Tuesday 14 January 2020

Celtic Roots Craic 62 – Huguenots, 'Millies' and the ‘wee blue blossom’.

A field of flax in blossom

I think it’s time for a wee bit a’ history. There are a few things that Ireland is well known for – music, fighting, our accents, Irish whiskey, being scattered all over the world ..  

Apparently Ireland ranks second in the Good Country Index – after Finland, would you believe? But there are a couple of exports that are particularly related to the north, here – Ulster. You’ve heard of Irish linen? 

When the Industrial Revolution came to Ireland it mostly affected the north. Of course, the famine in 1845 contributed greatly to poor people leaving the countryside and heading for towns and cities – and the Irish ports, railways and canals were built to bring produce to those ports, to supply the market in England. Cotton and linen mills were established in towns and villages all over Ulster – but not much south of what since became the border.

The Irish Linen industry developed here because of a group of people called the Huguenots, who emigrated here from France in the mid nineteenth century.  King Henry IV, of France, issued the Edict of Nantes in1598 – which gave religious freedom to the Protestant Huguenots. That, unfortunately, was later revoked by king Louis XIV, who issued the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685. The Huguenots were stripped of their freedom and ordered to renounce their faith. 

So, thousands of these persecuted Protestants decided to call it a day and emigrate from France and, for some of them, the north of Ireland seemed the right kind of place to head for – as they were pretty much Presbyterians. They brought with them their particular skills in weaving and finishing linen.

Linen is made from flax, and Ireland had a particularly suitable climate and topography both for growing and, after harvesting, for retting the flax. Retting was basically rotting away the outside to leave the strong fibres inside the plant. This was done in a flaxhole – which was a dug out pond, or ditch, where the flax was placed under water for a time. 

Flax has been grown in Ireland from at least the eleventh century, and was referred to as the ‘wee blue blossom’, from the pale blue flowers the plant produced. In the sixteenth century Irish nobles wore tunics – or leines – made from linen which had been dyed yellow, using saffron obtained from the crocus flower. Yellow, apparently, was a status symbol at the time.

Most of the Huguenots arrived here in the nineteenth century – around 5,000 of them – and, by this time, Presbyterians were no longer discriminated against in Ireland. They came to places like Dublin, Cork, Kilkenny, Waterford and Portarlington – and some came to the north and settled around the town of Lisburn. 

They brought Huguenot names, such as Fyfe – I had a friend called Tony Fyfe; Boucher (or Bow cher) – there’s still a Boucher Road in Belfast today; Cloquet (or Clokey), De Vagnes (which became Devanny or Devenny), René (which became Rainey), etc. A lot of these names are still in use today. 

Linen production is mentioned in the ancient Brehon Laws. The Irish trade in wool was too competitive with England and  William of Orange encouraged the Irish Parliament to pass a law restricting wool export and in 1699 it was prohibited altogether. So the Irish had to concentrate on the linen industry instead and, by the end of the eighteenth century linen accounted for about half of Ireland’s exports. 

A Huguenot called Louis Crommelin came here from Cambrai in the north of France – actually, we still have a Cambrai Street in Belfast – only Belfast people pronounce it with four syllables, instead of two – Cam-ber-ai-yah Street!  Crommelin set up a weaving factory in Lisburn – the town where I went to school. He is regarded as the founder of the Irish linen industry. 

In 1825, hand spinning and weaving were replaced by machines and the large Belfast mills came into being. Encouraged by the famine, many people moved from the country to Belfast. Most of the employees were poor, uneducated and female and became known as ‘millies’, or more often, ‘wee millies!’ 

Some of my own family were a part of this story. My great uncle, George Given, moved from owning a grocer’s shop in Dunkineely, Donegal, to Lisburn in 1877. His sons worked as ‘hackle-setters’ in one or other of the two flax mills, he himself drove a cart between the mills. My own father worked in the surviving Linen Thread Company mill for most of his life – though he was an electrician. I actually worked there for one summer myself.

There’s a sad Belfast tale about a man from the Shankill Road who cuts his wife’s throat with a razor and then, in fear of the law, hangs himself with a linen bed sheet twisted into a rope. The story finishes, ‘He went to hell, but his wife got well, and she’s still alive and sinnin’, for the razor blade was German made, but the rope was Belfast linen!’

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