Design Treasures: personal memories and communal histories

by Dr Linda King

Objects prompt memories. They help us understand who we are, where we’ve come from and what we might be. Through them we remember loved ones, precious moments, significant events. They speak to both personal and collective histories.

We have had museums for centuries and these are full of objects. These institutions display the choices of experts (historians and curators) outlining what the public should consider as important. National Treasures has put the selection of significant historical objects in the hands of the public. It therefore provides the opportunity to re-evaluate how our history has been presented and recorded.


Designed objects: society’s ideas in physical form

As a design historian I research and write about mass manufactured objects. These objects are created to be useful, are made in multiples (as opposed to being one-off items), are popular and commonplace. They reflect the everyday experiences of ordinary people.

Almost everything we use or come in contact with has been designed: from books to websites, clothing to jewellery, furniture to household utensils. Through examining these objects – their shape, decoration and materials – and what they symbolically represent, we gain insight into the interests of any society at any particular moment. Designed objects reflect larger cultural concerns and interests. They are literally ideas in physical form.

Ireland’s relationship with design is very different to that of other western countries. Design develops in tandem with industry (physical or technological) and until relatively recently the main industry in Ireland was agriculture. Coupled with centuries of political instability, this unique set of circumstances has meant that many of our indigenous design industries were slow to evolve.

Yet, National Treasures received a great many designed objects from the small and ubiquitous (stamps, coins, books, record covers, ceramics) to the large and imposing (bikes, computers, furniture). I am particularly interested in how our examination of such objects can be used to expand (and sometimes challenge) our collective history. National Treasures provided many opportunities to do just that and I have selected a number of objects here that speak to this theme.

I have a particular interest in the histories of graphic design, travel, tourism, and technology because these are subjects that everyone can relate to. I am also interested in objects that reveal stories about women’s experiences because all too often history (comprising the words ‘his’ and ‘story’) is male authored and focused.

Objects representing all these areas were kindly submitted to National Treasures and for me, the most interesting examples were those that told multiple stories: the personal, the collective, the idiosyncratic, the under-valued, the neglected.


Designing for travel and tourism

One such example is the Aer Lingus travel bag owned by Frank Aiken while he was Minister for External Affairs (1957-69). This is a family-owned object, of deep personal significance, but reveals a much broader story of national significance.

Aiken’s cabinet colleague, Seán Lemass, founded the national airline in April 1936, with one plane that linked Dublin to Bristol. In the early decades of Irish independence, Aer Lingus was the most potent symbol of political sovereignty and infrastructural modernisation for both Irish and international audiences. Aer Lingus’s symbolic role as a ‘flag carrier’ was conveyed visually and through design: in the huge logos on the tailfins of its planes as they crossed the skies or sat on the aprons of airports, through its cabin crew as they proudly wore their uniforms, through its advertising and its publicity that hung in travel agents around the world.

This bag dates from between 1962 and before Aiken retired in 1969. We can tell this because of the version of the logo that is being used. This comprises a shamrock (against a background of six stripes), a plane, and the name of the company in italicised typography. The logo is typical of its time: combining recognisable symbols of flight (the plane), slanted letterforms (to convey movement) and a localised reference to ensure the country of origin is clear (the shamrock). In size and style, this bag is similar to those given out by all airlines at the time to valued customers. It is plastic, would have been cheap to manufacture, and is one of two identical bags submitted to National Treasures. However, with this particular example, its importance lies in its symbolic value as linked to Irish politics.

Aer Lingus launched its transatlantic route in 1958, which was a monumental achievement for the country. Aiken regularly used this service and the bag is a reminder of his work at the United Nations in New York and through him, Ireland’s substantial impact on world politics. For Aiken this was a utilitarian object, used to carry the newspapers he read while travelling from Dublin to New York. Yet, he wrote his name on it – as Gaeilge (PMcA) and in pencil – so it was clearly an object that he valued.

The bag encourages us to think of multiple stories: of the political achievements of one of the colossuses of Irish politics, of the development of Irish commercial aviation, of the political instrument that is a national airline. Submitted by Aiken’s son – also Frank – it is also a deeply personal family momento, a reminder of a father going to work who just happens to have the most extraordinarily influential job and a transatlantic commute to the office.

