History of Irish lace

Pegeen O’Sullivan reviews Lace and the Emerald Isle by Alan Brown. Sawbridge, Herts, £5 (ISBN 095 20668)

IF YOU look at any facet of life thoroughly you will learn some history. This excellent though modest book, born of a love of the craft of lace, is an illustration of this.

Alan Brown, an author fully in sympathy with Ireland’s lace-makers, explains that Ireland had no lace making tradition before the ‘famine’ (an ghorta mhór) because her economy was held below the Plimsoll line for luxury gods.

The famine saw the birth of the lace industry because certain philanthropic persons saw it as a way of enabling Irish girls to earn sums which, if pitiful in themselves, could at least postpone death by starvation.

Training centres were set up by charitable persons, Church of Ireland clergy wives or aristocratic women and later by Industrial Training Schools and finally by Catholic convents.

It was soon found that institutions could make a very welcome addition to their funds by selling their pupils’ and students’ work.

In our own day in India parents crippled by debt and despair are sometimes reduced to selling their eight-year-old daughters to carpets weavers -- poverty produces misery everywhere.

Once again Alan Brown shows an historic perspective by pointing out that the reason why Ireland’s place in the European lace world fell into decline by the end of the nineteenth century was that Ireland was not industrialised and therefore could not compete with the cheaper machine-made product.

Having no tradition of lace, Irish lacemakers started with no developed designs though they were always praised for the quality of their work. It is good to know that they became very inventive with new techniques such as working on netting.

Copies of Lace and the Emerald Isle can be obtained from Alan Brown, email alan.brown8@ntworld.com

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