Lace making in the 18th century in Ireland appears to have been very much a local affair. The Dublin Society (now called the Royal Dublin Society) was formed in 1731 to promote agriculture and industry in Ireland with lace making as one of the industries being encouraged. However, it was in the 19th century that lace making, as an industrial art, became a noteworthy trade. With the exception of Limerick Lace, which was a private commercial venture started in 1829, most of the well known Irish laces were developed with a view to alleviating poverty after the devastation of the Great Famines of 1845 to 1847. Lace items produced varied from simple lace handkerchiefs to elaborate wedding dresses in Irish lace and wedding veils for the Royal families of Europe.
The lace makers learnt their trade through the lace schools. There had been lace making on a small scale up to the time of the Great Famine. However, after the famine, formal lessons were started in the convents. Convents were not the only places where lace schools were set up. In Co. Monaghan, in the area where Carrickmacross Lace comes from, the Bath and Shirley estates provided the buildings for lace schools. All these schools taught both girls and women how to make lace. In different schools different styles of lace evolved.
The further expansion of lace making in the 1880’s was influenced by a few different occurrences. By the 1880’s it was felt the quality of design of Irish lace had become outdated. The perception was that Irish lace needed to be above average, if it was to compete with the machine laces. To remedy this, James Brenan, the headmaster of the Crawford Municipal School of Art in Cork, introduced lace making and lace design courses to his school. He also recruited the help of Alan Cole of the Department of Science and Art, Kensington, London to do a lecture tour around Ireland, advising the local lace making schools on good design. Irish Crochet Lace, along with the other the laces, benefitted from this emphasis on design in lace. One example of this is where the pico stiches from tatting lace were introduced to Irish crochet designs. This is particularly evident in Clones Lace.
This emphasis on lace design coincided with the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Celtic Revival where craftsmanship was being promoted worldwide. The Congested Districts Board was also established around this time (1891) to alleviate poverty and promote industry in rural areas so this also assisted in the setting up of lace making schools.
As a result of these events, lace making flourished from 1886 to about 1914, and was distributed through agents and distributors such as the Irish Industries Association, which was set up by Lady Aberdeen in 1886. The Irish Industries Association promoted Irish crafts at industrial fairs all around the world, one of the most famous of which was probably the Chicago World Fair in 1893 . The decline in the demand for Irish lace was mainly due to changing fashion, but also society itself changed and women were more able to find work outside the home at better wages. Lace making in Ireland is, for the most part now, a recreational activity, with the exception of a few small enterprises where it is sold more as artwork than for fashion or household purposes. However, it is still possible to commission wedding veils and communion veils in Carrickmacross lace if you plan well in advance.