Dutch designer Jan de Fouw’s sketches for a series of Aer Lingus posters are also dearly cherished family-owned objects. They were submitted by de Fouw’s son, Jan, and also reflect broader stories tied to the national airline.

De Fouw arrived in Ireland in 1951 to work on advertising for Aer Lingus, having previously worked in the publicity department of KLM. Throughout the 1950s, the airline expanded its route network to capitalise on the number of Americans travelling to Europe. As the Irish government slowly moved from protectionist economic policies to greater engagement with the international community, the development of tourism was seen as critical for Ireland’s economic survival. The success of Aer Lingus in this context was dependent on a clear and engaging publicity strategy. At the time the Irish graphic design and advertising industries were not as developed as in other countries, so a decision was made to import this expertise.

These small sketches were hand-painted in gouache and would have been presented to the company’s publicity department for approval. After a selection was made the final poster was screen-printed and distributed to travel agents and tourist bureaux. These examples advertise travel to Switzerland and date from 1957. With their colourful, modernist European and US-influenced graphic style, the finished posters supported much needed tourism development and offered a window onto a (largely) unobtainable and glamorous world for a contemporary Irish public struggling with severe economic challenges.

De Fouw subsequently worked for other tourism-related companies including Bord Fáilte and John Hinde. He was one of a generation of Dutch designers that worked in the Irish graphic design and advertising industries and collectively they had a huge impact on how Ireland was visualised as a tourist destination.

So these sketches also embody many interconnecting stories: the development of Irish tourism as supported by the airline, the growth of Irish graphic design and advertising, and the impact of immigration on the development of Irish design generally, a theme that is present in a number of other National Treasures objects (including the Waterford Crystal bowl submitted by Ivana Bacik and the Crannac Chair submitted by Alex Lloyd).


Designing for religion and school

The album Adaption and Renewal/The Faith of Easter (1969) – submitted by Brian McMahon – was also designed by Dutch immigrant graphic designer. Cor Klaasen designed a series of thirty LPs of Catholic sermons and spoken word, released by the Mercier Press in Cork (1967-71). These recordings, by liberal Catholic clerics, show the Church using the contemporary technology of vinyl records to spread its doctrine at a time when Catholicism was very much ingrained in the daily life of most Irish citizens.

The album cover’s abstract illustrations in black, white and orange would be striking in any context, but here this graphic modernism is used to visually represent a modernising Catholic Church in the wake of Pope Paul VI’s Vatican II (1962-65) reforms.

Klaasen’s name may not be widely known but his work is recognisable to generations of Irish people who were in secondary school between 1969 and 2000. He designed covers for many school textbooks including the poetry anthology Soundings, an example of which was submitted to National Treasures by Fintan O’Higgins. The cover of this book again uses an abstract, graphic modernism to represent the intangible (the spoken word). So many of us read this book on an almost daily basis, scribbled notes in its margins, probably loved and loathed it in equal measure. With the benefit of hindsight (and more than a little nostalgia) it reminds so many of us of our school experiences and due to popular demand, Soundings was reissued in 2010.

Klaasen designed many other books for the educational publisher Gill and Macmillan (including the prose anthology Exploring English) and his work demonstrates how designed objects are at the very heart of everyday Irish life.


Designing for and by women

These examples of are only some of the many objects submitted to National Treasures that shed light on lesser-known aspects of Irish culture or offer alternative interpretations of our collective history. On many occasions the project reminded how the experiences of Irish women are central to understanding much broader national stories.

A case in point is the electric ironing board, an object that was handed down to Siobhan Long by her mother and is still used on a daily basis. It was a prize in a baking competition in the 1960s, sponsored by AET of Dunleer, County Louth. This indigenous company that no longer exists, but at the time it was Ireland’s largest domestic appliance manufacturer. Again this is a very personal object but it points to a much bigger story of infrastructural modernisation and its impact.

The hydro-electrical station at Ardnacrusha in Co. Clare had been completed in 1929 and the Rural Electrification Programme was rolled out nationally between 1946-79. In 1946 only one in three homes in Ireland had electricity and to encourage its use, the ESB and the manufacturers of domestic appliances, regularly held such competitions awarding prizes of ironing boards, hair dryers and other electrical devices.

