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!