IT IS not perhaps widely known, but Thornton, a townland just outside Dunlavin, holds an esteemed position in the world of lace making. There was a period during the mid-nineteenth century when Thornton lace was a much sought after commodity and it was to be found in the homes of the rich and famous, not alone in Ireland, but also in Britain, Continental Europe and even further afield.
The Dunlavin area experienced something of a population boom during the 1830s . However, that boom included the creation of an 'under- class' of landless farm labourers and cottiers and a decade later it was this under-class who were most devastated by the Great Famine. The famine impacted heavily on the Dunlavin area during the years 1845-50 and losses through death and emigration here were comparable to many parts of the West of Ireland. Indeed, the area lost about a quarter of its inhabitants. The role of the landlord class during the famine has been much debated and Elizabeth Smith of Baltiboys House was particularly scathing in her comments about the landlords of west Wicklow at that time. However, there were exceptions -the Smiths themselves, for example, did try to alleviate the horrendous poverty surrounding them. Another such example of attempted famine relief was the project instigated by Mrs. W.C. Roberts of Thornton and it was from this project that Thornton lace was born.
However the story really began much earlier and on the continent. In the late 1820s a certain Mademoiselle Riego de la Blanchardaire discovered that a particular type of Spanish needlepoint could very effectively be adapted to Irish materials. In 1836 she published a book of patterns -a magnum opus which had taken her five years to compile. This book led to the establishment of many 'Crochet Centres' in Ireland, the first one being at the Ursuline Convent in Blackrock, Co. Cork. Indeed, Irish crochet was often referred to as 'Nuns' Work' and that was certainly the case until the Famine struck the country in 1845.
Crochet is often regarded as allied to, rather than as ‘real’, lace. It reputedly originated in the East and spread westwards through Europe. It was certainly popular in convents in France long before the 1789 revolution. Its introduction to the Ursulines of Blackrock probably was through a 'French Connection' but the real expansion of the craft occurred during the famine and immediate post-famine period.
At the height of the famine, in 1847, Mrs. W. C. Roberts of Thornton, Co. Kildare provided the initiative and drive to start up crochet in this area as a means of creating some employment for the famine-smitten poor of the district. The crochet industry in Cork gave employment to many girls whom the mayor described as being 'in a state of the most helpless and hopeless idleness, a burden upon their humble parents and of little use to the community'. Mrs. Roberts may have visited Cork in 1846 or 1847 and in a letter of hers, which survives, she refers to the first crochet classes at Thornton. The classes were started at a time when polka [wool] knitting done in the district could no longer be marketed. Finding a piece of crochet that her sister-in-law had brought from Dover, she set five women to copy it. The piece was 'poorly designed, not unlike crabs and spiders in succession 'but she lent the women 'bits of handsome old lace to study as well and of their own ingenuity they brought it [crochet] to its present perfection'. The knitting carried out in the other polka enterprise must, she observed, have given the workers some training in accuracy and speed.
So began a cottage industry which was to thrive over the next decade or so. In the middle of the nineteenth century simple crochet was not only saleable, but also easy to make and launder as well as being cheap to produce. It needed no equipment except thread and a home made hook and the rise of the middle classes in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century prior to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 created a demand for a cheap form of 'lace'.
The Thornton Lace industry flourished quickly and at its height in the early 1850s it employed about seven hundred workers. Although Thornton was actually just across the border in Co. Kildare, Dunlavin was the nearest village and a large proportion of the females employed by Mrs. Roberts came from the village and its immediate hinterland. Indeed, the industry was so successful that it generated payments of between one hundred and three hundred pounds during every month between the years of 1852-1859 inclusive. As the workforce expanded, the level of skill improved and it was during the 1850s that specialized pieces of Thornton Lace became prized possessions in many upper-class homes within the British Isles and far beyond their shores.
However factors which would eventually cause the demise of the Thornton Lace industry were now at work. As 'Crochet-Centres' spread throughout the country, the Thornton industry faced stiff competition. It has been suggested that the Thornton industry lost out 'for the want of strictness in compelling the workers to do perfect work'. The poor working conditions and uneducated workforce probably were factors in the refusal of some of the girls to take instruction from their teachers. 'They were supported in this independence by people who bought up their uncultivated work'. Poverty meant that the girls were more interested in producing quantity than quality and many of them sold their work as quickly as they could, as this speed of production generated a steady, if small, income from the lower middle-class market.