An ironing board would have been a novelty at the time, but this one is even more so as it plugs into the mains and the iron is placed on it to heat. On one hand it points to a typical domestic experience to which many can relate. However, it also reveals much bigger stories: the spread of electricity throughout Ireland from the 1950s onwards; electricity’s modernisation of the Irish home; forgotten Irish industries; and the use of such competitions to showcase the household management skills of future wives. Such competitions emphasised society’s expectation of Irish women. This, for example, was divided into two categories of participants: ‘single women’ of 17-25 and ‘married women’, each given different baking tasks to prove or confirm their competencies.

In the 1960s the ESB sponsored the television show of Ireland’s first celebrity cook, Maura Laverty. At the time Laverty’s cookbook Full and Plenty (1960) was very popular and became a standard text used in schools as part of the domestic science curriculum. The National Treasures copy was originally a schoolbook and was submitted by its owner Mary Morrissey. Her mother subsequently used it, inserting additional recipes between its pages.

Full and Plenty opens with the line ‘cooking is the poetry of housework. It combines household management advice with fiction and memoir, reflecting the fact that Laverty was a journalist, novelist and scriptwriter (she wrote Ireland’s first soap opera, Tolka Row). Recipes, including those for stew, soda bread and boxty, were interspersed with satirical stories of women securing husbands through their culinary skills. Colour photographs of the final dishes, and black and white illustrations of ingredients and kitchen utensils, pepper the pages as visual references. The book also became a key reference for those, and there were many at the time, running a household on a tight budget.

From 1961 the ESB also sponsored the annual Ploughing Championships. This was designed to encourage the electrification (and thus modernisation) of farming, A rubber and glass breast pump manufactured by Fannin and Co, a medical supplier on Dublin’s Grafton Street, also indirectly references farming. Submitted by Eithne Lynch and used between 1921 and 1931, it enabled Eithne’s grandmother – who married a farmer – to juggle the task of rearing a young family with keeping on top of her farming commitments.

On one hand it’s an example of an early Irish medical device and demonstrates design entrepreneurialism. But it again encourages us to think about national stories: about how a technology derived from dairy farming was adapted to human usage, about how the introduction of such devices to express breast milk saved the lives of children separated from their mothers, of how the balance of family and work life that women still struggle with today has a earlier precedents.

The employment experiences of Irish women outside the home or farm need greater analysis and consideration. Barry Curtin’s War of Independence grenade shell, for example, points to a discrete chapter in Irish history within which women were central. The bomb was manufactured from a mold subversively made at the Ford factory in Cork. The factory had been established in 1917 and was one of Cork’s biggest employers until it closed in 1984.

This grenade shell would have been filled with explosives, held in place by a trigger pin. Its shape was based on a design patented by grenade designer William Mills in 1915, who was working at the Mills Munition Factory in Birmingham. Its distinctive and deep exterior grooves provided a secure grip for those that used it and it was widely used during WW1. The men who made the mold for the shell were Ford factory employees. They are thought to have used their knowledge of casting car engines in the production of this weapon. This may well be the case but the main source for bomb-making knowledge in Ireland during the revolutionary period came from women.

Five British War Department munitions factories operated in Cork, Dublin, Galway and Waterford, supplying British troops during WW1. In addition, there were many other privately owned munitions factories dotted across the country, including in Cork. The workers in these factories were mostly female and working class. They were often referred to as ‘Bomb Girls’ and during the War of Independence they liberally shared their expert knowledge of making explosives and weapons with Irish revolutionaries. Therefore, women were at the heart of the guerrilla activity that defined the period from 1919-21 and it is likely that the men casting these grenade shells were reliant on their knowledge.


Final thoughts

These designed and mass-manufactured objects reveal only some of the many discrete or hidden stories that National Treasures has unearthed. As a design historian this has been a dream job: I’ve met amazing people who have generously shared their stories and given insight into our collective cultural history as told through the objects they cherish and hold dear. Through these personal mementos National Treasures has offered many opportunities to look at how our history as a nation has been captured, to note the gaps in our collective knowledge and to think about how we might add to our history in the future. These objects are literally the fabric of our society.

