This is the first in series of blogposts profiling ‘stars’ of the Victorian era aiming to show that people and culture of the past were not so different to those of today. Indeed, in an age before PR and spin, some figures from history were allowed to lead more bizarre, unfiltered lives in public than anyone of the modern era, and Lola Montez (pictured below) was no exception.
Although she later claimed Spanish ancestry (to make her more exotic to Victorian audiences) Lola was Irish-born plain old Eliza Gilbert in the village of Grange, Co. Sligo in 1821, the daughter of a British army officer. When she was still a child, her father was given a posting in India and it was while moving his young family here that he died of cholera. Thus, began several upheavals for Lola: her mother remarried, she was sent to live with the relatives of her stepfather in Scotland and then to boarding school in England. As she grew, it was noted that her behaviour was particularly troublesome for a young lady and at 16 she eloped with a soldier against her parents’ wishes. She soon embarked on a public affair with another man and her marriage ended in scandalous divorce. Ostracised by English society, she changed her name, moved to mainland Europe and embarked on a career as a dancer.
She was renowned for her lack of talent but that did not stop her. Although she had been taught formal dance when at school in England, her dance moves for the stage were largely her own invention. Her signature was the ‘tarantula’ dance, where she mimed being covered in invisible spiders as she shook them from her clothing and stamped on them. It was said that in doing so audiences could see her underwear. In an era when women were supposed to fully cover themselves and have a certain comportment, this dance caused a sensation and crowds flocked to see her.
She had an ‘excessive beauty’ and a fiery temperament and had many affairs - always favouring handsome men - notable conquests included the famous Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and the (not so beautiful, but well connected) author Alexandre Dumas: such contacts opened many doors financially and socially. However, in Paris she was ‘outed’: even though she had affected a heavy accent and wore exotic veils and dresses, her conversational Spanish was actually very poor.
After this she travelled to America with a new young husband, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. He would not be the last: Lola had trouble keeping partners the same way that Spinal Tap would have when trying to keep their drummers, with demises just as unfortunate and mysterious. Montez became a tabloid sensation in America, carrying a horse-whip on stage ready for those who might offend her (one story is that she confronted and whipped a theatre critic who wrote her a bad review).
Next, she toured mining towns in Australia, and was well established as a star at this point. However, many of her shows by now consisted of her appearing on stage, drunk, to shout abuse at audiences - who responded with rapturous applause.
She returned to the United States and began to tour again, but at this juncture she began to be laid low by syphilis. Having turned to religion, she spent her final days living quietly in New York helping other ‘fallen’ women. In the summer of 1860 she had a stroke which caused paralysis, and she later died with her hand resting on a bible. She was aged 39.
There are so many interesting characters in Irish history, but the most interesting are those who decide that the lives mapped out for them at birth are not enough. Lola Montez is one of those non-conformist characters. She was a scandalous celebrity in the mid nineteenth century when there weren’t many stars around. Her lack of talent and tempestuous private life meant that she was an early prototype of the type of celebrity so familiar to us today: famous for being famous.
In the past the production of linen was of major importance to rural communities in Ireland. Most farmers were involved with the trade (be it through growing flax and spinning it) and the rural built environment towns is still marked by defunct mills and linen halls. The logo for the Northern Irish Assembly is made of flax flowers which signifies the importance that linen production had in Ulster. In other regions throughout the country (notably Cork) linen was an important part of the rural economy. In modern times, the introduction of imported, cheaper cotton has seen the demise of the popularity of Irish linen, which today is produced on a lesser scale for luxury markets.
Linen is a natural fabric produced from the flax plant, which has distinctive blue flowers. From prehistory people produced the cloth domestically in Ireland and Irish linen was highly regarded. In the second half of the 18th century, factory production grew and by the 19th, power-driven machinery had become the norm for linen production in Ireland. Farmers supplied the raw or semi processed material to the mills yet many continued to process and weave the product in the traditional way, producing linen cloth as part of a cottage industry.
Below: Bleaching linen on the green: Photograph from the National Library of Ireland.
Growing flax for the linen industry or weaving linen supplemented many an Irish family’s incomes from farming. All the family were involved in the production. Apart from their farming duties, the women and younger children spun the yarn while the men and older sons harvested the flax or worked on their weaving looms (spinning was seen as women’s work and weaving was done by men). Most local trade was carried on by cottage industries, some with up to four looms in their homes. Traditionally, the bulk of the processing work was done on the farm. The rotted stem of the flax was beaten with a wooden mallet, then boiled before being rinsed and spun into a coarse yarn and woven into cloth.
Below: Woman in Co. Down, stitching linen. National Library of Ireland.
Irish linen is renowned for its superior quality. It is a cloth with a complex production process, that is delicately woven and intricately designed. The skills which were handed down over generations by Irish spinners and weavers led to a strength and fineness of the yarns and woven cloth. Irish ‘damask’ is woven from pure flax yarns in a way that shows up delicate patterns through the white cloth. Popular designs included chrysanthemum, shamrock and Celtic patterns. Although much of this was exported for the overseas market, some linen was reserved in Ireland for special occasions such as Station Masses and wakes.
Below: ‘County of Downe: Spinning, Reeling with the Clock Reel, and Boiling the Yarn’: an eighteenth century illustration by William Hincks from a series outlining the various processes involved in linen manufacture.
In the twentieth century mass-produced cotton led to the demise of the vast linen industry in Ireland, the production of linen persisted in some parts of Ireland on this same scale into the mid twentieth century. Irish flax production and linen spinning is no longer undertaken on the scale it was in the past. Some Irish linen continues to be mass produced to a high standard today.
Images below: Luxury Irish linen produced today by Francis M.
Tracing your ancestors? Information on the history of linen is today helping those undertaking research on their Irish ancestors who may have been involved in the industry. In 1796 the Irish Linen Board published a list of nearly 60,000 people involved in the trade. The list shows that spinning wheels and looms were awarded to homes based on the number of acres’ the farmers had planted with flax. The list includes the names and parishes of the farmers. The ‘Flax Growers List, 1796’ is available on-line and is essential reading for those who want to find out more about their Irish ancestors.
Above: Irish linen with Damask pattern by Francis M.