Gill: The Rise Of The Irish Linen Industry

Pdf Gill, Conrad, The Rise Of The Irish Linen Industry, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925
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The Rise of the Irish Linen Industry by Conrad Gill charts the expansion of the Irish linen industry from the 18th century to the early 20th century. The industry was concentrated in the north east of Ireland especially in Belfast and Lisburn while every other major town in Ulster had a mill or factory.

Linen manufacture had already existed for thousands of years in Ireland . Prior to the industrial revolution, the manufacture of linen cloth was a cottage industry. Peasant farmers grew flax and their wives and daughters spun it before selling it on to merchants and traders. Western Europe including the British Isles became a leading manufacturer.

Thousands of French Huguenots skilled in the manufacture of linen took refuge in the British Isles from religious persecution on the continent. The Huguenot families were offered land during the plantation of Ulster in the 17th century and were influential in the expansion of the Irish linen industry over the following centuries. Among them was Louis Crommelin who would become the ‘father’ of the Irish linen industry.

The market for poorer quality coarse linen collapsed in the late 18th century in Southern Ireland as a result of economic depression following the Seven Years War. Meanwhile fine linen manufacturing in the north east weathered the storm and survived. The success of the north eastern linen industry was due to long term, rigorous quality control and supervision of the Board of Trustees of the Linen Manufacturers. The board was established in 1711 and functioned until 1823.

With the expansion of the British Empire in the 19th century demand for linen from around the world made Belfast a major industrial city. Ulster was spared the worst of the Potato Famine which ravaged the south of Ireland . At its height the linen industry employed tens of thousands though conditions in mills and factories were often appalling for the workers including young children. Tens of thousands more were also indirectly employed and dependent on the industry. During the 20th century the industry supplied linen for the Allied armies in both world wars. Modern machinery made the industry less labour intensive.

In 1925 when Gill wrote his book, linen manufacturing and ship building were synonymous with Belfast . In the decades following World War II, the introduction of synthetic fabrics and the mass production of cheap clothing sowed the decline of linen fabric and the linen industry in Northern Ireland . Today the fabric is only produced in small quantities and is an expensive textile.

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