Nollag Na mBan- Reclaiming a Tradition

Nollag na mBan

January 6th marks the 12th and officially the final day of Christmas. In Ireland, this day is known as Nollag na mBan or women’s Christmas. Traditionally it is meant as a day of rest for all the women of Ireland, who have been working tirelessly over Christmas preparing food, cleaning the house and looking after the constant flow of family and neighbours who were visiting during the holiday period.

This is also the day that all Christmas decorations must come down, not a day before or after for fear of bad luck for the rest of the year!

In the West of Ireland, it was common for many women to raise a few turkeys for the Christmas season, which would be sold alongside any eggs from other poultry. As this was the women’s responsibility, they kept any money earned. Anything left over after Christmas, could then be spent on themselves on Nollag na mBan.

In days gone by, women would often gather in each other’s houses to chat and drink tea or sometimes visit the local pub, where they would sit in the snug and drink a small glass to mark the occasion. Men would stay at home, tend to children and look after any household chores.

While times have (thankfully) changed and women are no longer restricted to working only in the home, I still see value in continuing the tradition of Nollag na mBan. For me, it is a great way to honour the wonderful women in Ireland- our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and friends. It is a day where we can take a moment to remember those who are no longer with us. It can also be seen as a way to recognise and celebrate the contribution Irish women have made to society.

The important role of women during the 1916 Rising was highlighted through a number of publications and ceremonies last year. We also saw great public support and acknowledgement for the Waking the Feminists campaign, calling for equality for women across the Irish theatre sector. This gave rise to much valuable and badly needed debate and discussion, which resulted in Arts Council funding to research gender balance in the theatre sector within the last 10 years. It also led to a number of waking the feminist inspired events which took place in locations as far apart as Inis Óirr to New York.

While Nollag na mBan is rooted in a time where women had clearly defined roles, I feel that now is the time where women reclaim the celebration, redefine the meaning and continue and preserve this very unique Irish Tradition.

Nollag na mBan Shona Daoibh agus Athbhlian Faoi Mhaise

*the image accompanying this article is a traditional Celtic cross design, handstitched by my mother Maura Harrington using a Carrickmacross Lace thechnique, circa 1990.

Irish Lace- different because it’s Irish

The origins of Irish Lace are without doubtDetail 28 traced to European lace samples. In the mid 19th century  Italian Lace was unpicked by Irish nuns in order to work out its complex patterns. This provided the starting point and a sound framework for hundreds of women to learn about lace technique. It didn’t take long however before Irish lace makers began to experiment and explore other possibilities. The techniques were soon adapted and in no time Irish Lace, of distinctive Irish quality was being produced! In some areas up to 50 new stitches were developed! Each stitch was named and usually represented what the women saw around them such as the birds, animals or flowers. In Carrickmacross lace for example the pheasant’s eye, the crow’s foot, and the roche’s eye are just a few of the aptly named stitches.

Not only did the women focus on personalising technique, they also wanted to create designs that were meaningful and expressive. They worked hard on improving drawing skills so that they could produce patterns which could match any European lace! An art teacher was employed in Kenmare to teach drawing. Both the lace teachers and the lace makers benefitted from this sharing of skills and increased knowledge.

Ireland was known for 5 different styles of lace. They were Limerick, Carrickmacross, Irish Flat Point (or needlepoint), Clones Crochet Lace and Borris Lace. Each of these towns became centres of lace and while the town refers to the place where they originated it also distinguishes between the varieties of styles. No style however was exclusively produced in any  town. In Kenmare for example, the lace makers were proficient in the production of Flat Point, Carrickmacross and Limerick. The centre that is still operational in the town today also has quite a few lace makers producing beautiful examples of Crochet Lace. So lovely to see that this tradition still continues in Kenmare!!

Carrickmacross is considered the oldest of Irish Laces. Its history dates back to the early 19th century. The original examples consisted of a layer of muslin, where the design was outlined using a thick thread. The outline was connected using ‘bars’ consisting of numerous tiny stitches and the muslin was then cut away, leaving an open-work fabric. It was not until the availability of machine made net that we start to see more decorative versions of this lace. With the arrival of this fabric, the muslin was then tacked to the netting and the design was outlined using a thick thread. The lace maker then cut away both the muslin and the net in some areas and in others, cut away only the muslin. The remaining netted area could then be embellished using a variety of carefully worked stitches. Sounds complicated? Well it is. You should try making!

