Category Archives: Northern Ireland

Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum, Northern Ireland

By Ciaran Toal

Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
The 17th-century Market House, with 19th and 20th century additions.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

The Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum (ILC & LM) researches, preserves and interprets all aspects of the history of the Irish linen industry, Lisburn and the surrounding area.

The Assembley Room, Lisburn.
Fine Irish damask on display in the Assembly Room, Lisburn.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

The Museum and its collections are housed in the old Market House, an late seventeenth-century building, since heavily modified. The town’s merchants sold their wares and produce and sought shelter in and around the ground floor of the building, and John Wesley preached here in 1756 and 1789.  The first floor Assembly Rooms played an important role in the social and political life of Lisburn, hosting regular soirees, balls, dance classes and political meetings throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Lisburn Ground Plotte
The 17th-century ground plot for Lisnagarvey (Lisburn).
© Copyright ILC&LM.

The surrounding Market Place was first laid out in Sir Fulke Conway’s plan of the town in the 1620s, and was the later site of the city’s bustling linen market. Here weavers sold vast quantities of brown, unbleached, linen. William of Orange, on his way to the Boyne, ‘took refreshments’ in Market Place in 1690, while United Irishmen swung from gallows erected here following the unsuccessful rebellion of 1798. At an entry just off nearby Castle Street, James Wallace installed Ireland’s first steam engine, from Watt’s factory in Glasgow, in 1790.

From the museum it is only a short walk to Castle Gardens. Although the original castle is no longer standing, part of the walls and the impressive seventeenth-century terrace, including the gazebo and bakery, remain. The Gardens contain a monument to Sir Richard Wallace, local MP, landowner and successor to the Conway’s, whose collection of art and that of his father’s, the 4th Marquess of Hertford, largely makes up the Wallace Collection.

Island Spinning Company
Poster for the Island Spinning Co., Lisburn.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

Castle Gardens affords a panoramic view of much of Lisburn  and the wider Lagan Valley, and it is possible to pick out remnants of the region’s industrial past. Just east of the Gardens, for example, lies the former site of the Vitriol chemical works (c.1760-c.1840) and later the Island Spinning Company Ltd (1867-1983), responsible for flax spinning and thread making.  The island, bounded by the River Lagan in the north and the canal in the south, is now occupied by Lisburn City Council, but the lock, through which over 180, 000 tons of linen, coal and dry goods travelled every year, remains.

Coulson's Factory
Coulson’s factory, Linenhall Street.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

Nearby, also, is the site of the iconic Coulson’s factory. From 1766 up until the 1960s the company, housed in a distinctive thatched building, produced fine damask linen, which was exported internationally. Coulson’s received Royal patronage in 1811, and a gold medal for their linen napkins and tablecloths at the Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace (1851).

Hilden Mill
The Barbour’s Hilden Mill today.
© Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

South east of Castle Gardens, and just over a mile east of the Island, is the site of the Hilden mill complex, at one stage the world’s largest linen thread mill.  Owned and operated by the Barbour family, in some form, from 1842 to the 1960s, the complex is a patchwork of workshops for spinning and the production of linen thread. The Barbour family, in the tradition of many nineteenth-century industrialists, built a model village, consisting of housing, a school and a community hall, to support their workforce.  Although abandoned, the mill is still standing, and provides a glimpse back into the Lagan Valley’s industrial past. A short distance away is Glenmore bleach green. In constant use from the eighteenth century, the green was used to treat – through the use of sulphuric acid, and an extended drying period in the sun – the brown, untreated, linen. In 1887 the site at Glenmore, under the ownership of Richardson, Sons & Owden turned out over 300,000 linen webs.

Glenmore Bleech Green
Drying linen at Glenmore Bleech Green.  Image in the public domain.
Lisburn's Flax to Fabric
‘Flax to Fabric’: A weaver’s cottage.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

A thorough overview of the Barbour family, a sample of  Coulson’s damask linen, or indeed the broader history of the linen industry in the Lagan Valley, is provided at the ILC & LM’s permanent ‘Flax to Fabric’ exhibition. Visitors are guided through the history of linen and its manufacturer, from its use in Egyptian burial rites, its biblical significance – fine linen is mentioned in Genesis – right through to its cultivation in Europe in the Middle Ages. The Irish linen industry developed under various political and technological pressures, and the influence of English landlords, Dutch spinning techniques, Quaker labour and Huguenot self-promotion, is outlined in the exhibition. A recreated 18th-century cottage scene gives visitors a sense of the lives of workers in Ulster’s domestic linen industry before industrialisation. The entire family was involved in the process. Women spun the flax into yarn – visitors can try this for themselves – while children wound it onto bobbins. Weaving was left to the men, and usually took place in a separate part of the cottage. The ILC & LM have a workshop dedicated to weaving, with a full-time staff operating a series of looms, including two Jacquard looms. Jacquard’s design was revolutionary, significantly speeding up the weaving process, and his innovative use of punched cards to control individual threads of the warp allowed complex damask patterns to be wove. His invention was an important influence on Charles Babbage, and the Jacquard system is viewed as a ‘first-step’ towards the development of the modern computer. Demonstrations are given daily.

