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BOOKS New biography of Agnes Morrogh-Bernard

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Foxford Woollen Mills founder more than a sister of charity

Foxford Woollen Mills founder more than a sister of charity

Áine Ryan

NOWHERE was the devastation of the Great famine more deeply etched than in rural Mayo. Fifty years after the catastrophe, the reverberations still caused poverty, desolation, widespread emigration and death.
This was the grim reality faced by Sister of Charity, Agnes Morrogh-Bernard, when she founded the historic Foxford Woollen Mills in 1892. The legacy of this pioneering, visionary has transformed into a distinctive and international brand whose humble beginnings are now detailed in a book by Ballina librarian Margaret Molloy.
In the foreword to ‘Agnes Morrogh-Bernard: Foundress of Foxford Woollen Mills’, former president Mary Robinson recalls her early visits with her mother from their home in Ballina ‘to buy blankets and dressing gowns from the Foxford Woollen Mills’. She learned back then how Agnes, known formally as  Mother Mary Arsenius, ‘had come to Foxford in 1891 … and had been overwhelmed by the poverty in the area’.
“The story of how she had been helped by a ‘black Northern Presbyterian’ to set up the looms was inspiring,” Mary Robinson writes, referring also to the fact that it transpired she was a  distant relative of the visionary nun.
Sr Agnes was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, in 1842 to John Morrogh, a member of a prominent Catholic family from Glanmire in Co Cork, and Mary Blount, who was from an old English Catholic family. The family later moved to Ireland, where Agnes was brought up in privileged circumstances at Sheheree House in Co Kerry. As a young girl, she witnessed the human toll of the impoverishment caused by repeated famine, with one incident in particular – a starving woman in the kitchen of Sheheree House begging to eat a nettle mash made for turkeys – staying with her for the rest of her life.
Educated at the prestigious Laurel Hill convent in Limerick and later at a finishing school in Paris, she was expected on her return to continue the privileged lifestyle ‘of ease and gentility and the eventual wealthy marriage’. But she spurned all that for a life of relative poverty and serving the poor first in Dublin, then in Ballaghadereen. Ultimately, she turned her gaze on Foxford, after her lifelong friend, Anne Deane, an aunt of the MP John Dillon and a leading Ladies Land League figure, told her about ‘the terrible poverty crippling the people’ of the area.
A description of the Foxford she encountered in her early years in a Daily Chronicle article of 1897 describes the misery: “The country is dreary, the earth dark, sodden with rain as if it never had time to dry between one shower and another, and covered with boulders that offer an almost insurmountable obstacle to cultivation.”
Having opened the convent in 1891, Agnes set about improving the living conditions, which due to poor nutrition, sanitation and hygiene standards had led to cholera and typhus. Agnes and the sisters also focused on the educational standards of the local children. The establishment of the Congested Districts Board the same year Agnes arrived in Foxford proved to be timely in the funding opportunities it offered. Harnessing the power of the River Moy, the historic mill was established a year a later. Despite many challenges, including being burnt to the ground in 1908, it is one of the last working mills in the Ireland and an iconic international brand.
What Agnes Morrogh-Bernard would make of the thriving, thoroughly modern Foxford Woollen Mills today is a matter for conjecture. She would undoubtedly welcome the fact that the standard of living in this rural town and area has utterly transformed since the decades she spent there as a dedicated innovator, community worker and creative entrepreneur.
While her story is told at the mill’s interpretative centre, which attracts thousands of visitors each year, this new biography adds much colour and soul to this radical woman, who faced very challenging times, both politically and economically, with wonderful fortitude. The book also makes an important historical contribution to the life and politics of the area.        

Bohola resident, Margaret Molloy works for Mayo Library service. Her work has been published in The Mayo News, The Western People and The Connaught Telegraph, as well as in The Irish Catholic and Ireland’s Own.

‘Agnes Morrogh-Bernard: Foundress of Foxford Woollen Mills’, by Margaret Molloy, is published by Mercier Press and on sale locally at €14.99.