An extract from “Carrickmacross Lace” by kind permission of the author, Nellie O’Cléirigh.
All Irish laces began as imitations of continental European techniques and, side by side with bobbin lace, the technique of working with the point of the needle, ‘needlepoint’, also developed in Irish centres during the nineteenth century.
When people talk about Irish lace today, they usually mean crochet lace, Limerick lace or Carrickmacross lace. Limerick and Carrickmacross have certain similarities in basic technique, both being working over a base of machine-made net. Carrickmacross is made by applying fine cambric or muslin to a net base, the design being outlined with a thick thread and the surplus fabric cut away to form the pattern on the net base.
Carrickmacross lace originated in the early 1820′s and its style was inspired by some examples of appliqué lace collected by Mrs Grey Porter, wife of the rector of Donaghmoyne, a village some two-and-a-half miles north east of the town of Carrickmacross in County Monaghan, on her honeymoon in Italy in 1816.
Mrs Grey Porter, like other ladies of her class, saw in the craft a way to provide much needed employment for young women in rural Ireland. She and her maid Ann Steadman, learned the appliqué technique by copying the Italian work and in about 1820, they established an appliqué lace-making class which soon attracted a number of young women to apply this potentially remunerative craft.
Mrs Grey Porter and her family continued to live in the Carrickmacross area for almost three decades after her introduction of the lace-making craft there, through the period of the first flowering of the craft and its decline in the 1840s due to overproduction. But the real impetus to the development of appliqué making in the area came from a neighbour, Miss Read, the unmarried sister of the owner of the Rahans estate nearby.
Miss Read, with her sister Dora, was so distressed to see young girls in the area of the Monaghan – Armagh border country doing heavy field work that they decided to open a lace making class on the family estate. This they established in an outhouse at first, with the classes confined to tenants on the estate.
They used copies of Mrs Grey Porters patterns for the classes and, as the venture proved sucessful and profitable, they eventually had a special building erected for the lace-making class at Cullaville, nearby. Even though the numbers attending the Read school always seem to have been small, the classes continued to the end of the century.
A more important undertaking was the Bath and Shirley Lace Schools, established in 1846 by Tristram Kennedy, who managed the Carrickmacross estate of the Marquis of Bath. He obtained a Privy Council grant of one hundred pounds to assist in building seven lace-making schools on the estate.
To help organise this work, Captain Morant, agent of the nearby Shirley Estate, gave the use of a vacant house in Carrickmacross town as a central school from which designs, instructions and orders for work were sent out to the other seven schools. The period was that of the Great Famine in Ireland, when the potato crop failed and thousands died from starvation and fever.
The Monaghan area around Carrickmacross was particularly badly affected by the Famine, and relief schemes were few, so that the lace-making schools made a great contribution to the survival of many families. By the last years of the nineteenth century it is possible that lace-making would have died out in the whole Monaghan and Armagh area as patronage ended and commercial demand for lace declined were it not for the interest taken in the craft by the Sisters of the Order of St. Louis.
When the St. Louis Convent was founded in Carrickmacross in the 1890′s the sisters, alongside their primary school, set up a school of lace-making.
The beauty of the fine quality of Carrickmacross lace, even though it was not by any means inexpensive, attracted purchasers, and the first ten years of the St. Louis school saw a return to prosperity among the lace workers of the district, when among them they earned £20,000.
The great era of Irish, as of European lace-making, ended with the outbreak of the World War in 1914. Carrickmacross lace continues to be made and is used today by fashion designer Pat Crowley. The lace is still associated with wedding dresses, for instance, that worn by Princess Diana which had its sleeves trimmed with Carrickmacross lace.
Detailed images from an old Carrickmacross Lace collar circa 1900 – unfinished piece of lace.