Any Old Lace?

A breathtaking array of needlework at the Irish Lace Museum

It is fitting that the most comprehensive collection of Irish lace has recently been established in the lakeland of Co Fermanagh as the area has played an important and innovative role in the history of Irish lace making.

The Sheelin Antique Irish Lace Museum at Bellanaleck holds a breathtaking array of lace, not only from nearby Innishmacsaint, but also pieces of every regional lace style from Youghal to Carrickmacross to Limerick, as well as some fine examples of Irish crochet lace. The centre, run by Rosemary Cathcart, has won two Gulbenkien awards for the most improved voluntary museum.

Lace making was established in all parts of Ireland following the Great Famine of 1846 in an effort to relieve poverty. The involvement of the church and the aristocracy reflected the trends that had been set in Europe where the story of lace began with embroidery on ecclesiastical gowns, altar pieces and baptismal dresses as well as the richest fabrics at royal courts.

The Victoria & Albert museum in London has examples of 16th century ‘Lacis’. Guipure lace, made from twisted silk and gold and silver threads, was only worn by the rich like Mary Stuart and Henry III. Mary Queen of Scots, who learned the art at the French court, left her lace work to the four Marys.

Kitty Fisher, Charles II`s sweetheart, loved lace. Lace ruffs and cuffs were the height of fashion at the Versailles court of Louis XIV and King William of Orange is said to have spent over two thousand pounds on some pieces in 1695.

Mother Mary Ann Smith at the Poor Clare Convent in Youghal, Co Cork , was inspired by Point de Milan Italian lace to open a school in 1852. When a Jewish pedlar brought rose point lace to Mother Augustine Dalton at New Ross convent, she took it apart stitch by stitch and mastered the pattern. The St Louis convent in Carrickmacross was one of the most important lace schools in Ireland.

In 1842, the Countess of Erne organised a lace school at Lisnaskea not far from the Crom Castle estate on the shores of Upper Lough Erne. Mrs McClean, the wife of the primate of the Church of Ireland at Tynan in Co Armagh made Point de Venise lace. One of her daughters married the Rev Tottenham, the rector at Innishmacsaint parish in Fermanagh where she and her sisters pioneered the making of rose applicqued lace that became world famous after it was presented at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892.

The Fivemiletown exhibitions from 1893-1913, which were patronised by Mrs Mary Sophia Montgomery at the nearby Blessingbourne estate, were landmarks in the promotion of local lace.

The Irish Industries Lace Depot in Dublin`s Grafton Street was one of the most important retailing outlets for Irish lace while Arnott and Co was another. Harrod’s in London commissioned lace gowns which were displayed in their shop windows. The Princess of Wales wore a Youghal shawl when she married the future king Edward VII and, in 1873, Queen Victoria invited Youghal lace makers to Buckingham Palace to demonstrate their art. Queen Mary`s wedding dress train was made of Youghal and contained 5,250,000 stitches made from nearly 12 miles of thread.

By the 1900s lace trimmings were extremely popular particularly in where it was sold in high class stores such as Marshall Fields in Chicago. Late in the last century, Miss Mary Jane Johnston and her sister from Rathfriland made pillow lace commissioned as a wedding present for the Shah of Iran.

Rosemary Cathcart`s Irish Lace Museum is a treasure trove for students of lace making and a delight for visitors and collectors alike. It includes samples illustrating how the lace designs were worked. Period photographs evoke the grandeur of lace heirlooms worn with pride on family occasions. Breathtakingly beautiful displays of wedding dresses, veils, collars, blouses, bodices, parasols, fans, christening robes and caps are categorised according to lace styles.

Cathcart admits needlework has been her passion since she fell ‘head over heels in love’ with a little embroidered purse which her father brought her. She began collecting lace as a hobby when she was 18 years old and the collection just grew and grew.

This museum is a credit to Cathcart`s flair and artistry, her patience and persistence. Many of the pieces returning were purchased from Christies or Phillips auction rooms in London , some came from a stall in Portobello Road and a good deal from private collections.

The museum includes a small shop and is a favourite spot for group outings and for tourists. For further information phone +44(0)28 6634 8052 or see the museum website.
By Jenny Cathcart