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The Long Lost Linen Industry of Dingle

While no one would have described Dingle as an industrial town at any point in history, from 1755 to 1837, it was home to a thriving linen trade worth £60,000 annually – which went a lot further then than it does now.

Dingle has a history as dramatic as its jaw-dropping scenery. Although it was a major port town in the thirteenth and fourteen centuries known for both exporting and importing a huge volume of goods, things went downhill over time. The town was plundered, razed and burned repeatedly during the Desmond Rebellion (1574 to 1583), the Nine Year’s War, aka Tyrone’s Rebellion (1594 to 1603), and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639 to 1651). Nearly a century of violence and mayhem took an obvious toll on the town, yet people did not give up. Maybe it was the beauty of the landscape or the innate determined optimism of the local people, but they carried on rebuilding and hoping.

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Dingle sensibly enough became a walled town, the only one ever in County Kerry. Parts of these town walls can still be seen in the town. In the mid-1700s, Robert Fitzgerald began importing flax seed and established the town’s linen industry. He was not exactly a random entrepreneur. The Fitzgeralds were knights of Kerry and founders of the town. They had been involved in developing it as a port centuries earlier. Robert was the 17th Knight of Kerry, an MP, a barrister, a Judge of the Admiralty Court and a hugely popular figure with close connections to Dublin, London and Paris.

Fitzgerald reportedly shared out the flax seed he brought to the town very generously, and the linen trade took off with speed. People were apparently eager to see their long-suffering town thrive again as it once had. The port began to see more business as well, not only with the import of flax seed. The Linen Board gave a grant, and for forty years, linen reined and helped the town rebuild itself.

It was a brief but glorious period, cut short by the arrival of cotton. Linen could not compete with the new fabric on the block, and just as quickly as it began, the linen boom ended. By 1837, it had been nearly completely wiped out. Less than a decade later, the Great Famine laid waste to Dingle. By 1852, more than 6,000 Dingle people were living or working in the newly built work house and glory days of the linen boom were a distant memory.