Rathbarry Sprigging School

During a recent visit to West Cork, I found a tourist brochure in our hotel that featured the Sprigging School in Rathbarry. Sprigging is a form of lace that derives its name from the fact that the motifs are shaped like a leafy sprig. With my curiosity piqued, I set out to discover the quaint little building that once housed the lace school. 

The Sprigging School was established on the Castlefreke Estate by Lady Carbery in 1825, and is accessed via a bridge over a small stream. Now a one-roomed building, it was originally divided in two to include a domestic space for the live-in teacher, who slept on a settle bed in the kitchen. The teacher also kept ducks and hens, and they too slept in the school at night. An information panel in the building tells the humorous story of a visit that Lady Carbery paid to the school, during which she was so displeased by the mess created by the teacher's poultry that she reported her to the local magistrate! When brought before the judge, the teacher defended herself by saying:

Your Honour,
I've made lace for Lord Donoughmore,
For Ladies and Gentlemen
Over a score.
Then or never before
Was the charge of uncleanliness
Laid at my door.

The judge dismissed the case.


The cost of attending the school was five shillings per term. In turn, the skills acquired here provided local women with a valuable means of earning an income and sustaining their families throughout the Great Famine. 


Sprigging, a type of white embroidery worked on fine white linen, was generally used to create collars and handkerchiefs, babies' bonnets and christening robes, as well as table linens. Typical motifs incude daisies and shamrocks. Stems and buttonholes would be worked in satin thread, and the edge could be embroidered or crocheted. It is similar in style to Ayrshire Whitework, and was often marketed and sold as such abroad. Documents of the time claim that the Irish work actually outsold its Scottish counterpart. 

The finest known work associated with the school is the Rathbarry Dress, a stunningly intricate white garment that featured in a an exhibition in the Crawford Gallery entitled "Made in Cork: The Arts and Crafts Movement 1880's–1920's". The dress was purchased in England by Cork-based Irish Lace expert, Veronica Stuart, and she brought the dress to Headford with her as part of the talk she gave here on Culture Night. 


An article by Brian Moore for the The Southern Star newspaper quotes Veronica as saying that the "dress is the equivalent of a commissioned designer, haute couture, creation today. The dress would have taken hundreds of hours to make but, unlike a wedding dress or a piece made for a special occasion, this dress would have been worn, maybe not everyday. However, it would not have been left in the wardrobe only to be admired on a hanger. It would have been worn perhaps for afternoon tea every now and again."

180422 museum82

180422 museum84

When the school building fell into disuse, Lady Carbery offered it to a local homeless man. According to Jo Kerrigan, author of Old Ways, Old Secrets, the man refused on the grounds that the building had been erected across a fairy path, and therefore would surely bring bad luck to anyone who lived there!

In 2000, the Rathbarry Tidy Towns Committee undertook the restoration of the building using traditional methods, for which they received a major award in the Green Town 2000 competition.