Limerick Lace is arguably the less complicated style of lace. There are two varieties; Limerick Run and Limerick Tambour. The former made with a needle and thread, the latter uses a tambour hook.

Netting is supported within a frame or tambour ring. Tambour lace is made by weaving a tambour hook in and out of the netting to create a chain stitch. Limerick Run is made using a sewing needle to darn a variety of decorative stitches into the netted fabric. A skilful lace maker could produce a piece of Limerick lace in a comparatively quick amount of time! Limerick Lace was also the style mainly used for mourning lace. This lace was always made in black and it wasn’t really until later in the 20th century that black lace became fashionable. Limerick Lace boasts a huge variety of filling stitches, some samples containing up to 47 decorative stitches!!

Irish Flat Point or Needlepoint was produced in a number of different centres around the country including Kenmare, Youghal, Inismacsaint and New Ross. It is made entirely from a needle and thread: the finer the thread, the finer the lace. In most cases the thread was finer than a human hair and often a magnifying glass was used to identify individual stitches. Originally a linen thread was used; however today it is difficult to get linen without lumps, so a cotton thread is used instead. To begin, 2 pieces of green cotton are tacked together (green is best as it’s easier to see the stitches) The design is placed on top and held in place using a special lace contact. The lace maker now begins to outline the pattern by couching a thread down. This thread is held in place using bridging stitches. When the outline is complete, the process of lace stitching begins. There are a number of needlepoint stitches to choose from but practically all are based on the buttonhole stitch. The variety in appearance is a result of how the stitches are applied. Following on from this, the lace must be finished by working another row of tiny stitches around the outline. In Youghal, this finishing stitch was usually a tight buttonhole, while Kenmare preferred a looser brussels point. Finally the lace can be removed from the supporting cotton fabric. This is done by gently pulling the 2 pieces of cotton apart, revealing the bridging stitches. These are cut, one by one until eventually the lace can be lifted away from the supporting fabric. This is a hugely time consuming process, but what I have learned is that no matter what, you cannot take shortcuts! Believe me, I’ve tried and it’s always been a disaster!

Irish Crochet laces use the same crochet technique which we are all familiar with. The difference is the crochet hook is tiny! Originally, the lace maker broke the eye of a sewing needle and this became the hook used for crochet lace. The thread used is also very fine. Firstly, a variety of motifs are made. The shamrock and rose are well known Irish designs! When the motifs are finished, they are arranged on a large supporting material, and pinned in place. From here, the lace maker begins to connect all the motifs using the chain stitch. A ‘Clones Knot’ is frequently used, similar to a picot as a way of enhancing the design.

And finally, there is Borris Lace from Co. Carlow, this is a style of tape lace. Originally the tape was handmade, however as the passementerie trade grew, ribbon and trims became more widely available. A machine made tape was then used. The pattern was first drawn onto some light coloured paper and the tape was run along the outline and held in place. The filling stitches are the same as those used in needlepoint lace. It is thought that tape lace was introduced to the town by Harriet Kavanagh following a trip to the Island of Corfu. So impressed by the Greek lace, she bought some and took it back to Ireland where she fostered the craft as a way of creating some employment for the local women.

It’s actually quite remarkable that for such a small country we managed to create such a variety of techniques, but not only this, we actually excelled in this industry. I guess in the age of globalisation, it is nice, every once in a while, to look back and remember the little things, even the tiny stitches, that set us aside from the rest of the world. Happy St Patrick’s Day Everyone.


Fabric Memories

Fabric Memoriesantimacasser

My father recently sold our family home. Because of this there was a need to venture up into the attic and go through the bags and boxes which had accumulated over the years. There were many years in this house and there were 7 of us living in this home so as you can imagine there was quite a build-up.

