Saturday 25 November 2017

Review: Pomp and Poverty: A History of Silk in Ireland by Mairead Dunlevy

Yale University Press, €50.00

Kirsty Blake-Knox

There is something about silk: something sensual, secret and seductive. It comes as no surprise to learn that these qualities have been around from the get-go.

The first Chinese silk-weavers were fiercely protective of the laborious production process, and tried hard to keep its mysteries entirely to themselves. Their plans were dashed when a spoilt young princess smuggled a handful of mulberry seeds and some silk worms out of the country, hidden in her headdress.

Since then, silk has continued to retain a certain allure; when we think of silk, we think of silk stockings, religious vestments, monogrammed handkerchiefs and chic headscarves.

In Pomp and Poverty: A History of Silk in Ireland, the late Mairead Dunlevy traces the way in which this fabric has woven itself into the history of Ireland. Her book may seem rather dense at times, but that may be explained, in part, by the fact that the story of Irish silk is surprisingly rich and varied. Dunlevy shows how we have embraced this extraordinary fabric, from the time of St Brigid right up to today's 'It Girls'.

After a distinguished career as chief curator at the National Museum of Ireland, this is Dunlevy's final work and is published posthumously. As such, it displays some of her characteristic originality in the exploration of the artistic history of this country.

I had imagined that silk was introduced to Ireland in the 17th Century by French Huguenots. Pomp and Poverty reveals that silk production in Ireland began much earlier, around the 10th Century. Dunlevy throws new light on the integral role that silk played in early Irish folklore -- even Cuchulainn is said to have worn a white, satin shirt under his heavy, orange tunic.

Silk was also prized in Gaelic Ireland -- textured and dyed silks were presented as gifts to church dignitaries, and passed down as family heirlooms. But it was in the 17th Century that Ireland's silk industry really kicked off, and Dunlevy follows the industry's ups and downs.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this trade is filled with a colourful cast of characters. Silk manufacturers tended to be charismatic and daring businessmen who often ended up holding important civic positions. Master weavers liked to swan around 19th-Century Dublin in tall hats and swallowtail broadcloth coats. Artisan weavers were some of the most politically active tradesmen in the country, providing the highest percentage of workers belonging to a Dublin trade to take part in the 1916 rising. Ireland's silk producers were also in constant competition with French, English, Indian and oriental imports, and worked relentlessly to produce fashionable and high-quality material. It was a battle they would ultimately lose, but there were some periods when the Irish silk trade excelled all others.

Most notable was the development of poplin: a dense and uniquely Irish silk union that was de rigueur in the royal courts of Europe for much of the 19th Century.

As the title suggests, this was an industry of extremes. Silk was considered a mark of taste, wealth and prestige, but its actual production was anything but glamorous. This industry centred around Dublin's squalid textile hub, the Coombe. Cholera and typhus were endemic, and silk weavers lived in such abject poverty that the Earl of Meath was told he would make more profit if he ignored his tenants' rents, and turned to 'growing grass'.

Despite this, the men and women who worked in the silk trade were extremely proud of their craft, and were prepared to fight, both literally and figuratively, for its survival. At times, this involved destroying reams of imported French silk -- as in the Dublin Cloth Riots of 1763. At other times, it meant investing in modern-day marketing techniques. The poplin manufacturer Richard Atkinson fully appreciated the sales potential of supplying Queen Victoria with as much free fabric as she could wish and had the window of his shop on College Green lit with royal initials for Victoria's coronation.

This is a rich subject for any social historian to explore, and not just in historical terms. The language used to describe the thickness, weight and dyes of silk -- pearl grey, Saxon green and Naples blue -- is deeply evocative in itself.

This book is also beautifully produced; there are plenty of high-resolution photographs showing battered pattern books, fitted wedding dresses and carefully embroidered waistcoats.

This book is a must-have for fashion and textiles students but, unfortunately, it lacks some degree of narrative flair. There are meticulous accounts of the establishment and fall of various guilds, societies and unions, alongside detailed technicalities about different aspects of silk production.

However, the book lacks some of the lustre that its subject possesses. Instead, Pomp and Poverty simply charts the fluctuating trends in silk, ribbons and thread in Ireland. It is an impressive and exhaustive study, which, at times, can prove somewhat exhausting to read.

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