Royal Threading – An Irishman’s Diary about Carrickmacross Lace
Kate Middleton wore Carrickmacross lace on her wedding day. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
One of the lesser-known casualties of the first World War was the Irish lace-making industry. It wasn’t quite killed off then, or since, and its survivors may receive one of their occasional shots in the arm from a certain wedding in London tomorrow.
But having reached dizzy heights in the years before 1914, lace-making would never enjoy quite the same glories again afterwards.
The industry’s heyday was book-ended by calamities. It had been born out of one – the Famine – as social employment: the female equivalent of road building. Then it was all-but destroyed by another.
Combined with events at home, from 1916 onwards, the Great War swept away the old aristocracy that had been its mainstay.
In a 2004 essay, From Rags to Riches to Revolution: A Social History of 19th Century Irish Lace, Shiralee Hudson traced the rise and fall of the “three most famous” varieties: Limerick, Youghal, and Carrickmacross. Their common paradox, she writes, was being hand-made crafts that emerged in an era when, everywhere else, machinery was taking over.
But then, labour intensity was the whole point. She quotes the London-based Art Journal, from as late as 1887: “Poverty is the mother of the Irish lace industry; for Irish lace existed, and still exists, not to supply the commercial demand for it, but to enable a poverty-stricken population to earn a meal of porridge or potatoes”.
If demand was lagging then, however, it soon caught up.
The decades following were the zenith of the craft, as royalty led the fashion for it, and everyone else with money followed. For a time then, no high society wedding was complete without a piece of Irish lace in the bride’s trousseau.
And sometimes the orders were industrial-scale. When Queen Mary needed a train (the textile kind) for a visit to India in 1911, 60 lacemakers in Youghal had to work shifts, day and night, for six months.
According to Hudson, the job would have taken a single person “30 years”.
I may be biased, because it’s my home town, but Carrickmacross Lace was arguably the most fashionable of all the brands. It was certainly the first: the wife of a Protestant clergyman having introduced it, via the neighbouring parish of Donaghmoyne, as far back as 1820.
As with all Irish movements, it experienced an early split, albeit in this case only stylistic. The original Carrickmacross lace was appliqué, on a net.
But this was soon complemented by a second, net-less style: guipure.
Guipurists of the time included Queen Victoria, who ordered a large piece in 1852.
There were eight lace schools in the area then, and 800 pupils. But by the 1890s, the St Louis nuns had taken over the operation and propelled it to new heights.
At the 1905 wedding of Prince Gustav of Sweden and Princess Margaret of Connaught, for example, the trousseau included what The Irish Times, swooning, called “Carrickmacross Lace [...] of the greatest beauty”.
Not that the market was confined to Britain and Ireland.
Speaking of St Louis, the World’s Fair there in 1904 yielded a gold medal for the lace-making nuns of the same name. And in Paris, the best society ladies now alternated between “Carrickmacross guipure for ‘smart race meetings’ and Carrickmacross appliqué for opera or evening wear”.
Meanwhile, back in Dublin, an RDS crafts exhibition had no fewer than 28 entries of Carrickmacross Lace, from all over Ireland. Then as now, you could make it anywhere. And that was one potential problem. The Irish Times warned in 1905 that the “Carrickmacross boom” had led to overproduction, not always high quality, and feared for its future.
In the event, another boom decade lay ahead. Nemesis would come from elsewhere, in the slaughter of 1914-1918 and the more democratic world that followed, where there was less tolerance for the gulf between those who made lace and those who bought it, and less room for the luxury product itself.
Irish lace still survives, however, if in much-reduced circumstances.
And in otherwise-republican Monaghan tomorrow, there will be expert eyes scanning the royal dress to see if it continues a more-than-century-old tradition of including the Carrickmacross style.
It won’t have been made there, alas. But the lace co-op, which took on the mantle (in every sense) from the nuns, would still benefit from any publicity.
Elizabeth Daly, who teaches the technique and chairs the co-op, says there are now between “16 to 18” regular suppliers. There are also a small number of reservists, who can be called to the front in emergencies.