An exact date for the first production of linen in Ireland is not known however, 8th and 9th century legends and early Christian manuscripts refer to linen. By the 11th century, flax—the flowering plant that linen is made from—was being cultivated in Ireland.
Government support of the linen industry led to its growth in Northern Ireland throughout the 17th century, when the expansion of the linen industry was used to attract new settlers from England and Scotland.
By the 19th century, a third of the flax spinning mills, producing over half of the linen output for all of Ireland, were located in the Belfast area. Outside Belfast the industry was concentrated in the region between the River Lagan and River Bann. As the fame and reputation of Irish linen flourished, this area of Northern Ireland became known as the Linen Homelands.
Linen led to the building of impressive red brick mills, some of which are still in use today for other endeavours.
Conway Mill in the west of Belfast houses a linen museum, as well as gallery space for exhibitions. The Owen O’Cork Mills in the east of Belfast, is home to Bloomfield Auction House - a great spot for bargain hunters. The Linen Green at Moygashel is now an upmarket shopping complex. Most of our linen worker ancestors lived within walking distance of the mills, often in houses built by the mill and factory owners. The names of roads in many Northern Irish towns often reflect this: Linen Hall Street, Weavers Row, Mill Street.
Unfortunately, the industry declined in the 20th century with the introduction of cotton and synthetic fibres, however visitors today can learn about the industry at the Irish Linen Centre in Lisburn or take a tour of Ferguson’s of Banbridge , Co Down, one of the oldest names in Irish Linen and famed for being the only company in the world to produce double damask.
Did you know?
Belfast was fondly known as 'Linenopolis' due to its thriving linen industry.