Some things needed to go in the skip, some things would be used again and some other things were simply too precious to be thrown out. There were bags and bags of old linen. And when I say linen, I don’t mean actual linen, but rather old bed sheets, pillow cases, duvet covers and that kind of thing. I opened the bags and searched through. Childhood memories of course came flooding back. My old duvet cover made me remember my old room. The posters on the wall, my little trinkets on my locker, my locker! My friends who used to hang out in that room; the laughs we used to have; the noise we used to make. But, back to reality, I was in the attic because I had a job to do and part of that job required me to be really ruthless. The duvet cover had to go!

There were many items there from my mother’s time. This of course was very difficult. A part of me believes that fabric, in some sense absorbs the passing of time and because of this, it also absorbs the memories.

Amongst the countless pillow cases and old sheets, I spied a bit of lace. I pulled it out. It was an antimacassar. For those of you who don’t know an antimacassar is a small cloth which is placed on the back of a chair or couch to prevent the head of the person sitting causing any discolouration to the upholstery. In the early 19th century men would wear Macasser Oil in their hair, hence the name of these very functional pieces of fabric.

I remember my mother’s antimacassars: 3 on the back of the couch, one for every seat and one on each arm-chair. She made them, white cotton fabric with a white crochet lace trim. The crochet lace was the same style of crochet lace she used to make our communion dress, which was passed down between the 3 girls. I remembered it all. I remembered that couch, I remembered the next couch, I remembered the sitting room, I remembered Christmas morning, I remembered our dog, I remembered the glass coffee table and I also remember smashing the glass coffee table!  Seemingly random memories evoked by this one piece of fabric. Magical. This, I was keeping.

It’s funny how when something has been made by hand, it has so much more meaning and becomes so difficult to part with. For me, this fabric has a story to tell and hopefully there’ll be another chapter to its tale.

Irish Lace and Women’s Independence

When we think of lacemaking, we can all be forgiven for having an image of a poorlace maker unfortunate peasant girl, sitting by a fire, needle and thread in hand with the last light of the last candle flickering away. Indeed this was the situation for many a lace maker. However, I’m going to be quite controversial here and offer a slightly more positive twist on the Irish Lace Story.

Ireland during the 19th century was an impoverished region. Most households depended on the little money they earned from agriculture and it was a time of great financial hardship. When the wife of the rector of Donaghmoyne, Mrs Grey Porter opened a lace school near Carrickmacross, at least one member of almost every family in the area was employed here. All of the lace makers were women. I cannot help but consider this as somewhat progressive. Not only were these women highlighting a woman’s role was not only in the home (at a time when a woman’s role was most definitely in the home!) but they were also making a significant contribution to the financial survival of their households.

Similarly, when the lace school was established in Youghal in the wake of the Great Famine, within 5 years a thriving business was operating employing up to 70 women and dozens more who were working from home. Amazing pieces of needlepoint lace were being produced for sale and export all around the world. The industry spread to a number of towns across the country including the town of Kenmare in the nearby Co. Kerry. Here a new school opened and employed hundreds of women locally. Not only had the town suffered greatly from the famine but the completion of the Holy Cross Church in 1864, meant a huge increase in unemployment as most of the men had been employed as labourers. Once again, the women of the town were able to find work and provide for their families.

Now, I’m fully aware that these were desperate times and people were more concerned with basic survival rather than any other greater social issues but I can’t help but feel the lacemaking industry in Ireland provided women with a sense of independence. In fact, Ireland was one of the few countries in the world where single women could emigrate because they were in a position to pay their own fare and they were in a position to do this from the money they earned from making lace.

When I was researching for my thesis I travelled to Clones to visit Mamo Mc Donald. Mamo is a bit of a lace expert, not as someone who makes lace but someone who talks about lace. She recalled a number of women who had bought farms with the money they made from lace and educated their children with the money they made from lace. So while lacemaking from an early stage became associated with poverty and hardship, there were clearly a few lace makers who saw it as an opportunity; an opportunity to earn money, an opportunity to provide and in effect an opportunity to become independent. By the turn of the 20th century, lacemaking was the 2nd largest industry in the country after agriculture! What an achievement! This is something I for one, am very proud of. So on this day Jan 6th  2016, which is known in Ireland as Women’s Little Christmas or Nollaig na mBan, I would like to give a nod to the lacemakers of Ireland for finding power in hardship and creating a sense of independence for Mná na hÉireann.