Coupled with the independent spirit of many workers was a suspicion of the intentions of their teachers and patrons such as Mrs. W. C. Roberts if they belonged to the established Church of Ireland -which was not the Church of most of the girls employed. The girls were often ignorant of changing fashions abroad and, although Mrs. Roberts kept up sales for as long as possible, the difficulty of getting good designs made by workers who wanted to 'do their own thing' finally killed off the industry. By the 1860s crochet had degenerated into a cottage craft and the output was bought by unscrupulous commercial agents who were no longer motivated by any spirit of Famine relief in Ireland. Mrs. Roberts now reported that the total earnings of her school of Thornton Lace were reduced to two pounds ten shillings per month.
Moreover, the post-famine years saw the large-scale production of machine embroidery and lace so crochet became an uncertain occupation. There was still a demand for really fine crochet work, but the Thornton standards had slipped and there was more competition around ...notably the new Clones Lace industry. The demise of Thornton lace was, in fact, inextricably linked with the rise of Clones Lace -and therein lies a tale of the pupil surpassing the master!
Shortly after the establishment of the Thornton Lace industry in 1847, a Mrs. Cassandra Hand, wife of Rev. Thomas Hand of Clones, Co. Monaghan, asked Mrs, W. C. Roberts to send a teacher of crochet making to Clones in an effort to provide famine relief similar to the Thornton model. In fact, in the years following 1847, Mrs. Roberts' school of Thornton Lace sent no less than twenty-eight teachers of crochet to various distressed districts of Ireland. Cassandra Hand had been in contact with a Mrs. J. Maclean from Tynan in Co. Armagh, who, in turn, had visited Col. and Mrs. Tottenham of New Ross in Co. Wexford. Both the Tottenhams and the Macleans had received crochet teachers from Mrs. Roberts in Thornton. The diffusion of crochet teachers from Thornton to Clones thus went via Wexford and Armagh. There is no doubt that Mrs. Cassandra Hand was a remarkable woman. She threw herself into the new venture with great energy and she had considerable business acumen. A cottage industry took root in Clones and it thrived. Within a few years, one thousand five hundred people were employed in making Clones lace. Of course, Clones was a much larger settlement than Dunlavin with its Thornton lace industry, but it was not the larger size of the Clones workforce (at one stage Mrs. Hand was actually worried that her creation was getting too big!) that spelt the death-knell for the Thornton product. It was, rather, the superior quality of the Clones material which ensured its survival in a post-famine world of increased competition and new methods of mass production. In an ironic twist, the crochet teacher sent by Mrs. Roberts to Mrs. Hand was actually too good, and her higher standards established the fineness of Clones lace as a by-word for quality. By the 1860s, Clones had totally outstripped the now almost defunct Thornton as a lace-making centre. The lessons learned in Thornton bore fruit in Clones and the high standards established in the Monaghan town, where careless and inferior work was rejected out of hand by Mrs. Hand (no pun intended!), meant that just as Mrs. Roberts' teachers had spread from her centre in Thornton, Mrs. Hand and her successors sent teachers into neighbouring counties to teach the Clones type of crochet. Lace from these Northern counties became famous in its own right - none more so than the original Clones lace - and formed a specialised part of a wider Northern textile industry, which became best- known for the production of linen. However, the seed that spawned this Northern lace industry originated right here in the townland of Thornton, only a mile or so from the village of Dunlavin. In yet another twist to the tale, Thornton lace became very collectable as the years rolled on. The short duration of the Thornton industry meant that surviving samples of Thornton lace work are quite rare and they now command a high price at sales and auctions. The name 'Thornton' is well known and widely respected in the world of lace collectors, and much of the earlier work in particular is among the best examples of its kind anywhere. As Dunlavin is now renowned for its annual Festival of Arts, we recall a time when the village and its environs contained many artists who were recognised - on this island and far beyond - as being among the best in their field; for lace making is truly an art in itself!
