Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Flax Growing in Early 19th century Athy

Reverend Thomas Kelly of whom I have written in the past, having seceded from the Episcopal Church founded his own sect, the Kellyites and established places of worship in Athy, Portarlington, Dublin and elsewhere. His “Hymns on various Passages of Scripture” first published in 1804 subsequently went through various editions and many of the hymns he composed are still in common use.  A preacher of outstanding quality, he was also a prolific writer and amongst his many publications was a pamphlet which went through many editions under different titles.  I have three copies of the pamphlet on my desk, none of which are dated and all have different titles.  I cannot say what was the title of the originally issued pamphlet.  The titles before me are “The True History of James Byrne a Young Weaver in Ireland” and “The Irish Weaver” or “The History of James Byrne of Athy and Ireland”.  The third pamphlet being number 126 in a series of evangelical pamphlets issued by Tilling and Hughes of Chelsea in London had the title “The Advantage of reading the Scriptures as exemplified in the history of James Byrne of Kilberry and Ireland”. The latter two publications are apparently extended versions of “The true story of James Byrne” with both carrying much additional material inserted at various points throughout the pamphlet.

My interest in Kelly’s pamphlets which incidentally do not give the authors name, stems from the fact that it relates to the story of a weaver who was working in Athy.  Another reference I found elsewhere in relation to Thomas Kelly referred to the growing of flax in South Kildare.

For centuries, flax was grown throughout Ireland and Irish produced linen was highly regarded throughout the developed world.  We normally associate the Irish linen industry with Northern Ireland but on the evidence of Thomas Kelly’s writing, there was also a linen industry in this part of the country in the early 19th Century. How widespread that industry was I don’t know but it must have been quite substantial to give an area adjoining Athy town a name which remains with us to this day.  “Bleach” or variations of the name is a townland identified in the townlands book of Ireland as occurring in the counties of Kildare, Waterford,  Wexford, Westmeath and Sligo.

The growing of flax was not suitable for the good land which is generally to be found among the farmlands of South Kildare.  It grew better on bog like land requiring as it did damp conditions throughout the growing season.  The bogs around Kilberry offered such conditions and Kilberry may well have been the centre of the local flax growing industry.

Flax growing was a labour intensive activity. The growing season lasted about 100 days for if the flax was allowed to grow any longer, it would produce a poorer quality  product.  Once the flower appeared on the flax, it was pulled by hand, this required a lot of labour for it had to be done within three days of the flower first appearing otherwise the quality would further deteriorate.

The flax stalks when pulled were gathered in bundles and stacked for a couple of weeks to help them to dry out.  The next step in the process was separating the fibres from the rest of the plant and this was usually done by submerging bundles of flax for up to two weeks in water.  This was called “wretting” the flax and the bog holes in the local bogs were ideal for this purpose.  One can well see why the local flax industry may have been centred in the areas around Kilberry.  Once the fibres had been separated, they were dried and stored in preparation for the next process called “flax dressing” .  This involved the breaking up of the fibres usually by hand followed by “scutching” where the broken fibre was removed using a scutching board.

The last process in “flax dressing” was the “hackling” of the flax by passing the fibre bundles through a series of combs to remove any remaining pieces of straw and to allign the fibres.  The fibres were then brought to the spinning wheel to be spun into a fine smooth thread.

We are all familiar with the pictures of spinning wheels which were a common feature of life in rural Ireland in the 19th Century.  Flax growing and the production of linen was a common domestic occupation in rural Ireland especially after a Board of Trustees was set up in Dublin in 1711 for the purpose of encouraging the industry.  The Board provided grants to buy flax seeds, to train women to spin yarn and to set up bleaching greens.  Flax and linen production increased substantially following the setting up of the Board and seems to have peaked around 1770 with employment at weaving and spinning providing the Irish rural population with a steady, if somewhat, poorly renumerated employment.  John Byrne of Kilberry, the subject of Thomas Kelly’s evangelical pamphlet,  was a weaver and he was perhaps one of the many of that occupation who lived in South Kildare almost two hundred years ago.

Bleach yards were to be found in flax growing areas and here in Athy, the areas still known as “The Bleach” and “The Bleach Yard” were obviously areas where the linen bleaching process was carried out.  The purpose of bleaching was to obtain an acceptable degree of whiteness in the linen which was more desirable than coloured cloth.  The bleaching process required the cloth to be boiled in water before it was laid out in the fields exposed to air and sun.  While in the open, it was soaked in a weak solution of acid to act as a form of neutraliser.  Lime was also extensively used for bleaching even though it was prohibited by law because if used improperly, the lime damaged the cloth.  The cloth was exposed in the bleach fields or greens as they were called for up to fourteen days where they were monitored day and night to prevent theft.

The bleach greens identified around Athy are all located in the area where “the wild Irish” of late medieval times were living.  Every Irish town had an English section and an Irish section referred to in contemporary and later accounts as “Englishtown” and “Irishtown”.  The name “Irishtown” remains today to be found in many parts of Ireland while “Englishtown” has a less frequent appearance  in the townland index.  Athy’s Irishtown was known as “Beggars  End” throughout the 19th Century  and later and unquestionably the concentration of the bleaching process in the same area points to its importance as a home industry for a population who for large parts of the year were unemployed.

The emergence of cotton and man made fibres resulted in the rapid decline of the Irish linen industry.  The great famine which started with the potato crop failure of 1845 finally silenced the weaving loom and the spinning wheel.  The growing of flax in this part of County Kildare which had been  diminishing for years previously was effectively finished thereafter.

I had intended last week to write of Mary Leadbetter and her diaries which were republished and launched at Athy Heritage Centre on Tuesday, 31st March. Unfortunately,  I did not get around to doing so but would encourage you to buy a copy of the “Leadbetter Papers” which are now on sale in the local Heritage Centre, telephone number 059/8633075 at €20 per copy.  As an extremely important social document of life in Ballytore and South Kildare in the late 18th and early 19th Century, the Leadbetter book deserves a wide readership.

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