My Lace Story

aboutfionaIn 2012 I was in the third year of an undergraduate degree at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. I was studying textile design and had chosen a ‘Contemporary Themes in Craft’ module for visual culture. This was the theory based part of my degree. During one session, my lecturer Anna Moran had spoken about an exhibition which was taking place in Birmingham called Lost in Lace, curated by Lesley Millar, professor of Textiles at the University of Creative Arts. She showed us some slides and spoke about how this exhibition dealt with the idea of traditional making but in a modern way and she urged us to go and see the show. It didn’t seem to have that much impact on my classmates but I was enthralled. I booked my flight to Birmingham!

When I arrived at the Gas Hall, I was amazed. The architecture of the building itself was so impressive. I spent the day wandering around the exhibition. I was awestruck. Every piece of artwork excited me- the sheer scale of the work, the delicacy and the fact that I could see through most of the materials.

I had always been fascinated by holes. When I painted I was always inspired by voids and crevasses and the idea of something within the nothing. I have often thought about where this interest came from, I was never really sure but I do know that one of my heroes Georgia O Keeffee had a similar fascination. Perhaps this is where it started?

When I returned from Birmingham I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to make work like this- large scale, delicate and see through. I thought this whole lace thing must be fascinating if so many people can make such different work and yet still be connected in some way. I also however felt that if I was going to make work which reflected lace then firstly I should really learn about the structure and the process of lacemaking.

I had always known that lacemakers existed in Ireland. My mother made lace when I was young before she got sick and I have many memories of her sitting with a needle and thread or her cushion and collection of bobbins. I was young then and had no interest in these things and sadly by the time I did develop an interest in lace, my mother had died. I was very lucky though to have found her lace box containing all her lacemaking tools and threads as well as some of her actual lace. These are now of course invaluable to me!

During my research I discovered that a lace making centre existed in Kenmare- a small town in Southwest Ireland, just a stone’s throw from my Nana’s house. I was so excited. I contacted Nora Finnegan- the director of the centre and asked if she would be interested in teaching me lace. She agreed and In June 2012 I began my training. I spent 4 months here learning traditional Kenmare Lace- a needlepoint technique made entirely form a tiny needle and a thread as fine as a human hair. I also learned Carrickmacross and Bobbin Lace as well as the history of all the Irish laces.

When I returned to college in October to finish my degree I was completely hooked. This of course posed a bit of a problem. I was basically practicing a 150 year old technique. I had learned in the traditional way, following the patterns that had been drawn up by the Poor Clare nuns in the mid 19th century. This would never work at the National College of Art and Design. Here, students were encouraged to be innovative and emphasis was not placed on tradition. Also, lace was not taught at NCAD and nobody there could offer me guidance or instruction on technique.

I continued to practice however and also began to make my own patterns. This was difficult. I50 year old patterns are tried and tested, mine were not. You begin to realise fairly quickly why processes are repeated, because they work! Any time I tried to make a shortcut or any time I thought I was being clever; it became apparent I was not. The reality is with lace, you have to follow the process, it takes time and you must be willing to dedicate yourself to that time.

Through a lot of perseverance, practice and focus however I did manage to develop a process which allowed me to be a little bit more creative. I finally figured out how to turn my own drawings into workable lace patterns and as a result my entire degree show centred on Handmade Lace and the development of my own individual lace making process. And so began this new phase in my artistic career!

Scéal Na Cúlóige

In February 2014 I came across a call to tender for a public art commission for Gaelscoil Cholmcille in Dublin. Located in Coolock, this is a primary school with about 240 children and everything in the school is taught through Irish.

I was immediately drawn to this. Firstly, the commissioners welcomed proposal from artists for either an outdoor or indoor artwork. Quite often, public art commissions are looking for outdoor works which generally disqualifies me due to the nature of the work I make. Secondly, this was a Gaelscoil and I always loved Irish. I was constantly looking for opportunities to practice and improve mo theanga.

The school and the selection panel were very open to artists’ suggestions but there were a few requirements. They wanted the artwork to reflect the school’s ethos Moladh agus Mealladh (praise and encouragement) and also to involve and engage the children of the school as much as possible. I began to research!