Historical, Mythical, Mystical Dunlavin
Dunlavin, an Irish village in west Wicklow, has a long history of settlement. The name Dunlavin has two explanations. Firstly it refers to the Fort of Liamhán, who was a legendary princess of North Leinster, supposedly slain for eloping with a prince from South Leinster. The scene of her death was Tournant Moat, a Celtic mound or fort about a mile from the present village. The other explanation of the name is the Fort of the Elms, surely a reference to the well-wooded appearance of these parts in Celtic times. The whole area surrounding Dunlavin was settled even before the arrival of the Celts. Stone circles like those at Castleruddery and Brewel could date from c.2,000B.C. There was an Iron Age Hill Fort on Spinan’s Hill, between Dunlavin and Baltinglass.The Celts established themselves here during the bronze Age, and they were quick to embrace Christianity when it arrived in Ireland during the fifth century A.D. Traditionally, St. Patrick is the man credited with the genesis of the new religion in Ireland, but there were already some pockets of Christianity existing before St. Patrick’s arrival. One such pocket existed in the Dunlavin area and was due to the work of St. Palladius. Palladius was born in Britain and was the son of a high-ranking Byzantine official of the Roman Empire. The ‘Annals of Ulster’ state that: ‘To the Irish believing in Christ, Palladius, ordained by Pope Celestine, was sent as their first bishop’. In the year 431 Palladius and a group of companions landed at Wicklow harbour and moved inland, establishing three religious settlements: one in Tigroney near Avoca, one on the summit of Church mountain near Donard and one near Cillín Cormac to the Northeast of which is Dunlavin. The name Donard, it has been suggested, is a shortened form of Domnacha Arda ‘the church of the high field’ and refers to the Church mountain site established by St. Sylvester, a disciple of Palladius. The first Dunlavin Christian settlement was called Cell Fine ‘the church of the septs’.The early work of Palladius was strengthened by the arrival of St. Patrick, and the centuries following the establishment of Christianity in this area witnessed the growth of the monastic way of life. Glendalough was the great Wicklow monastery, but there was also one at Tober, near Dunlavin, and the fishpond on the river Griese was first constructed by the Tober monks. The Irish monasteries provided a place of refuge in a violent world. Many local placenames hint at this violence; names that include Dun and Rath for example refer to defensive sites. Dunlavin and Rathsallagh were violent places caught in a cockpit of wars between the old Celtic kingdoms of North Leinster and South Leinster. Two large battles were fought at Dun Bolg in 598A.D. and in 870A.D. The final years of the first millennium also saw the threat of Viking raids and the end of the monastic ‘golden age’. The Dunlavin area bade farewell to the first millennium with the Battle of Glen Mama in 999 or 1000 A.D., when Brian Boru defeated the Vikings and Leinstermen, as he would do once again at Clontarf in 1014 - but this time at the cost of his own life.The second thousand years after the birth of Christ began with a move to reform the Celtic church. However, reform was not fast enough for Pope Adrian IV and a papal bull in 1155 granted permission for a Norman invasion of Ireland. This happened in 1169 and by about 1200 the O’Toole and O’Byrne families had been driven into the Wicklow Mountains, including the Donard and Davidstown areas, just above Dunlavin. Normans had settled the lowlands of neighbouring Kildare and the Dunlavin area once again became a cockpit of war. The year 1275 saw this area being fortified against attacks from the Irish mountain-dwellers. These continued into the fourteenth century and one of the worst incidents happened in 1332.When the Normans arrived they re-organised the structure of the Irish church. Many Irish chieftains did not accept these changes and Norman churches were often burnt by the marauding Irish. In 1332 Fryanstown church (near Dunlavin) was burnt, along with 80 people who had fled to the church for sanctuary from the violence. Records state that ‘when a certain chaplain of the said church, clothed in sacred vestments wished to leave the building with the body of the Lord, they drove him back with their lances and burnt him with the others’. This incident resulted in the excommunication of ‘O’Toole and his accomplices, enemies and rebels of the King’. This area remained a dangerous place into the fifteenth century. Archbishop Tregury of Dublin would not visit Dunlavin in 1468 because ‘it lay in the Irish territory on the marches of the Pale so he dared not visit on account of the war in those parts’.
To be continued…
Dunlavin from Early Modern Times to the Present
The sixteenth century witnessed the Reformation. The activities of Martin Luther affected mainland Europe, but King Henry VIII’s Anglican Reformation had a more immediate effect in this area. The Anglican Reformation was much more successful in England than it was in Ireland, where it met with resistance almost from the outset. In 1580 Edmund of Tober supported Viscount Baltinglass and Fiach Mac Hugh O’Byrne when they threw in their lot with the Earl of Desmond, who had rebelled against Queen Elizabeth I. Edmund ended on the losing side, fled and died in Portugal in 1594. Fiach Mac Hugh was killed in 1597 and the upland Donard and Davidstown areas were finally subjugated, resulting in the shiring of Wicklow as a separate county in 1606. The 1640s witnessed another rebellion, after which the local landowner Peter Sarsfield lost his lands hereabouts for having supported the rebels. These lands were acquired by the Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Launcelot Bulkeley, and the village of Dunlavin was established by Sir Richard Bulkeley in the late seventeenth century. Sir Richard intended building a university here, but due to obstacles, including opposition from the Church of Ireland’s see of Dublin, this plan came to naught.
