The French Huguenots in the north of Ireland are most closely associated with the city of Lisburn, mainly because of their military, economic and religious influences.
The Huguenots and the Williamite Conquest
In 1689 the Protestant William of Orange sent troops over to Ireland with the aim of ousting the English king James II. The commander was the prominent Huguenot the Duke of Schomberg, a former Marshal of France. Other notable Huguenot officers included Isaac La Mellonière, François de Cambon, and Pierre de Ruvigny (later created Earl of Galway). Although Schomberg was not originally French (he was born in the Duchy of Cleves, part of modern day Belgium), he joined the French army in 1650 and became one of its most distinguished soldiers.
After landing at Bangor bay in August 1689, Schomberg and his troops took Carrickfergus after a brief siege, then paused for a short time at Lisburn. They got as far as Dundalk before disease broke out and most of the army overwintered in the Lisburn area.
William arrived in 1690 to supervise the campaign personally, and he too passed through Lisburn on his way to the Battle of the Boyne. Schomberg was killed at the battle in which the French Huguenots played a notable part, as they did in the later fighting at Limerick and Aughrim.
Louis Crommelin and the linen industry
However, the main reason why the Huguenot contribution to Northern Ireland is remembered concerns Louis Crommelin and the linen industry. In 1697 the aforementioned Pierre de Ruvigny, now the Earl of Galway, sent a Frenchman to survey Ireland and report on the potential for developing the linen industry. This Frenchman may well have been Louis Crommelin since, in the following year, he was appointed as overseer of the Royal Linen Manufacture.
Crommelin set up a factory in Lisburn and brought over French Huguenot artisans who had already left France and taken refuge in Holland. Then in 1705 he published an Essay towards the Improving of the Hempen and Flaxen Manufactures in the Kingdom of Ireland.
By 1711 the original 70 Huguenot families who had settled in Lisburn had risen to some 120. On the strength of this, Crommelin has always been credited with a decisive role in the development of the linen industry in Ulster and Ireland as a whole. However, it has been argued convincingly that this traditional view is quite mistaken.
The linen industry was already flourishing at the end of the seventeenth century. In 1690 another Huguenot, Nicholas Dupin, had already put forward plans to promote linen manufacture, and in 1697 George Stead claimed that there were between 500 and 1000 ‘looms at work dispersed over the counties of Down, Antrim, Armagh, Tyrone, Derry’.
Crommelin’s Lisburn factory also suffered from insufficient investment and from a great fire in the town in 1707, and he was at one stage keen to transfer his colony to Kilkenny. So how is it that Crommelin has gained such a reputation as the founder of the Ulster linen industry? An explanation is put forward by Brian Mackey in The Huguenots and Ulster 1685-1985:
‘The answer seems to be that later generations wanted to identify a founder and Louis Crommelin was the obvious choice: he had an unusual but memorable name; he could claim the patronage of the revered King William II; he brought new skills from a foreign land; he published a treatise on these mysteries.
Above all, his achievements were there for everyone to read about, especially in the petitions he presented to parliament’.
The Crommelin family burial plot can still be visited today at Lisburn Cathedral, and the family name is preserved in the village of Newtowncrommelin, Co Antrim.
The Huguenots and religion
Finally, Lisburn is significant in the history of Huguenots in Ulster because it was the only place there to have a church, congregation, minister and services in French.
In the winter of 1689 to 1690, the pastor Jean Du Bourdieu acted as chaplain to the Huguenot regiments in the Lisburn area. Then from about 1717 there was a French church in Lisburn, situated where the Old Town Hall now stands. Previously, the Huguenots seem to have attended the church at Lambeg or the cathedral.
The Huguenots in Lisburn, unlike their counterparts in the south, conformed to the Church of Ireland from the start. This may initially seem rather strange since, as Calvinists, they could simply join the numerous existing Presbyterian congregations. However, the town’s French artisans received financial support from the government and had no option but to respect and accept the official Protestant religion in the form of the Church of Ireland.
The first pastor, who arrived in Lisburn in 1704, was Charles de La Valade (later Charles Valade), a brother-in-law of Louis Crommelin. After his death in 1756 he was succeeded briefly by his brother, then by the Saumarez Du Bourdieu, great-nephew of the Jean Du Bourdieu who had been chaplain to the soldiers of the Duke of Schomberg. He also opened a school in 1756 (later the Lisburn Classical School) and became the minister at Glenavy in 1780.
By Graham Gargett, professor of French culture and ideas at the University of Ulster, Coleraine campus.