Do you remember this post I wrote about Swift’s 1720 pamphlet called the Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture? Well, here is another quote from it:
I think it needless to exhort the clergy to follow this good example, because in a little time, those among them who are so unfortunate to have had their birth and education in this country, will think themselves abundantly happy when they can afford Irish crape, and an Athlone hat; and as to the others I shall not presume to direct them.
And so what was an Athlone hat?
“A Merry-Making” by Dutch painter Cornelis Dusart, 1692 (hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland). See the resemblance of the felt hats worn by the peasants here to the boggy ones below.
Click to make much bigger. These are three 16th-17th century felt hats which were found perfectly preserved in peat bogs. Each one began as a circle of felt, which was then blocked into shape, and the brim cocked to a different fashion. From left to right, they were found in Knockfola (Co. Donegal), Derrindaffderg (Co. Mayo), and Tawnamore (Co. Sligo). Image from Dunlevy.
Felt is made by wetting, agitating, and shrinking the fibres of coarse wool (and sometimes fur) together until a single sheet of thick, water-resistant, durable fabric is achieved. Hats were an obvious use of this material, and felt hats seem to have originated in fifteenth-century Normandy. Both skills and fashion for these felt hats spread quickly through London to Dublin, Cork, and, it appears, to Athlone. Charters for felt-hatmaking guilds were granted in Youghal (Cork) in 1656, and in Dublin in 1667.
Click to make much bigger. By 1823, Widow West’s Lane, off Strand Street, was being recorded as Hatters Lane. It kept this name til the late 19th century. I’ve estimated where that is on the map with the red dot, but couldn’t find an exact lane that matches up today. There’s a restaurant still there today called Hatters Lane Bistro.
The manufacture of felt hats has been long carried out here, and the town of Athlone been of some celebrity for its felts. Besides this, frizes are manufactured, from the wool, through their different processes, til they are ready for the tailor, and employ in this parish about forty-two weavers, besides women for carding and their children for winding &c.
(1819 Parochial Survey of Ireland)
The records of the Feltmakers’ Company of Dublin gives a list of hatters working in Athlone between 1706 and 1729. Their names were Edward Hargid, Roger Mallaghlin, Terence McCabe, James Cuffe, Francis McCabe, Robert Boswell, George Cuff, Peter McLoughlin, Thady Kelly, and James Blyth. This is a high number of felt-hat-makers in residence at this time; in the rest of the list for Ireland, only Cork has a similar number of hatters, and most locations in Ireland only boasted the one hat maker. This list was not even fully comprehensive. There were also the Acton family, who produced a number of hatters between 1690 and 1730, as well as a local Quaker called George Shoare (active in 1687). Making felt hats brought industry to Athlone, giving wealth to the families who were employed in it, and apprenticeship opportunities to young people.
This was the era of men in wigs, so hats were more frequently ‘worn’ by carrying in the hand, for men of wealth. The painting shows Charles Tottenham, MP for New Ross, in 1731.
References to Athlone hats in contemporary literature are small in number, but fascinating. Here are my favourite four. They show that Athlone hats were worn for military purposes, as well as by ordinary gentlemen, and that they were known as far away as North America.
In 1709, Sir Thomas Molyneux travelled through Connaught, keeping a short diary of his days as he did so. He began in Athlone, mentioning the hats in the opening lines of his first letter, dated Friday the 8th of April 1709:
This town is famous for y’ manufacture of felts, which are here sold for 2 to 4 shillings price.
The Governors taking into consideration the clothing of the decayed officers, and what particulars will be fit to be provided for them in order to their decent appearing at the Hospital as Commissioned Officers – Resolved – That each Officer be furnished with a scarlet coat, an Athlone hat laced with gold lace, and a pair of blue worsted stockings, to be paid out of the pay of each Officer.
Throughout 1725, Robert Dykas ran this advertisement in the Dublin Weekly Journal:
The below 1759 advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette was looking for a runaway indentured servant:
Run away on the 13th of this Instant, at Night, from the Subscriber, of said Town, an Apprentice Lad… Had on, and took with him, when he went away, a bluish Cloath Coat… Snuff coloured Breeches… a Pair of Cotton Stockings, a good Athlone Felt Hat, and yellowish Silk Handkerchief…
These round felt hats, with brims cocked different ways according to fashion, became one of the symbols of Irishness abroad in the late 18th and 19th centuries, appearing in many political cartoons. They were part of many negative caricatures in which Irish peasants were depicted as ape-like, and the black felt hat appeared battered, tattered, and shapeless. See how many Athlone-ish hats you can spot in this online gallery!
The only person who has looked at this subject in any detail at all is Gearóid O’Brien of Athlone library – see especially this book.