As well as the establishment of the new village of Dunlavin on its present site, the 1680s and 1690s saw the triumph of the Williamites over the Jacobites, and with it came a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment. The parish priest of the Glen of Imaal, Fr. Laurence O’Toole, hid his vestments and altar vessels in 1692 and went into hiding. The first penal laws were passed in 1695, and penal measures continued to be passed until 1728, mainly aimed at landholding Catholics at first but ultimately threatening the practice of the Catholic religion itself. Catholic services were held in secret and one local site of such services was the Mass Rock in the Glen of Imaal. One local tradition tells of how, when the authorities arrived in the Glen, a member of the congregation took the place of the priest and was hanged at the Mass Rock in an act of self-sacrifice similar to that of Fr. Max Kolbe in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.
The penal laws continued into the eighteenth century, but did not stop the development of Dunlavin village, which became a market town for the parish. The fine market house was commissioned in 1737 by Robert Tynte, and it remains a landmark building in the village to this day. The Tyntes had arrived in the area in 1702 when James Worth-Tynte married into the Bulkeley family and they still own some local properties. The unequal division of wealth within eighteenth-century society was one reason behind the United Irish movement of the 1790s. The rebellion of 1798 saw 36 men executed on the fair green of Dunlavin, and more hanged from the pillars of the market house. The fair green executions were beside the site used for Catholic worship, so the scene of the executions was well chosen! Many of those executed came from the Donard area and they included John Dwyer of Seskin. It was another Dwyer, the famous rebel leader Michael, who continued the resistance until December 1803, holding out in the Glen of Imaal long after the rebellion had ceased in the rest of the country. Michael Dwyer was transported to Australia in 1805 and the Dunlavin area quietened down and continued to increase in population as the nineteenth century progressed.
One result of the relative peace and prosperity – and the relaxation of the penal laws – was the building of the new Protestant church the present Catholic church, which both date from c.1815. The first parish priest here was Fr. John Hyland and the earliest parish registers record a continuing growth in population in the early nineteenth century. However this increase was abruptly halted when famine stalked the region in the 1840s. This region was badly hit by the famine. The upland portions of Donard and Davidstown had more in common with the West of Ireland than with lowland Leinster. The small upland farms on the sides of the Glen of Imaal were wiped out and the whole parish suffered terribly during the period from 1845 to 1850. Dunlavin village lost about 25% of its people and the whole parish lost nearly 40% of its inhabitants during these years. The post-famine years witnessed continuing emigration and many people - especially young people - left this area never to return. It was a trend that would continue right up to the 1950s.
After the famine, life changed for those left behind in this parish. Land was no longer subdivided and marriage rates and birth rates dropped as a result. The Catholic ‘devotional revolution’ changed the way that they worshipped and the pattern to St. Nicholas’s holy well in Tornant, for example, became less popular in the later nineteenth century. The emphasis was now heavily on formal devotional practice and Canon James Whittle (a native of Dunlavin who succeeded Canon Hyland on 8 November 1862) was responsible for the building of the Church of Our Lady of Dolours and St. Patrick in Davidstown, which opened its doors on 16 September 1875. The Catholic parish now had three churches for three faith-communities and people in remoter areas of the Glen were closer to a centre of worship. The next parish priest, Fr. Frederick Donovan, was a champion of the land reform and home rule movements of the late nineteenth century. His involvement in the National League and, after the Parnell scandal, the National Federation meant that by the time of his death in 1896 the local farmers of our parish were well on the way to becoming the owners of their own properties.
Dunlavin church was renovated in 1898, during Fr. Maxwell’s tenure as parish priest. As the twentieth century dawned both Dunlavin and the new Davidstown church were in pristine condition, but Donard Church was a cause for concern. The foundation stone for the new church in Donard was eventually laid by archbishop Edward J. Byrne on Sunday 12 July 1925, but before that event took place much had already happened in the first quarter of the present century. The Dunlavin area lost many young men in the First World War, and in its aftermath came the War of Independence. This place was again touched by violence and Donard experienced the Black and Tan tactics, while Dunlavin witnessed the murder of Robert Dixon at his house in Milltown on 2 February 1921. After the treaty came bitter Civil War, when brother turned against brother and families were divided. Peace was eventually restored, but times remained hard and emigration continued to haunt our parish through the hungry thirties, the years of the Emergency in the forties and the stagnant fifties. The 1960s saw the beginning of better times.
The last three decades of our present century have been a time of affluence, despite the recessions of the 70s and 80s. Our overall standard of living in the Dunlavin is probably the highest it has ever been. Over the centuries, our own place has seen terrible events, but is now peaceful and prosperous and we face the future with confidence. We cannot, and should not forget our past, but we can consign it to its proper place and look to a better future and let the early 21st century be remembered by future generations as a time of peace, of growth and of renewal due to the efforts of the present inhabitants of Dunlavin village and its hinterland.