Clara’s engagement with the textile industry may go back 100 years before the Goodbody jute factory. As one of the smaller towns and villages in the county places such as Clara, Ferbane, Kilcormac and Shinrone are less clearly associated with the early plantations by contrast with Daingean, Tullamore and Birr. Clara was prosperous in the 1770s and from the weakening of textiles in the 1820s must have suffered a good deal until the hand loom business progressed after the mid-1850s and the jute factory from the mid-1860s.The Goodbody firm continued as a prosperous concern for another hundred years. Clara was the only town in Offaly to see expansion of its population in the second half of the nineteenth century. And so in the economic cycle it may be that the post 1820s to the 1860s were lean years as has been the period since the 1970s. These are generalisations and will need to be revised in the context of detailed research on Clara businesses, employment, housing and infrastructure.
The linen industry grew rapidly in the mid-eighteenth and nowhere so much as in King’s County in the 1750s and by 1760 when it was worth £60,000 a year. It appears to have been carried on in King’s County on a much larger scale than in Westmeath where linen cloth sales were worth £40,000 in 1770. Only in Louth and Dublin, outside of Ulster, did linen sales exceed the King’s County figure. Following his tour of King’s County in 1762 Stephenson, a linen board inspector, wrote:
There has been considerable business done in this county within the last season and the increase greatly exceeded what could have been expected. In four bleach-yards at Clara belonging to Mr. John Holmes, Richard Holmes, Messrs. Andrew and George Armstrong, and Widow Clibborn, &c. it is computed that £50,000 value and upwards of 9/8 sheetings and dowlass have been bleached yearly these two years past; a quantity exceeding any four bleach-yards in the Kingdom. In the other parts of this county, from Tullamore to Shannonbridge, Birr and the extreme parts of it round Edenderry, there are beginning small factories, that will with a little care make the manufacture spread through the whole county.
Clara was now the centre of the industry in the county and probably one of the foremost linen manufacturing towns in the south. The trend towards concentration in the Clara area had originated in the 1760s, if not earlier, probably because of the Brosna river water supply and the mill power available. Arthur Young had noted the situation in 1777: ‘Very little flax. There are a few bleach yards about Clara, &c., but the business is not much on the increase.’ Vallancey’s comments of 1771 and six years before Young were more striking:
The village of Clara contains about 200 well built houses, a large flour mill, a good bleach yard, and a buck house at a convenient distance, all which is the happy effect of the industrious spirit of the landlord [Andrew Armstrong of Clara House] who with an ample fortune does not disdain to enter into trade, as well for the increase of his own fortune, as for the sake of affording a comfortable livelihood to his tenants. Six years ago  there was but one poor house in this village, and that a sorry inn: He has now brought together in this neighbourhood as many linen weavers as keep 600 looms at work. The yarn is bought up chiefly in Connaught, the ashes, and other heavy articles for bleaching, come from Dublin by land carriage, which (if the proposed navigation was finished) would be brought by water to Ballycumber on the Brosna River, on which this village situated. There is also a large hat manufactory established here, for the use of the army. The arable ground is much reduced in this part of late: they buy most of the wheat for their mills at Athlone, fourteen miles distant, and that town is also the market for their flour. The poor in this part of the kingdom are all employed; there are no beggars to be seen in this county, but at Philipstown.
When Stephenson visited the county in 1763 he made similar favourable comments about Clara. In regard to Tullamore it was stated that ‘The business of Mr. Laurent……. is continued in the same extensive manner, and there are several very considerable manufacturers raised within these few years in the town and its vicinity.’
Clara was still the centre of the industry in the county as is clear from the Arbuthnot report. Indeed Arbuthnot went on to organise a meeting of the trade in Clara so that he might hear concerns and lay them before the Linen Board.
