Flax figures in mill pond memorial and in linen company boss’s poem

At the end of November 2019 this page was adorned with a photo of a stunningly beautiful sculpture.

Friday, 11th June 2021, 6:00 am
The mill and factory
The mill and factory

Created by local sculptor Alan Burke and rising six meters above the appropriately reflective waters of Bessbrook’s mill pond, the outdoor installation is profoundly evocative of the village’s proud industrial history.

Wrought in stainless steel it is a gently curving, single stem of flax, embellished with a pattern representing the history of linen manufacturing.

The stem burgeons into a distinctively-blue flax bloom, the so-called ‘wee blue blossom’ that characterises an epic part of our industrial past.

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James N Richardson, linen company chairman, MP and poet

The photograph came from the second of Dublin author Ann Lane’s two books about Irish outdoor sculptures entitled ‘By the Way 2’ in which the author explains “the Camlough River was harnessed at Bessbrook pond to power the mill that drove the local economy. The key to this industry was the flax plant.”

The inspiration for the Bessbrook sculpture comes from a poem entitled, ‘The Ballad of Camlough River’, by James N Richardson, mentioned in a little book I’ve received about the village.

The ballad’s 15 verses chronicle the river’s course from the “gay golden gorse” at its Camlough Mountain source - through scenery, seasons and “scalding in steam” in the mill’s boilers - until finally its “current with salt of the ocean is blended, and mingled with billows which beat on the shore.”

James N Richardson was chairman of the Board of Directors of the Bessbrook Spinning Company Ltd between 1890 and 1921.

Pencil drawing of Camlough Lake in old Bessbrook book

He was a member of the world-famous linen family, whose Richardson, Sons and Owden Ltd former headquarters remains one of central Belfast’s proudest and most prestigious addresses.

The little book, simply called ‘Bessbrook’, comes with a handwritten note - ‘private publication, irreplaceable’ - and sadly, no date of publication.

However, it is described on the flyleaf as ‘a record of industry in a Northern Ireland village and of a social experiment, 1845-1945.’

The experiment was the model village of Bessbrook!

Containing pencil drawings of the streets, mill and countryside, along with portraits and photographs of the mill’s senior executives (many of them members of the Richardson family), the book introduces James as a man of “outstanding gifts and generous sympathies.”

As Liberal MP for County Armagh in 1880 he’d topped the poll in the election and, according to the book, “won the ear of the House of Commons, no easy thing in Gladstone’s time”!

Having been offered, and declined “various important posts…indifferent health cut short a political career which experienced observers thought destined to raise him to high office.”

The next line in the book’s introduction to James N Richardson explains the poem, part of which ends today’s page.

“Widely travelled and possessed of a great sense of humour and considerable literary gifts, he was a delightfully versatile person with an abiding liking for the North of Ireland working people.”

The ballad is posted in full on the wonderful Experience Gullion website (www.ringofgullion.org) which states that Richardson once wrote an epilogue for his verses - “Camlough River in its course is strangely and mysteriously symbolic of the state of political parties, which for good or ill exists in this Province of Ulster, through which it flows.

“For about exactly half its length, the dwellers on its banks are distinctly Nationalists and for (the) other half as strongly Unionist, and yet like the current of its own bright waters, both can and do, blend to carry the useful and beneficial work which those waters render possible.”

Here are eight of the 15 verses in The Ballad of Camlough River:

Know ye the fame of the brilliant little river,

Which floweth through Bessbrook from moorland and lea?

Between blue waving flax-flowers and rushes which quiver,

He runs his short course from the lake to the sea.

His sire is the mountain of Camlough up towering,

His mother - the lake in the valley below;

His cradle - grey rocks with red heather a-flowering

And gay golden gorse at the source of his flow.

And Mount Keggal the Wolf, and Mount Sturgan the Lion,

From bare rugged breasts pour his sustenance down;

While blue in the distance Slieve Gullion on high, on

The crest of the ridge is his glory and crown.

Not a stream in all Erin gives half the employment

(For its size) - since our Island rose green from the foam;

Nor a stream (For its size) - which yields fuller enjoyment

To the thousands who make his valley their home.

His labours commencing at Camlough’s wide village,

With threshing, and scotching, and “t’arging of tow;”

He merrily ripples through meadow and tillage

To the four falls of Bessbrook beyond and below.

At Bessbrook he screeches, he roars and he thunders

Now cold amid turbines, now scalding in steam;

When after creating ten dozen of wonders

Says goodbye, and roles onward - the tight little stream.

Mid his many strange antics - ‘tis strangest that no one

Is ever quite sure when he changes his voice,

For at Camlough his ripples ring sweet “Garryowen”,

While at Millvale they brattle “ The Protestant Boys”.

At Moorvale the last of those labours is ended,

Ten bowshots beyond, and behold him no more!

His current with salt of the ocean is blended,

And mingled with billows which beat on the shore.

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