The Story of Irish Linen

The industry has never fully recovered from a decline in the demand for linen in the 1960s

Although an exact date has not been established for the first production of linen in Ireland, eighth and ninth century legends and early Christian manuscripts refer to linen as a fabric worn by people of high standing in early Irish society. By the eleventh century, flax—the flowering plant that linen is made from—was being cultivated in Ireland.

Government support of the linen industry led to its growth throughout the seventeenth century, particularly in the north of Ireland, where the expansion of the linen industry was used to attract new settlers from England and Scotland.

In 1850, a third of the flax spinning mills, producing over half of the linen output for all of Ireland, were located in the Belfast area. By 1852, the number of linen mills in Belfast reached 28, with eight located on the Falls Road to the west of the town, where they represented the only large scale source of employment.

Women who worked in the mills were often the only breadwinners in their families. As soon as children reached the age of ten, they too were eligible for work in the mills and could supplement the income of their families. The children were then eligible for full time work at the age of 13.

The culture of the mill extended beyond the individual to entire neighbourhoods as houses for workers were often built and owned by the mill owners. West Belfast in particular had huge numbers of mill houses built for workers. The death of Lord Donegall in 1850 and the subsequent sale of his lands in the west Belfast area provided the needed property for mill owners to expand housing in the area for their workers.

In the 1940s, the second world war effort gave a boost to the linen industry. High demand and government price controls caused the industry to flourish. However, the changing climate of consumerism, which saw a movement away from more formal linen fabric towards cotton and easy care synthetic fibres, led to a decline in linen production. Two of Northern Ireland’s largest mills at York Street and Brookfield, Belfast, closed between 1961 and 1962, and despite various government initiatives, the linen industry in Northern Ireland has never fully recovered.

© Conway Mill