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Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Flax Workers of Ireland

The flax and linen industries of Ireland provided employment until modern times. Flax was used to weave linen cloth, towels and sailcloth.

Linen was not an important manufacture in Ireland until the late 1690s. Flax was grown in the 'Linen Homelands' of Ulster and many other parts of Ireland such as Clonakilty. Cookstown (County Tyrone), the centre of a large flax growing district, had the biggest market in Ireland.
For centuries flax processing, spinning and weaving was done by hand. Spinning and weaving took place in worker’s homes. The mechanization of scutching, spinning and weaving improved efficiency but moved workers into factories.
Conditions in the wet-spinning mills and scutching mills were extremely unhealthy. The machinery in the scutching mills was particularly dangerous and there were some horrific accidents.
In August 1876 thirteen-year-old John Donaghey died from his injuries at Brown’s factory at Cookstown near Belfast. This accident was partly owing to bad management. In this factory nail-bags were woven from tow (short-fibred flax used for coarse cloth), and similar machinery to that used in the flax scutching mills softened up the tow during the initial processing. Someone (it was never discovered who) turned on the water which powered the machinery without warning the workers. A ‘feeding tray’ which acted as a guard had been taken off while the machine was serviced. When the machine started up suddenly, John’s arm was dragged into the rollers.
The Children History Forgot has more children's stories from the flax mills, and discusses the factory inspectorate’s fight to bring the industry under better regulation. And my feature for the February issue of BBC Who Do You Think You Are magazine explores how to trace your Irish flax worker ancestors.

Boy scouts binding the stooks (sheaves) of flax together. Work and Workers Shown to the Children, T. C. and E. C. Jack Ltd, circa 1920.
Flax processing. After harvesting, the flax was stacked to dry in the fields. After drying the seeds were then removed, then the stalks were ‘retted’ to soften them for processing. Then the flax fibres were ‘broken’ and ‘scutched’ Then the ‘heckler’ (hackler) cleaned any remaining fragments of bark from the flax.
The silken fibres of flax could now be spun into yarn, then woven into cloth. Cassell's Book of Knowledge Vol. III (Waverley Book Co. circa 1920). Author’s collection.

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