Limerick city and county; Kenmare, Co Kerry; Carragaline and Ballyhea, Co Cork; Leixlip, Co Kildare; Sandyford, Co Dublin.
Limerick lace has been described as the most famous of all Irish laces and one of Ireland’s most famous art industries. It is a specific class of lace which evolved from the invention of machine made net in 1808. Limerick lace is a form of hand embroidery on machine made net and is a ‘mixed lace’ rather thana ‘true lace’, which is entirely handmade. Limerick lace comes in two forms: (1) tambour lace is made by stretching a net over a circular frame like a tambourine and drawing threads through it with a hook and (2) needlerun lace is made by using a needle to embroider on a net background. Flax thread, cotton and untwisted shiny silk are used for the work. Sometimes appliqué is used or net appliqué on net. Limerick lace has fillings of embroidery stitches used to ‘embellish’ the fabric. With Limerick needlerun lace, the pattern is outlined with close running-stitches and filled in with a variety of stitches.
Limerick Lace was one of the great craft industries which came to Limerick in 1829 when an English businessman called Charles Walker brought 24 ladies from Nottingham to teach the craft to the woman of Limerick. Walker chose Limerick, a garrison town, because of its tradition of sewing gloves, military uniforms and white embroidery worked for shops in Glasgow and London. He introduced tambour lace making to Limerick while needlerun lace was introduced by Jonas Rolf in the late 1830s. The history of Limerick lace may be divided into two broad periods: the age of factory manufacture (1829-70) and the age of production in workshops and the home (1870s to the present).
Between the 1830s and 1860s, several lace factories operated in Limerick, mainly in Clare Street and Glentworth Street. It was also made in Cannock’s and Todd’s department stores, however, the spread of machine made lace from Nottingham brought about the collapse of lace making in Limerick. In the 1840s, Limerick lace making was introduced to a number of convents and convent-run institutions, both in Limerick and elsewhere. In 1850, lace making was being made in the Good Shepherd Convent, Clare Street, Limerick, but it was also made in other religious houses based in the city, including the Presentation Convent in Sexton Street and the Mercy Convent at Mount Saint Vincent, O’Connell Avenue. Limerick lacemaking spread to several other convents including religious houses in Youghal, Kinsale, Dunmore East, Cahirciveen, and Kenmare. In the 1880’s Limerick lace underwent a significant revival due to the activities of Florence Vere O’Brien, an English lady who married into the O’Brien family of Dromoland Castle.
Limerick lace was the largest enterprise in the history of Irish lace. At its peak in the early 1850s, some 1,850 individuals were employed in Limerick city making lace. The social history of Limerick was altered by the lace industry. It provided employment to a significant proportion of the female workforce, who in turn supported or helped to support two or three other family members.
Limerick lace created a rich material culture, from dresses, christening shawls and ecclesiastical robes to handkerchiefs and doilies. It was worn by thousands of women, including major figures, such as Queen Victoria, American First Lady Edith Roosevelt and Countess Markievicz. Generations of churchmen also wore Limerick lace and used lace to decorate their churches, in Ireland and throughout the Irish diaspora. The Limerick Museum in Henry Street houses many examples of Limerick Lace.
Practice and practitioners
Limerick lace is currently made on a small scale and in a few venues in Ireland. There are only a few Limerick lace makers in Limerick city today. In most instances, it is taught as a recreational activity at lace classes. In Limerick City, Marian O’Callaghan from Ballyhea, County Cork teaches two lace classes regularly attended by around thirty people. Toni O’Malley of Limerick city has been making and teaching Limerick lace at several venues in the city such as the Hunt Museum and Granary Library. It is sometimes made for sale, an example being Eileen Browne, of Ballinacurra, Limerick city.
Outside Limerick, Grainne Conlon teaches Limerick lace at regular workshops and lace days organised by the Dublin-based Guild of Irish Lacemakers. Nora Finnegan and Toni O’Malley teach Limerick lace, as well as other Irish laces, in Kenmare Lace and Design Centre in County Kerry. Veronica Stuart of Carragaline, Co Cork organises lace making classes including Limerick lace for the Cork-based Traditional Lacemakers of Ireland. Maire Walsh, of Leixlip, Co Kildare also makes Limerick lace.
Development, transmission and safeguarding
Limerick Museum possesses a large collection of some eighty pieces of Limerick lace, over 200 lace patterns and other material relating to Limerick lace.
