By Bridie Dunne
Since its establishment the M.D.A. has been involved in promoting and conserving the local heritage. Having received a Millennium Recognition Award funded through Area Development Management it was decided to build a museum. Further funding from Laois LEADER Rural Development Co. Ltd. was received and the Mountmellick Museum is now complete.
The main focus of Mountmellick museum is to conserve and display original pieces of Mountmellick Work and to protect the memory of Mountmellick’s rich Quaker industrial past.
The white embroidery characteristic of Mountmellick Work is the only form of embroidery in the nineteenth century, which can claim to be entirely Irish in origin and design. Its importance in social history cannot be overlooked.
Training workshops will form an important aspect of the museum. We are fortunate to have local ladies who are highly skilled and who will pass on this ancient and very beautiful craft.
Mountmellick people are greatly indebted to Sister Teresa Margaret McCarthy who revived the work in 1970 and taught it to many through her classes. Her task was made possible by the generosity of the Pim family in making the original patterns available.
Johanna Carter is credited with the introduction of Mountmellick Work but little is known about her. Although it was traditionally thought that she was a Quaker, an educational report of 1824 describes her as a member of the Church of Ireland. She ran a small school in a thatched house with fifteen pupils. With her annual income of £9 per year, she established what became known as Mountmellick Work.
The work was carried out on white satin jean using white cotton thread. Johanna found her inspiration for her beautiful designs from the abundant flora nestled in the hedgerows and banks of the River Owenass. The work itself was used to decorate household products such as nightdress cases, dressing table mats, sachets, comb and brush bags, quilt and pillow shams and pin cushions.
The craft has a long association with the Quakers who fostered the tradition by teaching it and adapting it to their own designs. They opened a school in the town in 1786. Girls at the Quaker School were instructed in the embroidery work as a way to earn money for their books. A government report of 1858 tells us that the needlework was taught in Mountmellick Quaker School both in fancy and plain designs.
In 1920 the school was purchased by the Presentation Sisters who continued teaching the needlework.
Mountmellick Work became a popular hobby for ladies in the Victorian era, shifting from a source on income to a middle class social pastime. Between 1880 and 1898, Weldon Publishers of London produced four volumes entitled “Weldon’s Practical Mountmellick Embroidery” and a popular needlework publication in the U.S. also featured the craft.
About 1880, a Mrs. Milner started an Industrial Association in Mountmellick to provide a livelihood for “distressed gentlewomen”. By 1890, it had fifty women employed in producing embroidery. This led toa major interest in the work. It was taken up by women throughout the country and as a consequence, it ceased to be just a local craft.
Commercially the first known sale of Mountmellick Work took place in 1874 to the Earl of Dunraven of Limerick. In 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, U.S.A., received a white quilt of Mountmellick Work during his visit to Ireland.
Much of the credit for retaining the tradition to the present day lies with Sister Teresa Margaret who has lovingly passed on this indigenous craft to local women and who has built up a treasure-trove of old and contemporary pieces of this magnificent Mountmellick Work.