D.A. Beaufort described Clara in 1788 as an extensive thriving village with several good houses and went on to say that great linen weaving and bleaching was done about the town and in Ballycumber, some three miles distant. In 1801 Edward Clibborn of Moate employed for some four years previously some 100 to 150 persons in the linen manufacture. Charles Coote, writing in 1880–1, noted that the baronies of Garrycastle and Kilcoursey (where Clara is situated) ‘are well inclined to manufacture; in other parts [of King’s County] the women are mostly idle and slothful, and scarce at all assist in making up the rent, except in harvest time.’ In Garrycastle the people preferred the linen manufacture to agriculture and farms were small. The linen manufacture was predominantly on the eastern side of the barony. Prominent in the industry were Thomas Mulock who had set about building a village near Bellair of some fifty houses for linen manufacture. Nearby Mr Thomas Lowe had built a bleach mill and established a bleach yard. Also in the neighbourhood was Mr Holmes who was strong in the business until the 1798 rebellion and intended resuming manufacturing activities. Coote noted that while Banagher was a good town its linen business was inconsiderable. The linen business may explain the survival of so many fine houses north west of Clara and in the vicinity of Ballycumber.
Coote in his review of the county, published in 1801, laid emphasis on the need for a linen hall in Clara as a proper place for the manufacturers to bring their linen for sale. The pedling trade as practiced in alehouses led to trickery and unfair dealing. The barony was well populated probably because of the linen manufacture. The women and children were all spinners and disposed to industry. In fact ‘every peasant is more or less concerned in it, and follows it with much greater avididy than tillage.’ So well known were the exertions of the women folk in providing additional income for the family that it was common ‘for an industrious young man, to seek a wife in this country.’ One casualty was the Irish language both of which were spoken but Irish was on the decline with the growth of manufacture. As to the linen industry there were several manufacturers in the Kilcoursey barony
who keep looms at work, but they also buy all the grey webs that are offered for sale, which they bleach, and their greens are well covered. So devoted to this manufacture, are the very labouring peasants, that every one of them has annually one or two pieces of linen to dispose of. There are also several manufacturers, who keep looms employed, but do not bleach. Mr Holmes of Prospect, and Mr Armstrong of Belview are the most extensive manufacturers and both have large greens, but they only bleach their own linen, their being several bleach yards for public accommodation.
Coote had argued for an extension of assistance from the Linen Board in the provision of looms and wheels. A weaver from Clara by the name of John Cowan had his petition to the Linen Board for a grant of linen looms rejected in 1806. The town’s landlord, Ambrose Cox sent a petition in 1808-09 seeking a grant for wheels and reels for the benefit of the town and neighbourhood. In 1817 the value of annual sales at Clara weekly market was put at £11,400. Ambrose Cox, who succeeded to the Armstrong estate at Clara in the early 1800s offered literally seed capital to help tenants get established in the linen business.
Mr. Ambrose Cox of Clara has caused the following notice to be posted in the neighbourhood of Clara: For the better advancement of the linen trade, and to encourage the growth of flax about the town of Clara. I will give by way of loan to persons willing to embark in the linen trade £20 to £500, or such extension of their capital as they may require, and I will give to the poor people 50 hogs-head of the best seed I can procure at first cost on the condition that they will discharge the amount due on the 1st April of the next year. And on the condition that the produce not consumed by their families, shall be disposed of in the market of Clara. For the accommodation of weavers I have opened a store for the sale of yarn where there shall be a constant supply of that article selected from the western market which shall be disposed of on such days as will be fixed, until yarn markets are established. Sales on the dates fixed must be strictly adhered to and any deviation will be punished. Linen sellers are cautioned against yielding to the imposition of drinking money extracted from them by buyers.
The full text of this article can be found in Offaly Heritage 4 (pp 95–166)which printed book is available for as is The Goodbodys by Michael Goodbody. A new well-illustrated book comprising the diary of Lydia Goodbody and a history of Clara prepared by Harold Goodbody will be published by Offaly History later this year. In the meantime we continue to archive material for Clara history in Offaly Archives and add to our collection of local and Irish history printed publications at Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore. Catalogues of the work done to date can be accessed online and may be viewed when restrictions are lifted.