Pomp and Poverty: A History of Silk in Ireland


Mairead Dunlevy

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2011, Yale University Press,                                                                                                     271 pages

Lustrous, warm, lightweight, strong, silk has always been a symbol of wealth and status, beginning in prehistoric China. In Pomp and Poverty: A History of Silk in Ireland, Mairead Dunlevy unfolds a colourful tale. She introduces us to the merchants or 'silk men' who traded in silk, oversaw its production and invested in machinery and design; the weavers and dyers who created luxury under exploitative conditions for miserable wages; the gentlefolk and aristocracy who indulged in this expensive fabric as a signifier of wealth and taste. Irish legend credits 17th century French Huguenots with introducing the industry, but this book reveals that silk was woven in Ireland long before that, possibly from the tenth century. Dunlevy also details the development of poplin, a uniquely Irish silk product found in every royal court of 19th century Europe.

The late Mairead Dunlevy was Keeper of Art and Industry at the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, and Director of the Hunt Museum, Limerick. She was the author of Dress in Ireland, and an authority on social customs in Ireland and on Irish glass and silver.