I have always been interested in history so I started by looking into the history of Coolock and the surrounding area. I was fascinated. The story goes back as far as the Bronze Age with a substantial amount of archaeological evidence which still exists today. There was so much to see and so much to learn. I attended Cholaiste Dhulaigh in Coolock in 1998 to complete a course in Art and Design. Little did I know that a burial tomb was discovered right next door!

I wrote a proposal, did some drawings and sent in an application. I sent in so many job applications that year I had actually lost count. So I was absolutely delighted when I received a call from the principal to let me know my proposal had been successful.

Part of my plan was to spend 6 weeks in the school running a series of textile based workshops. The workshops were based on the research which I had done of the area, but the outcome of each class depended entirely on the children’s creativity. The idea was that their artwork would inform and inspire my final designs. I taught every child in the school every week and loved every moment. Everything was through Irish. This was difficult, teaching in a language in which you are not fluent definitely adds to the workload but it was so worth it. Both the staff and the students were very patient and understanding and in fact, the children ended up teaching me quite a lot!

I documented their work on a weekly basis so when I returned to the studio to begin making the artwork I had so much inspirational material.

The initial proposal outlined a plan for a piece which would comprise of a series of plexiglass panels. These panels would be engraved and lasecut and contain elements of the children’s work as well as some handmade lace. I needed to find a laser cutter!

I moved into a communal arts space in Dublin where I set up my new studio. Coincidentally, a lasercutter was also working from this space. Rory Stoney had just set up Stoney CNC, so technically he was not a laser cutter but a CNC operator (computer numerical control). I approached him, told him my idea and he said he could help and so began the partnership between CNC and the arts. This was an unusual partnership. Neither of us had any idea how this would work. His machines had never cut from original hand drawn artwork, and my artwork had never been reproduced by a CNC machine! Uncommon ground!

Following a lot of toing and froing and learning each other’s ‘industry lingo’ we finally began to understand each other. Rory had only a few windows of opportunity for work so it was really important to keep on top of producing designs and drawings. This was in fact great for me as it left no time for procrastination. By the second week in January all 12 panels had been cut and engraved and all 12 backing panels were ready.

I had also started making some handmade lace. It was essential that this would be incorporated into the piece. It also became apparent that colour elements were needed as it was difficult to see the engraved lines of the drawing once the panels were hanging against the wall. I chose a palette of subtle greens and greys but still left quite a lot of open space, just as open space is so important in the process of making lace.

Everything was coming together. I found the perfect hanging system from Douglas Displays in Tallaght, adding a very slick and contemporary finish to the piece. It was expensive, but worth it!

Finally, D-Day, the official unveiling. The school went to great effort. All the children, teachers and some parents gathered in the hall. We cut the ribbon, there was music, tea and the best brownies I have ever tasted!



Project Duration: October 2012- June 2013

Boundaries was the title given to my final year degree show. The piece was based on research I had done on a small area of farmland in southwest Cork. This land had been passed down through my father’s family for several generations.

I found the original maps which showed the historical boundaries and I also researched the first ordinance survey maps of the area which were made during the 19th century. I made a lot of drawing s but by far the most valuable information I gathered was through talking to my uncle. He had inherited the land and he told me about all the different names and words which were used to describe the specific areas of farmland. These words were never written down or recorded on any map and as a result the spelling of these land names were unclear. Without doubt, these words had derived from the Irish language but without any proper denotation, it was very difficult to work out any meaning. It was merely an oral record.

What struck me was that these words would soon be forgotten. There was no new generation of farm workers for this land and if no workers existed, there would be no need to use the words. This idea of loss fascinated me and I wanted to do something to document this unique local lingo.

I was of course at this stage making lace- another aspect of our culture which is in danger of disappearing! In a way it was fitting that I should use lace to represent this idea of loss.

I made an exhibition piece which focussed on this area of land with a series of lace samples that represented the farmland. The title of each lace piece was the name of an area of land. A map was hand drawn and hand cut and borderlines were hand painted. To convey the idea of preciousness, the work was placed in a hand-made display case, all of which was designed by me.