Blanket Attack – Frank McNally on how James Joyce put the text in textiles (or vice versa)

An Irishman’s Diary

Amid the blanket coverage of the Ulysses centenary last week, the only thing missing was an actual blanket. On closer inspection, however, it turns out there was one of those involved too. Or at least there was a throw, woven by Foxford Woollen Mills and presented to the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, where it will henceforth insulate the writer-in-residence from the worst effects of a Parisian winter.

This was no random gift either because Foxford has impeccable credentials for the job. Many Irish businesses from circa 1904 can boast of a mention in Ulysses, the literary version of Thom’s Directory. But the woollen mills went on to do the double of Joycean epics by also featuring in Finnegans Wake, a much rarer distinction.

In the first book, they form part of a tirade from "the Citizen" against the mismanagement of Ireland by our colonial oppressors, in which he lists the nation's premium products like a demented trade envoy:

“And our potteries and textiles, the finest in the whole world! And our wool that was sold in Rome at the time of Juvenal and our flax and our damask from the looms of Antrim and our Limerick lace, our tanneries and our white flint glass down there by Ballybough and our Huguenot poplin that we have since Jacquard de Lyon and our woven silk and our Foxford tweeds and ivory raised point from the Carmelite convent in New Ross, nothing like it in the whole wide world.”

In Finnegans Wake, typically, the reference is more oblique and, to see it, you need to know that the business in Foxford was originally called Providence Woollen Mills. Hence a reference to the Wake’s male protagonist wearing “his jacket of providence wellprovided woollies with a softrolling lisp of a lapel…”.

The original name hints at the unusual coalition from which the mills arose, involving an English-born Catholic nun and a Presbyterian freemason from Tyrone. The former, a Sister of Charity, was first sent to Foxford in 1891 to set up a school. It was still a time of dire poverty in the west then, with many people living in mud cabins, and she quickly realised that education would be useless unless there were jobs too.

So, prompted by Michael Davitt, she travelled to the Black North to enlist the support of a mill owner in Caledon, John Charles Smith, who first told her to "go home, ma'am, and say your prayers". When she persisted, he donated one of his managers to the cause of mentoring the Mayo start-up. Begun with two hand looms, the mills were soon thriving.

Their product logo was the Eye of Providence, an ancient religious symbol used variously on the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Great Seal of the United States, and in freemasonry.

And provide the company did. The nuns also set up an orchestra, choir, and brass band in Foxford. But by 1922, when the Civil War temporarily closed the business – IRA “irregulars” had occupied the area – the mills were reported to be employing 300 and supporting six times that number.

Like many textile companies, Foxford’s went into decline in the later 20th century and closed in 1988. The decline must have been in part due to the latter-day invasion of Ireland by the duvet. Duvet is French for “down”, and down is what the traditional blanket was done by the “continental quilt”, as it also used to be known.

But the mills have undergone a modern revival (duvets included) under one of the receivers, Joe Queenan, now managing director. And the presentation to Shakespeare and Company, made on Queenan's behalf by Joycean and unofficial trade envoy Des Gunning, was a small but strategic invasion of the continent. A "fine lambswool cashmere with a traditional windowpane design in a stunning palette of white and grey, finished with a rolled fringe", it represents an upping of the ante in the European blanket wars.

There was an interesting precedent for last week's event involving the man himself. As a young emigrant teaching English in Trieste 1909, James Joyce doubled for a time as local agent for Dublin Woollen Mills, introducing Irish tweed to the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Whatever about gifting Irish brogues to his students, he sold “Irish homespun” clothes to some of them, thanks to the free samples he was sent. The company eventually and politely told him that, in future, he would have to pay up front, but perhaps his later fame was sufficient compensation. Alas, the Joycean heritage could not save Dublin Woollen Mills in the end. With ironic timing, they closed permanently on Bloomsday 2012.