The worldwide success of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, Titanic, is creating an unusual spin-off for a midlands tourist venture, Heritage House, in Abbeyleix.

On display in the house are examples of the carpets which were made in the local factory for the ill-fated liner's wardroom when it was being built in Belfast and billed as unsinkable.

The factory was set up by the eighth Viscount Ashbrook of Durrow, who opened it in 1904, according to Mairead Johnston's book, Hidden in the Pile.

Viscount de Vesci of Abbeyleix had invested in the patent of the switch and needle which was to revolutionise the manufacture of hand-tufted carpets and rugs.

The viscount had wanted to create employment for local people when he acquired the right to use Flower's invention for making carpets and he set up the factory in a blaze of publicity.

Commercial success followed, and in 1907 Abbeyleix carpets won a major prize at the RDS for design and excellence. The following year the product won another prize in Paris and, in 1909, a major award in London.

The orders flooded in from across the world and Abbeyleix carpets were supplied to Harrods in London, Marshall Fields in Chicago, while in Dublin the city fathers endorsed the product by seeking carpets for the Mansion House.

A carpet was specially made for the Oak Room and was last used in 1988 during the Dublin Millennium celebrations. It is now on permanent loan to the Abbeyleix centre.

The Abbeyleix factory amalgamated with the Naas Co-operative Society in 1909, taking the name Kildare Carpet Company Ltd. It was under this name that it supplied four carpets for the state rooms on the Titanic.

The amalgamation created problems for the company which was also experiencing difficulties because of industrial disputes in England.

In 1912, the factory closed its doors for the last time, but visitors to Heritage House can see a reconstruction of its interior.

The display in the Co Laois town shows what it was like for a worker in the factory as she hand-tufted a rug at one of the work benches or sheared a carpet at the finishing process.

The display also features a reconstructed loom and other carpet-making equipment, identified from documents, old photographs and from carpets and rugs themselves.

The local Heritage Company, which runs the centre in the tastefully restored 1884 school building, is setting up a weaving course in the hope that Abbeyleix will once again become a centre for carpet and rug production.

According to Ms Gemma Clarke, manager of the centre, it has already received an order for a number of Titanic carpets from the centre in the Co Cork harbour town of Cobh, the Titanic's last port of call before it went down.

"We have a feasibility study under way here to see if we can set up a course and we had a call from Cobh to ask us if we could make carpets for their centre where a number of Titanic rooms are to be re-created in the town," she said.

Abbeyleix has also become involved in the group of towns and cities, including Belfast and Cobh, which wants to set up a "Titanic Trail".

While the current focus is on the Titanic links, Heritage House also tells the story of Co Laois down through the ages. Room one shows the history of the area from earliest times and illustrates the role of the Gaelic dynasties up to the Norman conquest.

The main theme of room two is the impact of the first plantations and the development of the estate towns. It deals with the influence of the de Vesci family up to the turn of the century.

The third room deals with more modern times. Exhibits include the boot worn by John Finlay, captain of the Laois hurling team that won the All Ireland in 1915.

The centre recently won an AIB Better Ireland Award.