Limerick lace is also found in the collections of other museums, including the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks; Sisters of Mercy Heritage Centre, Charleville, Co Cork; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Bowes Museum, Castle Barnard, UK; Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Large private collections of Limerick lace are held by Veronica Rowe, Sandyford, Co Dublin and Grania McElligott, Naas, Co Kildare.
Important exhibitions on Limerick lace were held in the Hunt Museum, Limerick (1998), Limerick Museum (2014-15) and in multiple locations in Limerick (2016). In 2016, Hybrid: Limerick Lace Liminal Identity, an international exhibition and conference, was held in Limerick organised as a partnership project between Limerick Museum, Limerick Archives and Limerick School of Art and Design.
Two major works on Limerick lace have been published in recent decades:
Nellie Ó Cléirigh and Veronica Rowe, Limerick Lace, A Social History and A Maker’s Manual (Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe, 1995).
Matthew Potter (author) and Jacqui Hayes (editor), Amazing Lace: A History of the Limerick Lace Industry (Limerick: Limerick City and County Council, 2014).
In Limerick, due to the initiative of Anne Gabbett and Carol O’Keeffe, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA) of which they are both members, began Limerick lace classes in 2012 in the Millennium Centre, Raheen. In 2013, Eileen McCaffrey initiated a second Limerick lace class known as the Pennywell Lacemakers at the former Good Shepherd Convent, Limerick City, where lace had been made for 150 years. A total of thirty people are learning it at any one time in Limerick in these two classes, both of which are taught by Marian O’Callagan from Ballyhea, County Cork. Toni O’Malley offers Limerick lace making classes at the Granary Library, Limerick City attended by ten people. Grainne Conlon teaches Limerick lace at regular workshops and lace days organised by the Dublin-based Guild of Irish Lacemakers. Veronica Stuart of the Cork-based Traditional Lacemakers of Ireland organise lace making classes, including Limerick lace. Nora Finnegan and Toni O’Malley teach Limerick lace in Kenmare Lace and Design Centre, Co Kerry. Online tutorials are available at http://limericklace.ie/tutorials/
Since 1968, the RDS Craft Awards showcase and reward excellence in Irish craft including lace.
Limerick Archives has sponsored the following:
Florence Vere O’Brien Award, a lace design competition in the Limerick School of Art and Design.
Limerick Show lace competition with the Irish Countrywomen’s Association.
Limerick Museum and Limerick Archives have organised ‘Bring out Your Lace’ a public event where members of the public bring in their lace to be examined by experts, with lace making demonstrations and classes also being held.
Free introductory Lace classes for the public during Heritage Week
Cultural references to Limerick lace as perhaps the city’s leading brand name are numerous. First, it appears in the pages of literature. In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt writes that in 1940 at the christening of his brother Alphonsus, ‘they dress the baby in the Limerick lace dress we were all baptised in [sic].’ In Kate O’Brien’s Without My Cloak, it is referred to as ‘Mellick lace’ as in five of her novels Mellick was her fictional version of Limerick. In Ulysses, when the fiercely nationalist Citizen bitterly denounces the destruction of the Irish economy by British oppressors, he includes Limerick lace amongst his list of great Irish industries:
And our potteries and textiles, the finest in the whole world! And our wool that was sold in Rome in the time of Juvenal and our flax and our damask from the looms of Antrim and our Limerick lace.
Second, during the 1920s and 1930s, one of the most famous horses in the world was the celebrated show jumper ‘Limerick Lace’ (1925-50) ridden by Major Ged O’Dwyer, of Bruff, County Limerick. Third, in 2014, Limerick composer Bill Whelan marked his native city’s designation as the first Irish national City of Culture by writing a flute concerto for Belfast flautist Sir James Galway entitled ‘Linen and Lace’ in honour of the major textile industries associated with their respective native cities. Whelan’s naming of his piece demonstrated how deep were the roots that Walker’s 1829 foundation has put down in Limerick and that even after 190 years, Limerick lace still continues to be closely associated with the city.
Limerick Lace will never be as it was back in the 1800s. It is a very precise and slow craft. Many of the current lace makers make lace for personal use and not for sale. It will never become the industry that it once was, an industry that kept hunger from families’ doors. It is, however, important for the current lace makers, for those interested in Limerick culture and crafts that the craft and our culture is kept alive
Related and supporting organisations
Friends of Lace
Irish Countrywomen’s Association
Guild of Irish Lacemakers
Traditional Lacemakers of Ireland
Royal Dublin Society
Limerick School of Art and Design
About the Inventory
Ireland’s National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage exists to promote, protect and celebrate Ireland’s living cultural heritage. It provides official State recognition of cultural practices all around Ireland.
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