Lace in Poetic Rhythms, Rhymes, Poems and Songs

'Tells’ were rhymes used by lacemakers. They helped to pass the time and gave an escape from the tedious nature of lacemaking work. Singing or chanting together united the lacemakers and strengthened friendships. We now know that singing has a positive effect on wellbeing. A collaboration between Headford Lace Project (HLP) and local folk group The Whileaways resulted in a song, entitled ‘Toss the Bobbin’. This was funded by Galway County Council Community Supports Grant 2019. It tells the story of local lacemakers who were almost forgotten in time. This song was selected and arranged by Oisin Walsh Peelo and recorded with the National Concert Orchestra late last year, you can listen to it here. The Headford lacemakers are now immortalised in song.

“Toss the bobbin and round the pin, these hands will work to feed our kin,
Toss the bobbin and round the pin, steady moving as I sing”

The rhymes also helped young lacemakers to count pins and to increase the pace at which they worked, in order to foster competitiveness. Their proficiency was estimated by the number of pins placed in an hour:

“20 miles I have to go,
19 miles I have to go,
 18 miles I have to go”Wright T; The Romance of the Lace Pillow, A new edition with notes, Ruth Bean, Carlton Bedford, 1982, p.179.

Lace schools were harsh places for young children; child labour was common then with children entering the school aged as young as six. Strict discipline and corporal punishment were common. This Tell comes from the lace schools of Renhold and paints a vivid picture:

“Needle pin, needle pin, stitch upon stitch,
Work the old lady out of the ditch,
If she is not out as soon as I,
A rap on the knuckles shall come by and by,
A horse to carry my lady about-
Must not look off till twenty are out.”Ibid p.190.

This Tell was recorded in Olney and gives an understanding of the pace of work required by the mistress of the Lace School:

“Nineteen long miles hang over my door,
The faster I work it’ll shorten my score;
The more I do Play, It sticks at a stay-
So come, little fingers, Let’s think away.
There’s twinkum and twankum, and five to your four;
Them as are done first, they may give o’er:
My shoes are to borrow, my true love’s to seek,
I cannot get married till after next week.”Freeman C; Pillow Lace in the East Midlands, The Borough of Luton, Reprinted 1980, p19.

A collaboration between HLP, local drumming group Drumadore and Claran Theatre lead to a contemporary rhythmical and theatrical interpretation of bobbin lacemaking. This was funded by Galway County Council Creative Ireland Bursary 2020. An old Tell was incorporated into the sequence and demonstrates how the pace of work and chanting the rhyme increased in parallel. You can watch the video here.

Our research to date has not uncovered any specific Tells local to the Headford area. Were some lost when Irish was no longer spoken? Were they replaced with English ones? However, we are fortunate to have historical records, which reveal descriptions of chanting and singing while lacemaking. The Illustrated Record & Descriptive Catalogue of the Dublin International Exhibition of 1865 recounts that:

“During autumn of the year 1845 the writer noted “It was like a hive of bees in the summer, full of joy and activity, and the hum and noise of industry. At some of the cottage doors were groups of neatly-dressed young girls, seated on low stools, their lace pillows on their laps; and, while their fingers moved rapidly through the maze of bobbins, their voices filled the air, if not with melody, at least with heart music.”Parkinson, Henry & Lund Simmonds, Peter [Eds] (1866) ‘The Illustrated Record & Descriptive Catalogue of the Dublin International Exhibition of 1865’. London: E and F.N. Spon, p.273.

Another beautiful description by a visitor to Headford in 1861, depicted:

“an exceedingly well-ordered little town, where we certainly came up with both lore and lay, the latter being chanted by the neat peasant girls that sat at the doors lace-making, while the lessons in the art we for the first time received was lore of a kind so entertaining; we were very glad to be allowed to purchase from their after hour’s manufacture of the very pretty cushion lace to make presents of in our own less industrious part of Ireland, where Cowper’s appropriate lines would always remind us pleasantly of our entrance into Headford, where sits the...

“Cottager, who weaves at her own door,
Pillow and bobbins all her little store,
Content though poor and cheerful, if not gay,
Shuffling her threads about live-long day,
Just earns a pittance and at night
Lie down secure, her heart and pocket light.” William Cowper (1731-1800)Anonymous (1861) Ierne: ‘Or, Anecdotes and Incidents During a Life Chiefly in Ireland’ by a retired Civil Engineer: London: Partridge and Co., p.222.

Lady Aberdeen was dedicated to the promotion of Irish lace. After her husband became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, she moved to Dublin and immediately began to organise Irish home industries to show at various international exhibitions. She established an Irish Industries Association and purchased the Lace Depot, the main distributor of Irish lace internationally. She organised the Lace Ball at Dublin Castle in the Spring of 1907. Guests were required to wear only laces of Irish manufacture.

There was a huge disparity between the poorly paid lacemakers and the affluent classes who wore lace. In 1835, Headford landlord Richard James Mansergh St. George said that “lace making prevails in the town; it is a poor trade.” It is clear that this was hard work with little reward and conditions for lacemakers did not improve with time. Yet vast sums of money were spent on lace, it was a valuable commodity but it was not reflected in the earnings of the lacemakers. Lady Aberdeen set up the Women’s National Health Association (WNHA) in 1907. This was a voluntary charitable association whose aim was to improve maternity and child welfare as well as to assist in the fight against tuberculosis in Ireland.

For coronation of Queen Mary Lady Aberdeen organised a gown of fine Irish poplin to be paid from contributions by all Her Majesty’s namesakes, i.e. Marys. This “loyal gesture” sparked outrage among the impoverished lacemakers and their sentiments are clear in the following anonymous ballad.

“To the Mary’s of Ireland.
O, Mary dear, and did you hear our queen is to be crowned?
And to help her buy a hobble skirt the hat is going round.
‘Twill be of Irish poplin, trimmed with disinfected lace,
To show how warmly and how well she loves the Irish race!

O, I met with Lady Microbe, and she took me by the hand,
And says she, “We want to compliment the Marys of your land;
Our gracious queen is Mary, too. and she is pleased to say
She’ll take a tiny gift from them on Coronation Day!”

O Mary dear, you needn’t fear your penny or your crown
Will bear disease across the seas to healthy London town;
‘Twill be surely disinfected, pasteurised, and washed with care,
To banish all the poison of the tainted air!
Mary darling! do not listen to the vile, disloyal few, for sure it isn’t true
She’ll murmur “Chawming Emerald Isle! so generous and so green
Its Marys go in rags themselves to decorate the queen.”Keane M; Ishbel: Lady Aberdeen in Ireland. Newtownards, NI: Colourprint, 1999, p.168-169.

One wonders what a modern day Tell would sound like, what messages would it convey? Creative people still struggle to make ends meet with many hours of toil and little reward. What would be said today? Have things really changed all that much?