Originally a museum focusing on the local history of Lisburn and the Lagan Valley, the museum expanded in 1994 with the opening of the Irish Linen Centre. 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.
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.
The visitor can trace the history of Irish Linen in their award-winning ‘Flax to Fabric’ exhibition. See finely-woven Egyptian linen, explore the history of flax production in Europe, or admire the long saffron-dyed tunics of the Irish nobleman. Visitors can also travel back in time and walk under the arches of Lisburn’s historic 17th-century Market House, where local cottage weavers brought their cloth to sell. Learn how flax was grown and prepared, and watch expert spinners turn coarse flax into fine yarn. Visitors can try the spinning wheel for themselves! Travel through the spinner’s cottage, and see how the whole family was involved in producing linen. Irish linen was famous worldwide, and visitors can admire fine samples of Coulson’s damask, or dresses by Sybil Connolly, one of Ireland’s leading clothes designer. Her work was worn by Jackie Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth II.
In the ‘Weaving Workshop’ see live demonstrations of the hand loom, chat to our expert weavers, or witness the innovate Jacquard loom weave intricate damask. Finally, get a taste of the highs and lows of industrial life on the ‘Factory Floor’. Complete your visit by browsing the Museum Shop, which sells a wide range of linen and craft goods, as well as books on the history of the linen industry and the Lisburn area.Tours of ‘Flax to Fabric’ can be booked through Reception.
Linen is woven from flax (Linum usitatissimum), which comes from the Linacea family, and is one of the oldest textiles in the world. Records show the use of flax as a textile in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) during the Neolithic period (from 10,000 B.C. to 4000BC or so), and flax (seeds) and linen cloth were used by the ancient Egyptians. Ancient Egyptian Linen Irish Linen Centre The history of Irish Linen and Flax Famously, Tutankhamun (c.1300BC) who ruled over the 18th Dynasty, had his chest cavity hollowed, and rolls of linen were inserted. The status Egyptian linen conferred upon its wearer is evident in the Bible. For example, Genesis v.41-42, which scholars believe was written around 500 B.C., records that the "Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck." St Matthew’s Gospel records that Jesus’ body was wrapped in a linen shroud after the crucifixion.
It is difficult to date the first cultivation of flax in Ireland, although the annals of the early Christian period depict the saints wearing long linen tunics. By the 11th century flax was being cultivated in Ireland and linen used for clothing. From this period, up until the 17th century, linen was woven on narrow looms. This cloth was known as bandle linen. During the reign of Henry III Irish linen was used in Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, England, and throughout the 14th and 15th centuries there was a growing trade in Irish linen yarn. In the Flax to Fabric exhibition they have a model of a 16th-century Irish nobleman. The tunics, or leines, were dyed yellow using saffron (a dye made from the dried stigmas of the autumn crocus), originally introduced in the 10-12th centuries. The yellow colour was traditional, and used as a status symbol. In fact, Henry VIII introduced legislation to the Dublin Parliament in the 1530s to ban the colour and limit the length of Irish leines.
The Irish linen industry, as we know it today, owes its origins to the late 17th century. The Huguenots were important. They arrived in Ireland following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and many settled in Lisburn. They brought their skills in weaving and finishing linen. Louis Crommelin (1652-1727), who established a weaving factory at Bridge Street, Lisburn is perhaps the most famous. He was appointed ‘Overseer of the Royal Linen Manufacture of Ireland in 1699, and is popularly known as the ‘founder’ of the Irish linen industry. Yet more important than the Huguenots, perhaps, was an influential of northern English Quakers, who arrived in the Lagan Valley in the 1670s and 1680s, as well as the patronage of Lisburn’s landlord Lord Conway and his agent George Rawdon. In Ireland flax was usually sown in May and then pulled in August. Flax grows best in fertile, weed-free soil, but can flourish in most environments, with the exception of clay or sandy soils. Both climate and soil type play an important role in the quality of the fibre. In Ireland flax is colloquially known as the ‘wee blue blossom’, given the flax flower’s pale blue colour.
Lisburn Museum is well-placed to accommodate coaches and coach trips. They offer FREE guided tours of the area, and FREE workshops covering weaving and spinning, or programmes tailored to your group’s needs. They are easy to get to, just off the motorway between Belfast and Dublin. Drivers can drop tour groups off at the south side of the Museum, and park for free at the nearby Island Civic Centre or the Lagan Valley Leisureplex. The town has a fantastic selection of cafés and restaurants, serving great local food. There is full disabled access throughout the building. Car parking for disabled badge holders is available on the north side of the building, outside Shannon’s and as far down as Boots. Staff have been trained in sign language and blind awareness. An induction loop is fitted throughout the building. A guide to Flax to Fabric is available in Braille. The exhibition text panels of Flax to Fabric are available in French, German and Italian. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum, Market Square, Lisburn, BT28 1AG
Transport: Lisburn (NI Rail) then 5 minutes. Bus Routes : 22, 24b, 25b, 26, 38a, 325b, 524, 525 and 530 stop nearby.
Opening Times : Monday to Saturday, 09:30 to 17:00
Tickets : Free, donations welcomed.
Tel: 028 9266 3377