Unravelling the history of Limerick’s ‘amazing lace’

Dr Matthew Potter


Dr Matthew Potter

Passed from generation to generation: Grania Kearney aged 4, duaghter of well known lace designer and manufacturer Maude Kearney, with one of Maude's lace makers who was 92 at the time, working at a lace frame 1912  Picture courtesy: Grania McElligott/Limerick Museum and Archives. Below, the new book
Limerick lace has been described as the most famous of all Irish laces and one of Ireland’s most famous art industries.

Limerick lace has been described as the most famous of all Irish laces and one of Ireland’s most famous art industries.

It is a specific class of lace which evolved from the invention of machine made net in 1808.

Limerick lace is a form of hand embroidery on machine made net and is a ‘mixed lace’ rather than a ‘true lace’, which is entirely handmade.

Limerick lace comes in two forms: tambour lace is made by stretching a net over a circular frame like a tambourine and drawing threads through it with a hook and needlerun lace is made by using a needle to embroider on a net 

The Limerick lace industry was established in 1829 when Charles Walker, an English businessman selected a premises in Mount Kennett, Limerick city as the location for a lace factory. He introduced tambour lace making to Limerick while needlerun lace was introduced by Jonas Rolf in the late 1830s.

The history of Limerick lace may be divided into two broad periods: the age of factory manufacture (1829-70) and the age of production in workshops and the home (1870s to the present).

Limerick lace was produced mainly in factories for the first 40 years of its existence. Between the 1830s and 1860s, several lace factories operated in Limerick. The city’s second lace factory was established in 1835 by William Lloyd, initially at Clare Street and later in Abbey Court off Nicholas Street.

In 1841, there were 400 women and girls working for him. In 1836, Leycester Greaves, a Cork opened a factory in Limerick on Patrick Street, where he employed 200 females by 1841.

Walker’s own business was taken over by Samuel Lambert, as one half of the Lambert and Bury partnership. Subsequently, the factory moved to Upper Glentworth Street.

Meanwhile, Lloyd’s factory at Abbey Court was taken over by James Forrest and Sons, owners of a prestigious retail outlet at 100 and 101 Grafton Street, Dublin. Later, Forrest’s also moved to Glentworth Street.

In 1846, Robert McClure operated out of 7 Brunswick (now Sarsfield) Street, while his son David McClure conducted a lace factory in three houses, 17-19 Clare Street. David Kinnear made lace at 11 Clare Street and John Martin at Wickham Street.

In the 1840s, Limerick lace making was introduced to a number of convents and convent-run institutions, both in Limerick and elsewhere.

In 1850, lace making was introduced to the Good Shepherd Conventon Clare Street Limerick, but it was also made in other religious houses based in the city, including the Presentation Convent in Sexton Street and the Mercy Convent at Mount Saint Vincent, on O’Connell Avenue.

Limerick lace was disseminated widely throughout Ireland by Catholic religious sisters anxious to provide employment at the time of the Famine. They introduced it to several other convents including religious houses in Youghal, Kinsale, Dunmore East, Cahirciveen, and Kenmare.

In the 1860s, the spread of machine made lace from Nottingham brought about the collapse of large scale factory-based lace making in Limerick. According to the census returns, the number of lace makers in the city declined from 760 in 1861 to 97 in 1891, representing a decrease of 91 percent.

In the 1880s, Limerick lace underwent a significant revival due to the activities of Florence Vere O’Brien, an English lady who married into the O’Brien family of Dromoland Castle. She began to employ several former factory workers to make lace for her in their own homes, which she then sold.

In 1893, she established a Limerick lace school in George’s (now O’Connell) Street which taught skills, provided workrooms and was used as depots where the lace was sold. After their training was completed, the former pupils usually became lace workers, working at home and using the school as their depot.

In 1897, the main lace manufacturers in Limerick were Cannock’s department store, whose workshop employed around sixty in-house; Florence Vere O’Brien, who employed thirty-five home workers; Todd’s department who had an unspecified number of home workers; and the Good Shepherd convent. In 1908, lace was made at nine locations in Limerick city. Limerick lace was also made at nine locations in County Cork, three in County Tipperary, two each in Counties Kerry and Sligo, and one each in Counties Galway, Mayo, and Dublin. Most of these were convents.

In 1904, Mrs Maude Kearney, a daughter of James Hodkinson, founder of the famous firm of specialists in church decoration in Henry Street, Limerick, established a lace making business which she called the Thomond Lace Industry. Based in Thomondgate,

Thomond Lace employed between 50 and 80 workers at the height of its success. After the Second World War, Limerick lace declined rapidly. In 1990, production ceased at the Good Shepherd Convent, the last lace making centre in the city. However, the tradition is still continued by a number of individual lace makers.

Limerick lace manufacturing was both the largest in the history of Irish lace and one of the largest industries of any kind to operate in Limerick over the past two centuries. At its peak in the early 1850s, between 900 and 1850 individuals were employed in Limerick city making lace.The social history of Limerick was altered by the lace industry.

It provided employment to a significant proportion of the female workforce, who in turn supported or helped to support a large number of dependent relatives. In 1851, it was estimated that each lace worker maintained two or three other family members.

Limerick lace created a rich material culture.

Over many decades, it produced a large output of lace products, from dresses, christening shawls and ecclesiastical robes to handkerchiefs and doilies. It was worn by thousands of women, including a few who figure prominently in the pages of history, such as Queen Victoria, American First Lady Edith Roosevelt and Countess Markievicz.

Generations of churchmen also wore Limerick lace and used lace to decorate their churches, in Ireland and throughout the Irish Diaspora. Even Pope Leo XIII owned Limerick lace, presented to him by the Bishop of Limerick in 1880.

The significance of Limerick lace as perhaps the city’s leading brand name has resulted in its usage in a number of contexts. During the 1920s and 1930s, one of the most famous horses in the world was the celebrated show jumper ‘Limerick Lace’ ridden by Major Ged O’Dwyer, of Bruff, County Limerick.In 2014,

Limerick composer Bill Whelan marked his native city’s designation as the first national City of Culture by writing a flute concerto for Belfast flautist Sir James Galway entitled ‘Linen and Lace’ in honour of the major textile industries associated with their respective native cities.

Whelan’s naming of his piece demonstrated how deep were the roots that Walker’s 1829 foundation had put down in Limerick and that even after 185 years, Limerick lace still continues to be closely associated with the city.

Amazing Lace: A History of the Limerick Lace Industry by Dr Matthew Potter, edited by Jacqui Hayes, is published by Limerick Museum & Archives at €20.