“The Irish glover!” cried Mr. Hill, with a Look of Terror

Maria Edgeworth, 1768-1849, born in England but lived in Ireland since she was a young child. From the age of five, she lived at the family estate in Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford, with her twenty-one brothers and sisters.

In 1804, Maria Edgeworth (she of Castle Rackrent fame) wrote a short story called “The Limerick Gloves”. It was published as part of a collection called Popular Tales, the whole of which is readable online here, in a later 1863 edition. Here’s a glove-y excerpt:

“Are you blind, Mr. Hill? Don’t you see that they are Limerick gloves?”
“What of that?” said Mr. Hill, still preserving his composure, as it was his custom to do as long as he could, when he saw his wife was ruffled.
“What of that, Mr. Hill! why, don’t you know that Limerick is in Ireland, Mr. Hill?”
“With all my heart, my dear.”
“Yes, and with all your heart, I suppose, Mr. Hill, you would see our
cathedral blown up, some fair day or other, and your own daughter married to the person that did it; and you a verger, Mr. Hill.”
“God forbid!” cried Mr, Hill; and he stopped short and settled his wig. Presently recovering himself, he added, “But, Mrs. Hill, the cathedral is not yet blown up; and our Phoebe is not yet married.”

“Who gave you those cursed gloves, Phoebe?”
“Papa,” answered Phoebe, in a low voice, “they were a present from Mr. Brian O’Neill.”
“The Irish glover!” cried Mr. Hill, with a look of terror.

Ackermann’s Repository was a monthly London magazine that ran from 1809-29, and featured fashion plates for clothes and furniture. The April 1812 issue showed this plate (“Morning or Domestic Costume”),  for a cambric dress, a Flora cap, slippers and “gloves of tan or Limerick kid”.

For a century, from 1750 to 1850, Limerick gloves were very much in vogue. Nicknamed ‘chicken skins’, they were made from any very fine, strong leather, usually from the skin of unborn calves (the nickname may have been deliberately invented to mask a source that would be distasteful to ladies). Their fineness was emphasized by their packaging – they were sold in a walnut shell. They were also sometimes pulled through a wedding ring to test their delicacy, in a tradition similar to that of wedding ring shawls in Russia or Scotland. The very best pairs of gloves were so paper thin, they could only be worn once. The stitching that was used to seam them together was also extremely fine and delicate – at 32 stitches to the inch, this was skilled and difficult work for the women who sewed them together. They were cream, white, or pale yellow, and were usually worn in the morning (see the fashion plate above). The very smooth leather of the glove was also sometimes sold infused with oils, and sold as skincare aids.

In time, the name ‘Limerick’ came to signify this type of glove appearance and manufacture, rather than the actual origin of the gloves, and ‘Limerick’ gloves were later produced in other parts of Ireland, and in the U.K. In around 1850, their popularity began to wane, and it is difficult to find surviving examples from after this date. A pair (undated) were recently sold for around a thousand pounds. If you are in Ireland, you can visit the pair on exhibition at the National Museum in Dublin, or at the local museum in Limerick.

Pictures from the Museum of Leathercraft website.

In 1853, Limerick gloves appeared in literature again, this time in the novel Ruth by Mrs Gaskell:

“You should have light gloves, Ruth,” said Miss Benson. She went upstairs, and brought down a delicate pair of Limerick ones, which had been long treasured up in a walnut-shell.

“They say them gloves is made of chickens’-skins,” said Sally, examining them curiously. “I wonder how they set about skinning ’em.”

This entry was posted in gloves, leather, limerick, literature, nineteenth century, novels, personalities, short stories. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to “The Irish glover!” cried Mr. Hill, with a Look of Terror

  1. Nic says:

    So cool. Love this post. You are just the best. S’funny, my grandmother had a walnut like this on her dressing table that she kept her earrings in. Sigh.

    I doff my cap and wave my Limerick Gloves in your honour. ;-D

  2. Pingback: Weekend Reads 11 | Irish Historical Textiles

  3. Hi Liza, thanks so much for your comment! Would love to know if you are giving any talks in the future.

  4. Chantal Fortune says:

    I have just completed my Thesis on ‘Antique Irish Lace, the work of Mrs. Florence Vere O’Brien & the Limerick Lace School’, only a week or so ago I was researching Limerick Gloves within general history of Limerick and its tradition of Factory work, and I found it all amazing & here now a Wonderful Article -Thank you….
    Your website is great, I used it for research about Lady Arabella Denny…
    I collect Antique Lace & hope to open a Lace Museum/Gallery some day soon!….
    Thanks a million

  5. Scrapiana says:

    Fascinating article!

    Another example of walnut-shell packaging to add to your collection: my mother kept a childhood souvenir (can’t recall where from but it was somewhere US) from the ’30s – a tiny book of images of said US resort packaged within a walnut shell and bearing the label ‘Xxxx in a nutshell’.

  6. jacolette says:

    Liza Foley presented a great paper on Limerick gloves at the Irish Association of Art Historian’s Study Day last Saturday: http://artefactjournal.com/study-day/

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