The Irish Linen Industry
By the outbreak of the First War of the Worlds in 1914, Belfast, Ireland was the biggest linen producing centre in the world.
The number of spindles in operation rose by 5% between 1905-13 and the number of power looms producing linen by 18%. Several new Irish linen factories were built in Dunmurry, Donegal and Victoria. The immediate future looked bright and prosperous with the government demand for Irish linen as a war material: Irish linen was in use in kit bags, tents and even aeroplanes. The linen industry added considerably to the wealth and development of the city. Without it Belfast would have remained a market town and port in the north of Ireland.
European competitors in the linen industry impinged on Belfast markets. The linen owners and managers worried about the fluctuating economy of the industry while their workers were faced with more personal concerns: coping with the detrimental effects of linen work on their health and staving off poverty. Most of the workers were women and children. Women did the same, skilled work as men but earned only half of the amount paid to men. Children between the age of 12-14 provided another source of cheap labour. These children were half-timers, who spent one half of the week in the factory and the other half at school. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a mill worker in Ireland spent 55 hours a week at work. By 1916, the Irish working day began at 6 am and finished at 6 pm while on Saturday, the working day lasted 5 hours. Sometimes Irish linen mill owners brought their workers back in to the mills in the evenings and on Sundays. Although this practice was illegal, the legislation was inadequate and employers were not penalised for the offence.
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