Dr. Linda King lives and works in Dublin. She is a design historian at IADT, Dun Laoghaire where she is also Co-Programme Chair of the BA in Visual Communication Design. Linda has published and broadcast widely on various aspects of Irish design and has been a consultant on design issues to many organisations including Dublin City Council, the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland and the National Archives (UK). In 2011 she co-edited the first substantial survey of Irish design: Ireland, Design and Visual Culture – Negotiating Modernity, 1922-1992, a book that examined how designed objects were used by various governments to visually and physically endorse state policies. Linda previously worked at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York and is currently Visiting Professor in Design and Irish Studies at Concordia University, Montreal.






Finding Fashion Treasures

by Ruth Griffin

National Treasures looks at history through a sporting, social, political, design and fashion lens. From Currachs to Crolly Dolls, bottles of Blue Nun to black mourning veils all of Irish life is reflected in its many guises through the objects on the show. Looking at heirlooms and personal artefacts tells a unique history of Ireland – a history coming from the people’s perspective. We know objects can tell powerful stories, but what about fashion? Can a prison uniform explain the harrowing consequences of the 1916 Rising? Can Sonia O’Sullivan’s running shoes tell us of her journey for Olympic gold? Or can a 1940s wedding dress tell us what women’s lives were like in Ireland at this time? Yes they can, because nothing gets closer to the body and to the zeitgeist than fashion. Captured in its make, cut, fabrication and styling is a story that can catapult you right into that moment of history in a truly tangible way.

Fashion is so much a part of life that its cultural significance often gets overlooked. Clothing has much to reveal about the time and place of its creation and the outer forces that gave it its shape and substance. As my fellow curator Donal Fallon has said in the series everyone’s home is a museum of a kind, so many interesting items that appeared on the roadshow have been sitting on mantelpieces or in glass cabinets in people’s kitchens and front rooms. But fashion is often kept hidden away in a hatbox or a wardrobe, kept and remembered but not on show.

The objects that arrived on my table unearthed from trunks and old tissue paper told me stories that ranged from the familiar – the Clancy Brother’s Aran sweater for example, to the rare – a prison blanket from the Long Kesh/Maze prison reinvented as an elegant three piece suit. What elevated these objects was that they had extra-ordinary owners who changed the item from something ten-a-penny to a National Treasure.

The objects I saw over the course of the series took me on a whistle-stop tour of what happened stylewise in Ireland. It showed concrete evidence of how we really dressed for romance, weddings, dances, discos, death, mourning and even prison over the last 100 years. So I’ve picked 3 very different objects from the show that explain how fashion has played a part in Irish culture and the wider world over the last 100 years, now its over to the objects themselves to do the talking…

 1920s The Irish Flapper

The 1920s were an exciting moment in fashion history. A time when bright young things danced their way through the decade in bobbed hair and short flapper dresses. Although Ireland was a far cry from the hedonism of Manhattan or Mayfair. We did have some moments of flapper flamboyance in our new Republic of the 1920s, fashion was making itself known in small ways across the countryside with the arrival of cinemas to many towns and villages. What I found the most interesting when viewing objects from the roadshows was the ways in which fashion was present in even the most rural parts of the country and the pieces that were kept in memory of the wearer- usually because of their fondness for style.

1920s The Irish Flapper Dress

1920s printed silk day dress with bias cut skirt, bow detail and drop waist silhouette submitted by Miriam Dunne.

Miriam Dunne brought to the roadshow a pretty 1920s day dress in delicate silk that belonged to her Mother, who was a Dubliner. The dress was kept because of a priceless memory of her honeymoon in Weymouth, Dorset in 1925 with her first husband. He sadly died of T.B. only a year after they married. Her daughter Miriam only realised the significance of the item after her Mother’s death, she discovered the dress and a rose gold bangle in pristine condition kept in a hatbox along with the photos of the honeymoon.

