Local History by Seán Beattie


The Queen’s Yarn – Macklin Talk Notes 2013

Queen’s Yarn

The book (Donegal in Transition) is about life in Donegal from the 1890s onwards and textiles are a major part of it- crochet, embroidery, spinning, weaving, knitting, shirt sewing.  This kind of work was important from earliest times as St Patrick was known to have a team of embroiders with him who maintained his vestments. Most of the workers in the 1890s  were women in this area and as there was little work outside the home women started working in their cottages on lace and knitting to earn extra money. This was how the cottage industries began. Most of the time they were knitting jumpers, socks and caps for family members but they sometimes found sales outlets for their goods and discovered they could earn cash. The problem was that there was no marketing structure for these goods so they bartered them for foodstuffs. Naturally there was exploitation by gombeen men. Once a trader had built up a clientele he would lend money and this began a vicious cycle.

In the 1880s things became serious as there was a famine in 1879 followed by bad harvests. Governments were reluctant to set up relief schemes as there was a lot of corruption and money often ended up in the overseers’ pockets. At this point 3 women came on the scene who were philanthropists – the Duchess of Marlborough, Alice Hart and Lady Aberdeen

Duchess – famine relief to county. Plaque in Mansion House Dublin. Fr Maguire of Clonmany said people could not have survived in 1879 without aid from her fund. (See Raphoe Diocesan Archives, Letterkenny).

Alice Hart – husband Jewish. Both philanthropic and came on holidays to Donegal. Shocked. She decided to invigorate the cottage industries. The Celtic Revival was underway – interest in all things Celtic. So she put Celtic designs on her lace garments and called them Kells Industries – spirals, lozenges, rock art, circles etc. Parliament granted her £1,000 and she used this money to set up training schools and lace and crochet classes. She addressed groups of middle- class workers such as doctors in London and explained what she was doing. She also improved the dyeing of wool using local heathers and plants. This endeared her goods to Londoners.

Marketing  was the next problem. Her husband knew Charles Liberty, founder of the famous London store. Debenhmas helped. Exhibition of Donegal goods in Donegal House in Regent St London. Queen became a customer – way of doing charity, fashionable to  help poor peasants, interest in Celtic materials, hand-made goods were in style, photos used to show examples of poverty. So this is how the wool became known as the Queen’s Yarn as it came from England. It was often given out free for gloves, hats, shawls, capes, socks, jumpers, cardigans.

Lady Aberdeen was the wife of the viceroy and she set up the Irish Industries Association. As a  member of the gentry she was in a powerful position to influence style and fashion so she held grand balls at the vice-regal lodge and encouraged guests to wear Irish crochet and lace. She went a bit too far when she asked guests to use green in their dresses and she also had an Irish wolfhound to greet guests. Both women took their work across the Atlantic and organised great trade fairs at which Donegal cottages were on display and women engaged in lace making and men in weaving. Paris Chicago and Boston had great fairs and there was a similar one in the RDS in Dublin in 1907.

Lace Schools – Culdaff, Malin Head, Clonmany and Carndonagh. Lace, embroidery, knitting, sewing, spinning, on curriculum. Later included Domestic Instruction. New cooking styles eg eggs were boiled but new courses taught them how to scramble, poach, etc. Priests at station houses were treated to a special breakfast and women often wondered how to cook the priest’s egg.

Admission   -letter from PP who might also get a girl into a factory. Students walked to the school and wore a uniform – long dresses, hair in bun or flowing and tied back. Later they moved on to wearing nylons. Being tidy and clean were part of the course because if the goods were soiled they would not be taken.  If students were late they were fined.

Agents from Belfast, Derry and Sligo gave out material and later collected it. If there was no agent in the area, women carried bundles on their backs to the landlord’s house. Mrs Holt told me her grandmother used to buy bundles of lace from a woman in Glengad and the woman walked to Malin with the load on her back.

Designs – Celtic Revival, lozenges, crosses, spirals, circles. Competition from France and Germany (Saxony) which had extensive lace colleges. Irish lace had an advantage as it was hand-made and had the Celtic patterns. This made it popular during the Celtic revival and the gentry and royalty were promoters. Landlords’ wives saw lace making as a good way of earning money when rents were drying up. Sometimes they opposed the lace schools for this reason. In Malin the lace was sold to Buckingham palace. Crowns and monograms were sewn in the corners of tablecloths and napkins. Some old lace patterns can be seen in the windows of old disused country houses. The City Hotel in Derry opposite Guildhall had beautiful long lace curtains that were probably made in Donegal. War killed off the lace industry.

Emigration helped spread lace making to America. Lace curtain Irish in Boston – class distinction and a cut above the rest.

The tutor came from outside the district often Ardara or Glenties. Moved from district to district by bicycle. Often stayed with local people and taught Irish if Irish-speaking. Known as “the Crochet Woman”.  Stone throwing incidents at Carrowmena. Miss Cassiday from Buncrana. Many tutors married locally. Names in VEC records in Lifford.

Classrooms were in old cottages eg Carrowmena: roof boarded and seating brought in.  Women later used their skills in the outstations. The Lace School at Carrowmena is still standing but in some disrepair.

Consequences – new skills; empowered women; Bourke study; outstations; preparation for Derry factories; emigration, tutors; VEC base; Killybegs.

OUTSTATIONS – At one time Derry had over 40 shirt factories and 20,000 women workers. I heard Martin Crossan say that today 62 per cent of the population of Derry are women – they kept the factories going and earned the crust. Phil Coulter – Men on the Dole ………Shirts could have 140 different pieces and they were sewn by hand. Wm Scott founded the shirt industry in Derry in 1851.  Tillie and Henderson followed. Tillie owned the old Foyle College on Duncreggan Rd. There were 500 women who worked in the Foyle Rd factory. The mother of the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness worked in Patrick St opposite Tescos. Derry was famous for the DERRY WHITE SHIRT worldwide.

In Inishowen women worked up to 20 hours a day and gathered in different houses each week. They sang as they worked by candlelight. Sadly this had a side effect and many ended up with damaged eyesight or went blind. But their biggest fear was TB which killed 12,000 a year and there was no cure.

See DONEGAL IN TRANSITION  at iap.ie for more detailed information, income charts, maps, advertisements and photos. There is also an examination of the overall impact of the Lace Schools on the status of women in Donegal society. See also my research on the subject in articles on this site, based on a lecture given at Queen’s University, Belfast at a Social Studies History Conference; this was published in POVERTY AND WELFARE IN IRELAND, IAP,  Dublin, 2011.



  1. Catherine McWilliams

    Congratulations, Sean, on your bringing so much of the history of Donegal to light not just in this most valuable blog, but in your outstanding publications at National and International levels.

    Not at all surprised that you have over 16,500 hits to this blog alone. Your work is greatly appreciated far beyond Donegal’s shores. Thank you!

    • Comment by post author


      It is amazing what local communities can do when people put their minds to developing their own resources – and this fact still obtains.

      • Catherine McWilliams

        Well that is certainly true of our forgotten county!

        Really disappointed to have missed Macklin and your book launches. Must settle into a winter of reading…so much to look forward to!

        Warmest regards


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