Flax Farmers: A history of the Linen Industry in Ireland during the early 1800's.

During the eighteenth century, flax was the only cash crop produced by the vast majority of the people of County Monaghan, Ireland, especially the small farm holders. Potatoes and oats were produced to feed the people and animals. Production of the crop during the summer, and weaving the yarn during the winter kept the people occupied all year round. They became highly skilled at the industry and their craftsmanship was known and recognized worldwide.

The Industrial Revolution, which was eventually to sweep the world, began in England in the late 1700s. Yet despite the proximity to her island neighbor, Ireland generally did not industrialize. The only exception was the eastern part of the northeast flax growing area, where industrial processes improved the productivity of the linen industry. Although Ireland's economy had almost flourished during the last half of the 18th century, the Napoleonic Wars of 1803 to 1815 plunged the country into a recession. Not only did agricultural prices fall but wages fell too. The Great Famine and the introduction of cotton on a large scale helped bring the linen industry to a halt during the first half of the nineteenth century. Several attempts were made to revive the industry in the county but it was all to no avail.

Over the past 300 years Irish-grown flax and Irish-produced linen was by far the best in the world. Although flax was grown in all thirty-two counties, during the eighteenth century, the majority of flax was grown in the northern half of the country. The northern half included the nine counties of Ulster, plus Longford, Leitrim, Sligo and Louth. {Ulster forms one of the historical provinces of Ireland. Six of its nine counties, Antrim, Armagh, Derry/Londonderry, Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone, are known together as Northern Ireland, and are part of the United Kingdom. The three Ulster counties of Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan are part of the Republic of Ireland.} Very little flax was grown south of County Longford. It would appear that the land of the northern half of the country plus the extra rainfall was more suitable for growing the crop. Flax grew better on shallow sharp soil or moory land, which remained damp even during dry spells. Very rich land was not entirely suitable, as the crop grew too tall and broke before it was ready for harvesting.

The structure of farm holdings in the northern half of Ireland was suitable for flax production. Flax-growing is a highly labor intensive process, therefore it was found to be more suitable for small farms where family labor input was more readily available.

According to the few available records in Ireland for the time period from 1600 until the early 1800's, the area known as Aughnamullen in County Monaghan, Ireland was an ideal area to grow flax, which attracted many families to move into the area from other parts of Ireland.

(1) During this time period, the towns of County Monaghan were not as large or as extensive as they are now, but the populations were much larger, though the houses were smaller. The majority of the working people did not live in the towns, but in rows of cottages which surrounded the towns within circles of two miles. The farms throughout the County seldom exceeded thirty Irish acres and under that figure there was every size of farm down to the laborer’s rood of garden. But the greater numbers of farms were about ten Irish acres each. The land was well tilled and utilized for the production of one and a half acres of potatoes, half an acre of flax, four acres of oats, one and three-quarter acres in meadow, two acres in grazing and a quarter acre of a garden. There was no Gaelic League, for all were Irish-Irelanders. All the country people and many of the towns-people spoke Irish (Gaelic).

(2) Activity in the linen trade began rather late in the Ballybay area compared with other towns in the County Monaghan where progressive landlords and their agents had encouraged the development of the trade by promoting the cultivation of flax and its processing and by establishing markets for the sale of brown linen. Monaghan town had a very busy brown linen and flax market. The Lennard-Barrett estate around Clones encouraged weavers to settle in the town, flax and yarn markets flourished for a time and great strides were made to provide a bleaching mill and green in the vicinity of the town from an early date. The Upton estate, which owned scattered townlands in the vicinity of Castleblaney, offered leases on land with plenty of marl, water and firing to those who intended to carry on the manufacture of linen. Leases of 31 years or 3 lives were offered to ‘substantial and improving’ tenants. The barony of Cremorne and Aughnamullen parish particulary had much to offer and to induce linen entrepreneurs to the district. The soil there was well suited to the cultivation of flax. The climate favored weaving and bleaching. Bog and woodland provided abundant fuel supplies and every townland had a gravel or sandpit and stone quarry. But over and above every other resource there was an abundant supply of water and potential waterpower.

The peasant weaver in Ireland was his own bleacher. He would weave two or three webs during the winter months and, if the cloth required bleaching, he and his family would bleach it themselves. The process took 6 months to complete – April to September – that part of the season when labor was most required on the farm. It required continuous attention and was, from the beginning to end, primitive and disgusting to the utmost degree. The cloth was given at least 12 boilings in a veritable witch’s brew of cow’s urine, solutions of cow dung, buttermilk, potash, bran, salt and other ingredients depending on the weaver’s whim. Between each boiling, the contaminated bleaching solution was rinsed out in the nearest dam or stream. The cloth was then spread on grass to dry after which it was again watered and dried. The boiling process was then repeated. At the end of all the boilings, the cloth was beetled by hammering on a flat stone with a wooden mallet or beetle. Only a minority of weavers bleached their own linen. The cloth was generally sold in the unbleached condition and it was left to the purchaser to arrange bleaching.

(1) From "History of Monaghan for Two Hundred Years 1660-1860"
By Denis Carolan Rushe: Clogher Historical Society, 1996.

(2) From "The Linen Industry in the Parish of Aughnamullen, County Monaghan, Ireland, and its Impact on the Town of Ballybay 1740 to 1835."
By Peader Murname and James H. Murname: Originally published in the Clogher Record, 1987.