map showing area from Cavan to Belfast


by Patrick Cassidy, Ducas na Muinchille

The linen industry in Ireland began to flourish during the eighteenth century. There is evidence of linen production in the county from a much earlier date. However, it was not until the arrival of Huguenot immigrants to Ulster in the later part of the seventeenth century, led by Louis Cromelin, that linen production began to develop on a much larger scale. Many decades of violence followed the Plantation of Ulster but the country settled down to a relatively peaceful state after the Williamite wars towards the end of the seventeenth century. The peace and stability which followed permitted the growth of manufacturing and trade. Many of the new landlords were eager to promote the growth of towns on their estates, in order to capitalise on their investments, and this urban growth in turn led to a vast improvement in road building. This improvement in infrastructure further facilitated the growth of the linen trade.

County Cavan witnessed the emergence of a number of new towns during the first half of the eighteenth century. These towns included Cootehill, Bailieborough, Kingscourt, Ballyjamesduff, Arva and Kilnaleck. The landlords of all these towns were granted patents to hold fairs and markets on certain dates of the year. Older towns in the county such as Cavan, Virginia. Belturbet, Killeshandra, Ballyconnell, Shercork, Ballyhaise and Mullagh were already established as market centres during the seventeenth century. All these urban centres became important markets for flax and linen during the eighteenth century, some to a greater extent than others.

Cootehill emerged as the strongest linen market in County Cavan towards the end of the eighteenth century. A number of observers noted that Cootehill attracted the greatest number of buyers from as far afield as London, Belfast and Dublin. The success of Cootehillıs brown linen market was due to the efforts of the Coote family who owned the town and controlled its markets.

Thomas Coote (1655-1741) was responsible for obtaining a patent in 1725 to hold markets and fairs in Cootehill. He was interested in promoting the linen trade throughout Ireland and such was the influence that he was described by a contemporary as, Œthe father of the linen trade in Irelandı. Cootehill soon prospered and it became the most important market town in counties Cavan and Monaghan in the later part of the eighteenth century. the town attracted skilled weavers and flax spinners from other parts of Ulster and by the end of the nineteenth century, the town could boast no fewer than eight different Christian denominations.

The majority of tenants on the landed estates were involved in the linen industry which was cottage based in the eighteenth century. Firstly, flax was grown and harvested. It was then Œrettedı in flax holes before being Œbeetledı or beaten with wooden mallets to break the woody stem. This process was followed by Œscutchingı, where the flax was struck with a long wooden blade in order to remove the wooden stem. Scutching was a skilled job and was carried out by a Œhacklerı. The fibres were then sorted prior to being spun on the family spinning wheel. The Œshousı or waste stem parts were used as a source of domestic fuel. Women were usually involved in the spinning process. After the yarn had been spun, it was gathered into measurements known as hanks and taken to the local market for sale.

Linen in its raw state was called Œbrownı or Œgreenı linen. Cootehillıs linen market became one of the top six brown linen markets in Ulster at the beginning of the nineteenth century with annual sales estimated at £114,400 in 1803. It was in the same league as markets such as Derry, Lurgan and Lisburn. The hanks of yarn were purchased by linen weavers, who were usually men. Weavers were skilled workers and they spun the yarn on handmade looms in their cottages. The finished yarn was then taken to the market where it was sold to linen merchants or drapers. Many of these men became involved in bleaching. Once the linen had been bleached at the local bleach green or yard, it was then sold on to large buyers and it ended up in the Linen Hall in Dublin, and later Newry and Belfast, where it was dispatched to England and the American colonies.

The linen industry had a tremendous impact on County Cavan. The minute subdivision of land which occurred prior to the Great Famine was facilitated by the trade as farmers only needed a small plot of ground on which to grow their flax seeds. Spinning and weaving could net much more money than working the land so the majority of tenants were involved in the linen trade. It is estimated that the north east of Cavan was among the most densely populated parts of Ireland prior to the famine. It shared this phenomenon with counties Monaghan and Armagh, two other areas which were heavily involved in the linen manufacture.

During the 1830s, the cottage based linen industry went into rapid decline. This was a result of the growth of the linen mills in the Lagan valley. The home based spinners and weavers could not compete with the massive out put of the new factories. Many of the wealthier skilled weavers and spinners emigrated to America whilst the remainder turned their attention to dairy and tillage farming in an effort to survive The great linen markets at Cootehill and other Cavan towns soon died out and were replaced by corn, cattle and dairy produce markets. Flax continued to be produced and sold on a smaller scale at the local markets for the Lagan Valley mills and the larger flax markets were revived during the first and second World wars. (Define some of the uses for linen at these times)

Apart from Maudabawn Cultural Centre outside Cootehill town, there is little evidence of the Linen industry in County Cavan. Many of the market towns, which owe their existence to the Linen trade, have lost their Market houses and most of the flax and scutch mills, which dotted the rural landscape, have been demolished. The Trading Places- C.R.E.A.T.E. project will rekindle an interest in this very important part of our past, our heritage and identity. Moreover, it will allow teachers and pupils from the various schools involved an opportunity to mix, share innovative ideas under the guidance of professional artists, to develop skills in new technologies and to forge new friendships.