The Importance of being Alice and Ernest - Donegal Industrial Fund

black and white image of kells embroidery

The Donegal Industrial fund came at a crucial time when Donegal was suffering great hardships, both personal and economic, brought by the Famine. Upon a visit to Donegal in 1883, Alice Hart and her husband Ernest set up a Donegal Famine Fund having witnessed the severe hardship that the county had suffered following a series of bad harvests. These bad harvests had a severe impact on the economic development of the county. The Famine Fund was designed to deal with immediate financial concerns that communities in the county had and provide seed for the next harvest.

When the Famine Fund had dealt with the immediate financial distress of the county, Alice then explored the idea of reviving the cottage industries as a possible short-term solution to the economic distress of the county, creating the Donegal Industrial Fund. In particular she felt that the once thriving weaving industry could be revived.

Sending samples of designs across to Britain, Hart secured sales to the London market, some in stores as big as Debenhams. By December 1883 the Donegal Industrial Fund had its own business. It started operating in 1884 showing its woven tweeds from Donegal at the Health Exhibition in London, another success. Following this, Alice opened a shop on New Cavendish Street in London to sell the products from a firm economic base.

Alice sent tweeds and cloth from Scotland over to Donegal to use as a template. While these were imitated successfully, the task was not without its obstacles. Those involved in the project in Donegal found learning new methods difficult for a number of reasons. Their looms were old fashioned, as were their methods of working. A few woman involved knew something about the use of ‘shop dyes’ but they knew nothing of the dyes that might be yielded from the lichens and heather of their own locality. Alice took a personal interest in this method and she personally experimented with the dying properties of the wild plants of Donegal: the heathers, mosses, roots and leaves, as well as soot and bog-ore. The hosiery made in Donegal and dyed with these dyes won the medal of the Sanitary Institute of Great Britain for 'inocuous vegetable dying'.

Convinced that the organisation could be developed all over Ireland to help the country’s economic landscape, Alice extended the fund's activities. She wrote a letter, which appeared in thirty Irish newspapers, asking for the assistance and co-operation of women in Ireland to help in co-ordinating and developing embroidery for the peasantry. The appeal resulted in the creation of a number of agencies and classes were established to carry out a new kind of embroidery, called 'Kells Embroidery'. Designs were taken from early Irish manuscripts, and worked on linen with dyed and polished threads of flax. In 1885 'Kells Embroidery' won the gold medal at the Inventions Exhibition in London. The work was exhibited at Edinburgh, Liverpool, Paris, Dublin, Chicago and Olympia, where a model Donegal Industrial Village was built!

The venture, though initially a resounding success, sadly lacked the motivation to survive after the Harts retired in 1896.