“She kept this dress in memory of her husband James Jackman who died of T.B. in 1926. She danced with her husband in the dress and treasured it as it captured this special moment in time for her. She married my father her second husband in 1938. We never knew my mother had a first husband until after she died. She was a very fashionable woman, myself and my sister were in awe of her and used to play with her clothes when we were growing up.” – Miriam Dunne

An item like this shows us how objects can take on a symbolic form, surviving for sentimental reasons and explains the importance of fashion as a marker of significant events in a person’s and particularly a woman’s life. This dress sums up both the exuberance and carefree days of the 1920s and Miriam’s mother’s life. A whimsical, flirty dress made for days walking down the pier without a care in the world.

Alison Killilea and her Great Aunt May’s black dress


A little (Black & Tans) dress

Other interesting objects that came to the roadshow from this period were the little black dresses from the 1920s-1940s submitted by Alison Killilea from Banagher, Co Offaly. These pieces were owned by her Great Aunt May Hynes. May was an active member of Cumann na MBan and was almost shot by the Black & Tans during a raid on her house in 1921. They show us how the trends of the time were played out in Ireland. The silhouettes and changing styles are all there from a drop waist 1920s dress, a 1930s dress trimmed in white lace (pictured above) and a 1940s fit and flare dress adapted from an earlier style.

Little black crepe dresses where made popular by Coco Chanel in the 1920s the trend spread like wildfire (and still exists) for their sophistication but also because they were a style that could be easily copied. It is remarkable too that dresses from this time survive. The fact that Alison still owns her Great Aunt May’s dresses is most unusual and it shows a reverence the lady herself had for clothes and her ancestors had for her by keeping them.

Alison’s Great Aunt May and Great Uncle Thomas and their little dog in their Model T Ford. Courtesy of Alison Killelea.

Looking modish with a motor car

And here we see photographic evidence of the tremendously fashionable May and Thomas Mileady posed in front of their motor car and dressed to the nines in the latest fashion. We see May in her cloche hat, fur trimmed drop-waist coat and neat heels. Thomas in a smart suit, shirt and tie. As a couple they must have caused a sensation in Banagher when they zipped down the main street in their Model T Ford (the first to own one in their village according to Alison), it shows us that in 1920s Ireland there were affluent pockets of the country, an emerging middle class who lived comfortable lives and were able to indulge in the latest fashions. It also gives a snapshot of the new Irelanders who were driving change, very stylishly.

Photograph of O’Connell Street in the 1930s. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Rocking a look under Clery’s Clock

We all know that the meeting point of Clery’s clock on O’Connell Street was where so many of Dublin’s romances began. But did you know that Clery’s was one of the first purpose built department stores in Europe (built in 1853), predating Le Bon Marche in Paris. It was one of Dublin’s key department stores, a fashionable destination not only for shopping but dancing and had a ballroom with a full-time orchestra working every night of the week.

The Clery’s ballroom of romance speaks of a different time and a different O’Connell Street. It’s hard to imagine now but the street in the mid-twentieth century was the Saturday night destination. The thoroughfare was lined with stylish hotels, department stores, cafes, restaurants and cinemas: The Metropole, The Carlton, The Ambassador and The Savoy. Dubliners dressed up to go out on Ireland’s main street and it was the place to see and be seen. The photographs of Arthur Fields (made popular by the Man on Bridge project) show us exactly how we dressed for the street from 1930-1980.

Photograph snapped by street photographer Arthur Fields of a 1950s couple on O’Connell Street.

And dances need dresses right? While the photographs and the buildings of O’Connell Street remain what of the clothes? At the roadshow in Dublin I was delighted to see a suitcase of clothes arrive by the son of a Clery’s staff member. His mother a Mrs Vickers worked in the store in the 1960s and 1970s. In the suitcase was flamboyant assortment of 1960s glamour some of which had been bought in the store. There were bright psychedelic prints, marabou feather hats and an all important mink fur coat by Vards of Dublin. This collection shows us exactly what was worn in the ballroom of Clery’s and speaks of that lost scene. It was a time when entertainment was about dancing, spending time with each other and music – and shockingly much of the dances would have been alcohol free. It’s hard to imagine such a scene existed but these clothes, photographs and memories explain why there was romance under Clery’s clock (it was the street you could bring someone on a date to). Mrs Vickers wardrobe and the legend of Clery’s clock is the last reminder of the dancing culture which was enjoyed by a generation of Dubliners. Today Clery’s department store lies dormant, it’s a good moment to remember its glory days and the important role it played in Dublin’s popular culture. We can only hope its future brings something bright and new that will entertain a whole new generation.

