Mention Clones today and almost anyone in Ireland will tell you that on Sunday, July 17, Monaghan plays Tyrone for the Ulster Football Championship at St. Tiarnach’s Park. Those who do not purchase tickets in advance will be disappointed on arrival in Clones and will have to settle for a seat at the bar of the nearest pub.
But mention Clones in a broader context and the image will be that of exquisite lace. A small museum on the edge of town tells the touching story of how lace making was introduced to this small village by a remarkable woman in the mid 19th century and displays many fine examples of the craft.
There’s something here for almost everyone: social historians, humanitarians, lovers of fine craftsmanship, or the merely weary traveller seeking a cup of tea or coffee. The story of Clones lace begins with the arrival of Cassandra Hand, wife of a Church of Ireland minister, in 1847 at the height of the Great Famine. She was moved by the extreme poverty that she saw and decided to promote lace making as a famine relief effort. Within a short period, some 1500 women representing almost every family in the area, were involved in the production of lace, supplying markets in Dublin, London, Paris, Rome, and New York.
By 1910, Clones had become the most important centre of crochet lace making in Ireland and its produce was worn by royalty and gentry throughout the world. Fashions, of course, change. Machine made lace became popular, but handmade lace is still available today at the museum, and the art and craft of lace making is still taught at the Cassandra Hand Summer School located there.
The story of her achievement and the extraordinary skill of the women of South Ulster is fittingly told and displayed in a restored warehouse built in the 19th century along the bank of a now defunct canal. Paddy Boylan and his able assistant Vera, who staff the little museum, are a delight to converse with over tea. If they should fail to mention it, which I doubt they will, ask about Maire Treanor’s remarkable book, "Clones Lace: The Story and Patterns of an Irish Crochet". I may not ever require the assistance of the how-to section aimed at the beginner, but I’ll treasure this outstanding work by a university trained scholar and modern missionary for Clones Lace.
Her story of the beautiful lace and those who made it tells much about the capacity of women to rise above poverty and disaster, and about skills, latent in the common person. In the most meaningful way, Maire carries into the modern era a tradition begun in the Victorian Era.
Written by Joy Davis - Summer of Travel 2007