Jacquard LOom
Jacquard Looms in the weaving workshop. Note the mechanism for reading the punched card on top.
© Copyright ILC&LM.
Sybil Connolly
An original Sybil Connolly creation.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

The linen industry played an important role in the geographical, social and industrial heritage of Ulster, and this is explored through presentations of The Wee Blue Blossom, a 1930’s film examining the traditional harvesting and spinning of flax, and The Irish Interlude (1955), a nostalgic look at industrial-life in post-War Belfast. Irish linen was sold worldwide, and the Museum houses a collection of some of the finest samples, including a piece of intricate damask woven at Coulson’s to commemorate Queen Victoria and Albert’s 1849 visit to Belfast, as well as fine embroidered muslin from the prestigious Belfast retailers Robinson & Cleaver. The work of Sybil Connolly, once Ireland’s leading clothes designer, is also celebrated in a display that shows off a number of her linen creations. Her work was worn by the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth and Liz Taylor.

The Market House gallery hosts regular displays and exhibitions on local history, from the Titanic to ‘17th-century Lisburn’, or even highlights from the Museum’s collections in the ‘Curator’s Choice’. The ILC & LM has a dedicated library and research service, and its education officers run a range of free workshops for school groups, colleges and community organisations.

Visitor information:

The museum is open 9-5pm Monday to Saturday, and admission is free. Group tours of the museum and Castle Gardens can be arranged.  The Museum shop sells a wide range of linen and craft goods, as well as books on the history of the industry and the Lisburn area.

For more information visit:

Further reading:

Collins, Brenda (1994) Flax to Fabric: the Story of Irish Linen. Lisburn: Lisburn Borough Council.

Mackey, Brian (2000) Lisburn: the Town and its People 1873-1973. Belfast: Blackstaff.

McCutcheon, William (1984). The industrial archaeology of Northern Ireland. Antrim: Greystone Press.

The Ulster Hall, Belfast

By Ciaran Toal

View of the Ulster Hall from Bedford Street, after refurbishment in 2009.
View of the Ulster Hall from Bedford Street, after refurbishment in 2009.

The Ulster Hall opened in May 1862 on Bedford Street, in the shadow of Belfast’s White Linen Hall – now the City Hall. The architect WJ Barre had beaten forty-one competitors to win the commission, despite his relative youth and inexperience. Barre’s design for the Hall included a simple exterior framed by a modest portico, and the apex of the building supported a coat of arms that included an Irish deer and wolfhound. However, the Ulster Hall Company faced a severe shortage of funds during construction and Barre’s plans for an ‘opulent interior’ were replaced by a single coast of whitewash. Nevertheless, the ornamental was not totally neglected and the windows were adorned by small figurines of shamrocks, harps and other ‘emblems of Erin’.

The Hall was a source of civic celebration, and the ‘pride of the Hall’ was the grand organ, built by William Hill and presented to the city by former mayor Andrew Mulholland. Over 200 performers could entertain 2000 audience members in the ‘airy and dignified’ auditorium. And, in this famous Linen town:

The monotonous hum of the spinning-jenny and the continuous clack of the power-loom can be hushed into silence, in order that the rich and poor, the manufacturer and the sons and daughters of toil, may meet-together beneath the arched roof…to spend there a few short hours of relaxation, pleasure and excitement.

– ‘The Ulster Hall’, Belfast News Letter, May 13th 1862.

Although designed for concerts and ‘grand balls’ the Ulster Hall frequently hosted banquets, itinerant speakers, sports events and exhibitions. For example, Charles Dickens read from A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield in 1869, while the evangelical preachers Moody and Sankey packed the auditorium in the 1870s, and the French actress Sarah Bernhardt thrilled a half-filled Ulster Hall in 1881. In 1909 the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso entertained a large crowd, of mostly Harland and Wolffe shipbuilders, and the Hall hosted regular boxing bouts and dances for American Soldiers in the 1940s.