Fur was the epitome of glamour in mid-twentieth century Dublin. Here Clery’s advertise some ‘superlative fur fashions’. Mrs Vickers mink coat was a key item of her wardrobe which she wore the Clery’s ballroom in the 1950s and 1960s.

How the Aran sweater took on the world’s stage

“In the early summer of 1963, my husband Paddy Clancy and I were travelling to Mayo to visit my parents. We stopped off in Spiddal, to visit the famous shop Standuns. Paddy picked out a beautifully knitted polo neck jumper in genuine Aran wool. It was his favourite, he had many over the years but this one travelled many thousands of miles with him. He was tall and slim and the lines and patterning of the delicate knitting suited his trim frame. Sweaters had a tendency to become “lost or mislaid” on tour, he was lucky to have his favourite of all resting in retirement in his Irish home.” – Mary Clancy

There is no item of clothing more Irish than the Aran sweater. There is a magic about it which makes us believe it has been part of Irish culture for centuries. Strangely enough it hasn’t, it is a 20th century invention. It began with the Congested Districts Boards (a board devised to alleviate poverty in the most stricken areas of Ireland) who brought fishermen from Scotland and the Channel islands to help bring improvements to fishing on the Aran Islands. The Scottish fishermen who came to the islands wore blue geansais and the fishermen’s wives who accompanied them on the trip taught cable knitting techniques to the islanders. It is from these events that the Aran sweater was born. It may seem like a disappointing beginning but I think the origins of the garment doesn’t matter, what matters is what happened next, the Aran knit evolved from great Irish ingenuity and creativity, from the late 1890s when the cable technique was introduced to the 1920s over 70 unique Aran stitches were developed by the talented knitters of the island. This shows great innovation and design, taking one idea and making into something totally new. However, the development of a knitting technique alone is not enough to launch an item like this into the common fashion vernacular. It needed a cultural icon (or two) to bring it onto a global stage and it got it in the mighty form of the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem.


The Clancy Brothers. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives

The Clancy brothers were a huge presence on the American Folk revival scene of the 1950s and 1960s, their influence was immense in the USA, Bob Dylan cites them as an early influence and in Ireland their music was of even greater importance gaining popularity during a time in which folk music had been mostly forgotten. This revival of folk music brought with it unexpectedly a revival of Irish folk dress when they used the Aran sweater as their trademark on stage.

The story goes that it was a bitterly cold winter in New York City and back home in Carrick-on-Suir the Clancy Brother’s Mother knitted up four Aran sweaters for her sons and sent them by post. The brothers wore them at a Greenwich Village folk club, and it quickly became their look. When they played the Ed Sullivan Show in March 1961, their pristine knitwear made them the most famous Irishmen on earth.

Seen in this context the Irish sweater was introduced to a new generation as cool and modern with a folk/bohemian edge. A rush of celebrities were seen wearing it in the years that followed. Its practicality and its coolness meant it was an easy piece to introduce into your wardrobe. Designers began to include the piece in their collections. And just like how Coco Chanel reinvented the French fisherman sweater (the striped breton top) into the epitome of chic the Aran sweater has also been consistently reinvented over the decades since the Clancy Brothers with designers from Lainey Keogh, Ralph Lauren and Jean Paul Gaultier all featuring them in their collections.

Last year the Aran sweater was chosen as one of the world’s most iconic fashion designs for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York city for its exhibition “Is Fashion Modern” because it is considered a powerful and enduring example of 20th century clothing. And more recently at the Autumn Winter 2018 shows this spring an Aran knit was draped on the back of each attendees seats at the Alexander McQueen show, showing us the look of the Irish, made cool by the groundbreaking Clancy’s brothers continues to be very much in vogue in 2018.

