A Window on Another Time

The Clare People, Tuesday, August 22, 2006

By Ronan Judge

A new exhibition in Ennis offers a glimpse of life in Clare during the early part of the 20th century. Ennis woman Veronica Rowe has donated a collection of work from one of the county’s earliest and most durable cottage industries. The Clare Embroidery was established by Mrs. Rowe’s grandmother Mrs. Florence O’Brien in Newhall, Ennis in 1895.

From its small beginnings as a class to help out families devastated by the famine it grew to an industry that employed 27 girls. Mrs. Rowe officially opened the exhibition last Thursday. It features examples of embroidery produced by the classes as well as detailing the lives of those who worked there.

From its establishment in 1895, the Clare Embroidery survived the upheaval of World War One, the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War until production ceased after Florence’s death in 1936. Mrs. Rowe first discovered the extent of the industry in her grandmother’s papers following the death of her aunt, Flora Vere O’Brien in 1970.

The first class was set up in Newhall near Ennis in 1895. 12-15 girls came regularly for two hours weekly and when they became proficient were allowed to take away work to do in their homes. In 1898 the Vere O’Brien family moved to Ballyalla House where the existing class was joined by a new group of local girls. A further embroidery class was set up in the Convent of Mercy as the industry started to flourish.

Scottish woman Mina Keppie was a central figure in the success of the Clare Embroidery. A skilled needle-woman, she held the post of manageress and taught the girls basic stitches and oversaw the production process. The girls earned a small wage and learnt a new skill. The wages were less the cost of the materials.

Speaking at the exhibition Mrs. Rowe explained that examples of the work are increasingly rare to come by, “they took the work to England. They got an order at one stage for six dresses for Queen Victoria’s grand-daughters. They sold everything they made, that’s why it is so hard to get any pieces.”

The Clare Museum is located on the site of the former Convent of Mercy and Mrs. Rowe is proud to preserve this link with the past. “This exhibition is about the social history and not just the embroidery. I think it is interesting that there is that connection between this building and the exhibition.”

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