Stunning lace dress may have origins in Castlefreke school

February 26th, 2017 6:20 PM

By Southern Star Team

The stunning ‘Rathbarry' lace dress which is currently on display at the Crawford gallery in Cork. (Photo: Philip Joyce)

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A DISPLAY of delicate lace work, which is attracting quite a bit of attention at the Crawford Art Gallery, has uncovered a mystery that needs help from the people of West Cork to solve.

These examples of elegant lacework include garments collected from across the country, all of which can be identified by the lace maker’s style, which is recorded with the piece. 

With these unique and individual styles, the curators of the exhibition can also establish where the beautifully designed, handcrafted pieces were made. 

However, one garment – an exquisitely handmade lace dress, known as the ‘Rathbarry Dress’ – has left the curators at the gallery somewhat perplexed as to the origins of this amazing example of West Cork’s lacemaking history.

‘The dress was undoubtedly made somewhere in the South West,’ Veronica Stuart of the Traditional Lace Makers of Ireland told The Southern Star. ‘We know that the lace style rules out Youghal, a major town for lace making, and this would suggest that the dress could have been designed and made at the ‘Sprigging School’ at Rathbarry on the Castlefreke Estate outside Rosscarbery.’

The ‘Sprigging School’ was established at the Castlefreke Estate by Lady Carbery in 1825 as a worldwide revival of the art of lace making was underway. The school’s name comes from the particular lace design associated with the area, which is shaped like a spray or a sprig.

‘Of course, we can’t be certain that the dress was made in Rathbarry,’ Veronica said. ‘But all the evidence points in that direction.’ Veronica bought the dress in England just a few months ago. ‘This dress is the equivalent of a commissioned designer, haute couture, creation today. The dress would have taken hundreds of hours to make but, unlike a wedding dress or a piece made for a special occasion, this dress would have been worn, maybe not everyday. However, it would not have been left in the wardrobe only to be admired on a hanger. It would have been worn perhaps for afternoon tea every now and again,’ Veronica said.

The Rathbarry Dress, along with other examples of the Irish lace making tradition, has already gained an international reputation, after being exhibited at the McMullen Museum of Art in Boston. ‘We would love to know more about the origins of the dress and perhaps who the lace maker was or who the dress was made for,’ Veronica said. ‘The Traditional Lace Makers of Ireland are working hard to ensure that these incredibly beautiful lace designs are remembered and cared for, for future generations, and we meet every month at the Quality Hotel in Clonakilty. 

According to Philip Joyce from Ring near Clonakilty, who spotted the dress in the Crawford recently, which sparked his memory of Rathbarry’s dressmaking history: ‘The Sprigging School was a small roadside house on the lower road behind Rathbarry Church which is still used. Then it was on the Castlefreke estate. I have also been told by a local resident that Lady Carbery would have taken some of her household staff down to this cottage for instruction in like crafts.’

The exhibition at the Crawford Gallery in Cork runs until February 25th and for more details about the Traditional Lace Makers, see

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