I felt very privileged to see the ‘real’ Clancy Brother’s Aran knit it person and to have the Clancy Brother’s wives arrive to tell their stories at the Cork roadshow. It made the objects into living, breathing things. Hearing the story of the sweater and of the brothers from the family gave extra insight into these remarkable men. And just to show us the importance of the Aran knit Mary Clancy, Paddy’s wife was sporting one of her own in honour of her man on the day.


You can’t think of a Clancy brother without thinking of the Aran sweater and here the record cover showcases the iconic piece of knitwear as their emblem


Paddy Clancy signed photograph wearing one of his infamous Aran sweaters which is submitted to the National Treasures exhibition by his wife Mary Clancy


Here a group of cool swinging 1960s chicks work the famous Clancy Brother’s Aran sweater on the cover of their album


Laurence McKeown: From Prison Blanket to Three Piece Suit


A prison uniform marks you, and it’s designed to. The idea of what prisoners have worn over the years has gone into our collective unconscious from films and cartoons of the arrow printed uniforms of 19th century England, the black and white stripes of Nazi Germany and more recently the orange uniform of hit US series ‘Orange is the new black.’

Laurence McKeown came to the National Treasures roadshow wearing what was one of the most extraordinary objects of the show – a prison blanket which had gone through a transformation into a three piece suit, complete with bow tie, waistcoat and scarf. And within the make of the very fabric of this suit is a story of the struggles in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s and 1980s. Not all objects can tell the bright side of Irish life and this object certainly talks of one of our darkest hours, but it also shows how fashion has the ability to take you from two extremes.

In 1977 McKeown had been sentenced to life imprisonment in the Long Kesh/Maze prison for his activities in the IRA. At this time the republican prisoners’ status as political prisoners, known as Special Category Status, had begun to be phased out. Among other things, this meant that they would now be required to wear prison uniforms. The prisoners refused to accept that they had been administratively designated as ordinary criminals, and refused to wear the prison uniform.

And so the prison blanket protest began, this act of defiance, of not wearing the prison uniform but only wearing the prison blanket for warmth was called going ‘on the blanket’. Photographs of the time show prisoners with the long hair and beards of the late 1970s and prison blankets hung over the shoulders of their naked, emaciated bodies. This protest was the precursor to the Hunger Strikes of 1981. After the death of ten men including Bobby Sands during the Hunger Strikes a change was made to prison policy and all paramilitary prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes at all times.

Laurence was present throughout all of these events and survived. He was released from prison in 1992, and since then he has written 2 books Nor Meekly Serve My Time: The H-Block Struggle 1976–1981 about this particular moment in Irish history. But it is in his very dress he has chosen to commemorate his own personal and political struggle. He said: “I had been given an old prison blanket when the H Blocks closed and it had been lying in the attic for a long time. I decided to have it made into items of clothing which would look elegant and then ask former Blanket Men and Women to wear them and have their photographs taken by a professional photographer.” The result is something quite remarkable an anti-establishment garment of protest transformed into the most elegant socially accepted form of dress – a tailored suit – and when he wears it he challenges us with his presence to remember this particular time in history in his own unique way.



So to conclude, we have seen how fashion objects are far from frivolous. They allow us to encounter the past first hand and to put ourselves quite literally in the shoes of those who wore, refused to wear, made, used, or enjoyed them.

So tune into National Treasures on RTE 1 across April. You’ll see some of these objects and much more. And come see them in person at the National Museum of Country Life in Turlough Park in Mayo, I guarantee it will inspire you to look deeper at the history of objects which exist all around you.

 National Treasures Curator Ruth Griffin Fashion Historian

Ruth Griffin, Fashion Historian

Ruth Griffin is a fashion historian, writer and blogger with a BA in Fashion Design from the National College of Art & Design in Dublin and a Master’s degree in History & Culture of Fashion from London College of Fashion. She has developed her knowledge and expertise in fashion history for over a decade by researching fashion and its relationship to the city of Dublin. She runs a popular programme of fashion history tours in Dublin every summer and a blog that uncovers the often lost history of Irish fashion design, businesses and icons. She is regularly asked to speak on radio and TV and at Dublin’s favourite cultural institutions from the National Gallery of Ireland, the National College of Art & Design and The Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin.