Turtle Bunbury

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Vanishing Ireland

Gretta Carter - Last of the Borris Lacemakers
Born 1921
Borris, Co Carlow

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'Mrs. Carter', by James Fennell
The Vanishing Ireland Project

At 6:45am on 3rd January 1941, the people of Borris awoke to a very loud bang. A German bomber, flying over Ireland, had dropped its bombs along the Carlow side of Mount Leinster. Struggling to maintain altitude, the pilot had apparently offloaded them in order to reduce the plane’s weight. One stick of eight bombs exploded on the Shannon family home at Knockroe, killing three women in the house. As news of the tragedy spread, a team of first aid trainees from Borris raced up to Knockroe to tend to the wounded. Among them was 19-year-old Gretta Knipe who, overwhelmed by the occasion, fainted upon arrival.

Gretta was the only child of Felix Knipe, the bailiff of Borris House, home to the MacMurrough Kavanghs, ancestral kings of Leinster. Felix was a well-known figure in the area. He looked after the fishing rights along the River Barrow. He was a talented sign writer. He played the church organ during mass. He was one of the mainstays of the Borris Brass Band. And he was the goalkeeper for the Borris Gaelic Football team. His father Arthur Knipe hailed from Co Antrim but moved south in the late 19th century to serve as a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Felix’s wife Brigid (nee Fennell) worked in Borris House, along with her sister May. ‘If you got in there, you were safe’, explains Gretta. However, Brigid died in 1921, only three days after she gave birth to Gretta. The child was subsequently reared in the Fennell home by her Aunt May.

A year after the Knockroe tragedy, Gretta married Paddy Carter. He too was an only child, the son of a soldier in the English Army. Paddy was an odd-job man who worked primarily as a yardman for Cody’s of Borris, and later as an insurance agent with the New Ireland Insurance Co. In 1944, their daughter Esther was born, to be followed by three sons.

While her husband was at work, Gretta kept busy helping her aunt May King (nee Fennell) who was the supervisor of Borris Lace.

The lace-making industry in Borris was established by Lady Harriet Kavanagh during the 1850s. This intrepid lady had gathered a collection of lace patterns while traveling through Italy and modified the models to suit her own tastes. She then returned to Borris where she personally instructed the women of the village in the art of lace-making, working with the Genoese and Milanese patterns. She focused on women from poorer families, hoping the work would bring some extra income to add to the paltry wages of their menfolk. Aided by the Kavanagh’s international contacts, the beautiful, intricate patterns of Borris Lace began to find its way to wedding ceremonies and stately homes as far away as Russia.

As a child, Gretta watched her aunt braiding and laundering all the collars, doilys and table mats. And she learned how to stitch. Although she was never a professional, Gretta made enough of these exceptionally complex lace-works to ensure that today she is known as the last of the Borris lace-makers. By the early 1960s there were only six women employed in the industry. The Borris Lace patterns were simply proving too costly to sustain the business. Arguably Gretta’s finest moment came when the Irish Countrywoman’s Association asked her to present a lace table-cloth to Mary Martin, the American musical actress and mother of Dallas star Larry Hagman.

Born at the height of the Troubles on 1 March 1921, Gretta Carter belongs to a generation who always kept their door open and the kettle on the boil for thirsty passers-by. Sadly her eyesight has failed her since this photograph was taken and she now resides at the Borris Lodge Nursing Home.

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.