However more notably, throughout its 150-year history the Hall has been indelibly linked to Ulster’s political struggles. For example, Lord Randolph Churchill used the Hall to rally the Belfast public and members of the Orange Order against Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill in 1886, urging that ‘Ulster will fight; Ulster will be right.’ Similarly, Ulster men and women led a ‘massive demonstration’ objecting to the third Home Rule Bill in the Hall prior to signing – some in their own blood – the Ulster Covenant in 1912. Also, from the 1960s onwards, a number of controversial political and paramilitary rallies were hosted in the Hall. However, what is less known in the Ulster Hall’s history is its role as the site of one of the most prominent encounters of Victorian science and religion – John Tyndall’s infamous ‘Belfast Address’.

Lord Salisbury denouncing the second Home Rule Bill in the Ulster Hall, 1893.
Lord Salisbury denouncing the second Home Rule Bill in the Ulster Hall, 1893. Image available in Public Domain.

Tyndall, the Carlow-born physicist and Royal Institution lecturer was President of the fifty-fourth meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which met in Belfast in mid-September 1874. The Association’s annual presidential addresses were likened to ‘Queen’s speeches’, providing overviews of the year in science, and were eagerly anticipated. Tyndall, however, used his presidential address to deliver what was ‘widely interpreted as perhaps the chief pronouncement of scientific materialism in the nineteenth century’.

Tyndall’s ’s magnificent two-hour address was delivered with ‘evangelical fever’ in a packed Ulster Hall draped in Association scarlet. His argument was complex. Beginning by covering the birth of science in ancient Greece to its decline in the Middle Ages under the influence of Aristotelian thought, Tyndall touched on the struggles of Copernicus and Galileo against the tyranny of the Church. He also celebrated the advances in evolutionary theory and physics, after a brief interlude involving the eighteenth-century theologian Bishop Butler. In the final section of the address Tyndall outlined a ‘higher materialism’ that rejected the simplistic materialism of Democritus, before commenting on the boundaries between science and religion. Few grasped the nuances in Tyndall’s address. What most remembered, however, was his suggestion that all ‘religious theories, schemes and systems which embrace notions of cosmogony … must … submit to the control of science, and relinquish all thought of controlling it.’

John Tyndall, Vanity Fair, 1872
John Tyndall, Vanity Fair, 1872. Image available in Public Domain.

Almost immediately, Tyndall’s ‘speculative materialism’ provoked an outcry. In Belfast, Presbyterian pulpits thundered replies to Tyndall’s ‘materialist manifesto’. The Rev. Robert Watts, whose own paper ‘An Irenicum: Or, a Plea for peace and Co-operation between Science and Theology’ had been refused a hearing at the British Association’s Biology Section, led the charge at his Fisherwick Place Church, close to the Ulster Hall. Similarly, at Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church the Rev. John MacNaughtan attacked both Tyndall’s materialism, and his abuse of the British Association’s presidential chair in making his remarks. Such was the outrage that a whole series of winter lectures were planned to allay the damage done by Tyndall’s ‘frontal assault’ on Christianity. Ireland’s Catholic bishops, too, issued a pastoral letter attacking the blasphemous ‘professors of Materialism’, and there was widespread denunciation of Tyndall in the British periodical press.

Belfast’s Ulster Hall was ‘metaphysically filled with the smell of Brimstone’ by Tyndall’s Address. But more than that, the historian of science Frank Turner has suggested that Tyndall’s address was a catalyst in sparking ‘perhaps the most intense debate of the Victorian conflict of science and religion’.

Further information

For more information on the Ulster Hall see Fisherwick Place Church relocated to the Malone Road in the 1890s, although the site is still occupied by the Presbyterian Church. Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church is in central Belfast.

Further Reading

C Brett, Buildings of Belfast, 1700-1914, Second Edition, Belfast: Friar’s Bush Press, 1985.

Ruth Barton, ‘John Tyndall, Pantheist: A Rereading of the Belfast Address,’ Osiris 3 (1987), pp. 111-134.

Bernard Lightman, ‘Scientists as Materialists in the Periodical Press: Tyndall’s Belfast Address,’ in Geoffrey Cantor and Sally Shuttleworth (eds.), Science Serialized: Representations of the Sciences in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals, Cambridge: MIT Press, (2004), pp. 199-237.

David N. Livingstone, ‘Darwinism and Calvinism: The Belfast-Princeton Connection, ‘ Isis 83, (1992): 408-428.

David N. Livingstone, ‘Darwin in Belfast’, in Nature in Ireland: A Scientific and Cultural History, John Foster (ed.), Dublin: Lilliput Press, pp. 387-408.

Frank Miller Turner, Contesting cultural authority, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (1993): 270.