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The History of Ardtara

Ardtara is over 120 years old, but its story goes back much further. Back to the origins of the linen industry in Northern Ireland. The house was built by Harry Clark as a romantic and lively family home around 1896. Harry was a restless adventurer who was coerced to join his family’s linen business with promises of global travel and the freedom to pursue his ambitions. Clark’s linen business was already over 150 years old at the time and was famous for producing fine linens from Flax using the ancient process of beetling.

Linen in Northern Ireland

 

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Linen is the aristocrat of textiles. Strong as steel, delicate as silk with an appearance as varied and attractive as an Irish landscape, it is not surprising that it has been preferred by people of good taste for well over 4,000 years. Wallace Clark

 

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Upperlands - An Irish Mill Village

Linen is a strong, natural fabric made from the flax plant, which grows abundantly on wet, fertile soil. In 17th Century Ireland, trade in linen was of equal importance to trade in wool, but around 1699 English Parliament enforced ‘The Wool Act’ in an attempt to protect the English wool industry by preventing the Irish from exporting it. To offset the damage, Parliament encouraged the development of linen production processes.

 

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At its height in the 18th Century almost a third of all flax spinning mills were located in Belfast. Belfast’s two main mills situated in York St and Brookfield were responsible for producing over half the linen output for Ireland and a third of the world’s flax supplies. Around that time John Clark of Maghera, a farmer & brewer had spotted the opportunity for linen production on the land he worked but had never acted on it.

His son, Jackson Clark made a more determined go of it in 1735 as an attempt to keep his own sons in employment. He set about building a mill on the river Clady on the land he referred to as his “Upper Lands”. In 1740 the first beetling engine begins turning in what we now call Upperlands. What Jackson could never have guessed was that his efforts kept generations of the Clark family in employment. WM Clark has become one of the oldest continually-running businesses in the world, exporting Irish linen to this day.

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The Clark Family & Building Ardtara

The story of Ardtara is the story of Harry Clark’s family and his life’s work in the linen trade. In 1888, the man who was to eventually become Clark’s Chairman, Henry Jackson Clark (“Old Harry”), ran away at the age of 18 determined to seek his fortune in America. His father caught up with him in Liverpool and made a deal – he could go to America, but as a salesman for Upperlands linen.

His trip was as much an eye opening experience as it was a brilliant success. Apart from booking hundreds of orders, he visited an Indian chief and went bear-hunting in Quebec, collected a bad debt in Chicago and inveigled his way into a White House reception where he shook hands with President Cleveland. On his return he was put in charge of the newly formed American Department which would go on to be the driving force behind the business.

Upperlands as a linen bleaching concern was over 150 years old and improvements started being made every year. By 1903 the works spanned 20 buildings and the workforce had gown to 220. Houses needed to be built on available land around the site and Upperlands became a community with the focal point being the mills. The Clark families lived in houses built around the works. They were affectionately called ‘the Castles’ but were far from ostentatious. Harry was brought up in Ampertaine and in 1896 he built Ardtara, which he would call home for the rest of his life.

“All year the flax-dam festered in the heart of the townland; green and heavy headed flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods. Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun. Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.”

© 1966, Seamus Heaney

From: Death of a naturalist - written about a flax dam near Ardtara.

Publisher: Faber & Faber, London.

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