Heritage from your Armchair - A Look at Linen

Welcome to our second blog entry about online heritage you can access from home. If you missed our first entry, we explored the on-line offerings from National Museums NI and the Linen Hall Library. If you did have a look at their collections, it is worth visiting them again as all our local museums and heritage centres are working hard to make more of their collections available on-line while their buildings are closed. Don't forget if you have something you would like to share as a guest writer on our blog or you have found something interesting you would like to share, get in touch lisacurrie@eastsidepartnership.com  

I was planning on focussing on another couple of museums for this entry, but this time I am just going to look at one because they have such a great selection of online content and it is only a short drive from east Belfast. Hopefully this will pique your interest enough to give the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum a visit once they are open again.


View of Owen O'Cork Mill late 1980s courtesy of East Belfast Historical Society.

One of the reasons I was drawn to explore this museum was because the linen industry played a massive part in east Belfast’s past. Some of my own family worked as hand-loom weavers in the 1860s in the cottage industry just off Dee Street. Both Owen O’Cork Mill on the Beersbridge Road and the Strand Spinning Company (now Portview Trade Centre) had substantial periods of being flax mills and employed 1000s of local people, mostly women, to produce linen to be sent all over the world. So why not take the time to learn your weft from your weave and your flax from your hackle?

Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum

Lisburn Museum is housed in the modified Market House in Market Square, Lisburn. It is a lovely old building dating from the late seventeenth century and has been extended and modernised to house the stories of Linen in Ireland and the development of Lisburn. In my opinion their presence online does an equally nice job of blending the old with the new, this time using modern technology to tell a story spanning several hundred years.


Image courtesy of ILM&LM

There are several ways of interacting with Lisburn Museum online. The most obvious is through their website. There are two sections of the website that grabbed my attention: Virtual Museum and Media. The team at Lisburn had begun to create digital content shortly before Covid 19 and have a plan to increase and promote their collections this way during the museum’s closure and beyond.

In the Virtual Museum there are several links to follow. There is a mixture of video and insights into objects from their collections. One video shows how flax is processed, it is presented by Valerie, one of the Gallery Assistants and I enjoyed her down to earth style and her passion for the story she is telling.


Image courtesy of ILC&LM

One of the first objects they feature is a watercolour of the Robinson and Cleaver warehouse in 1888-89, not only does it ‘capture the glamour and wealth of the linen industry in the later 19th century’ but it also features a great deal of fun in the details.

In the Media section there is a selection of videos of events and talks that have happened at the museum. One of them features a good friend of EastSide Partnership, Philip Orr. Philip along with Dr Fearghal McGarry from Queen’s University both gave talks on Commemoration of 1916 focussing on the Somme and the Easter Rising. These are quite scholarly talks, so might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it is a fascinating exploration of what and why we remember from the past and how that shapes our identities today.

Yet another way to engage with the museum’s collections online is through Google Arts and Culture. To my shame I never even knew that this was ‘a thing’. However, Lisburn Museum seems to be currently the only institution in Northern Ireland to be using it in this way. If you have the time and the inclination it is possible to explore some of the collections all around the world through this medium.

There are three Lisburn exhibitions online to explore. The Story of Irish Linen, Fashion through the Ages and an overview of the museum itself. The photography is lovely and is interspersed with just enough interpretation. I also appreciated the short videos showing how various spinning and weaving machines worked.


Image courtesy of ILC&LM

My favourite object was found in the fashion exhibition. It is a Linen Saleswoman’s attaché case from 1920. It was owned by a saleswoman who travelled around America visiting clients on behalf of Old Bleach Linen Co, in Randalstown. This really surprised me as I had little idea that a woman could have had such a relatively adventurous job in the 1920s involving far-flung travel.

For the kids… On offer so far is a craft activity on how to weave at home (I might try this myself, looks fun!) and a colouring template on the virtual museum for children to enjoy. More will be added over time.

Finally if you are interested in finding out more about the linen industry and the conditions that people from east Belfast might have worked in, there is a fantastic free online course run by futurelearn called Working Lives in the Factories and Mills: Textile History and Heritage. It is free to sign up to, you can access it at any time but if you access it when it ‘is live’ you can learn alongside other people, interact with tutors and other learners.


By Lisa Rea Currie

Heritage Officer, EastSide Partnership

Visit Our Other Sites

EastSide Arts

EastSide Greenways

EastSide Learning