The Vacuum – Monsters of Ulster (December 2014)
Next time you visit the Titanic Experience try, if you can, to see clearly, even though youra eyes will have been left misty by the evocative sights while you have time-travelled to Belfast’s glory days. Try, if you can, to think clearly, though you’ll be overwhelmed with nostalgia and a love for the warm centre of Belfast’s essence. Because if you can see and think with any clarity as you leave the building, and stand looking over that as-yet-undeveloped plot of grass which stands, asking to be built on, outside the front door, then spare a thought for the invisible labour that you’ve just passed going through the gift shop. Because, hidden inside the Titanic knick-knacks and the models of the soon-to-be-sinking ship, is the harnassed work, skill and exploited good will of a species of Northern Ireland’s most endearing, if depressing, monsters.
Their history is sad, a story almost so poignantly like that of the human race itself that we might be tempted to anthropomorphise it. They appear, like us, to be indelibly marked by failure. They seem haunted by an undesired but unshakeable capacity for wrong-doing. They are a species whose near-human capacity for making things (through the evolutionary development of hypersensitive distal phalanges) has combined with an absolute innocence and naivety to make them utterly exploitable. Genetically speaking these little monsters share an ancestry with both fox and squirrel, a heritage which is still visible in their behavioural traits – they slink, in a squirming fashion, and their handiwork is carried out with two hands held in front of the face, nose wrinkled in concentration, not unlike a squirrel contemplating the last nut of autumn.
Robert Lloyd Praeger, the great naturalist, wrote about them in an unpublished paper, intended to be delivered as part of the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Praeger’s observations on the creatures’ habits are largely dispassionate and he tells, or knows, little of their history (to this day their origins remain uncertain). But the conditions in which they were kept when he was writing about them in the 1930s seem to have tipped Praeger’s prose into unusual anger. He cites the reports by Roger Casement from the Belgian Congo as he fulminates against the system of tithe ownership which had been established by breeders of these creatures in County Tyrone in the nineteenth century, and which continued, as a form of ‘modern slavery’, in Praeger’s words, in to the twentieth century. Used primarily for keeping straight the awkward warp ends in high quality linen-manufacturing, these little monsters laboured tirelessly but unenthusiastically. Praeger clearly found the sight of their stoic acceptance too much and raged against the factory owners who allowed such practices to continue. It seems, from Praeger’s letters, that it was those very linen-manufacturing barons of Dungannon who lobbied the board of the Royal Irish Academy to prevent Praeger from publicly reading and publishing his findings on the ‘Little Linen Monsters of South Tyrone’. Had it been read, Praeger’s paper could have been a turning point in the social history of the species. At the last minute Praeger gave in to pressure from the Fellows and instead read a paper on stalactites. The moment was lost and when the Second World War came the Linen Monsters were moved to Belfast to work in arms manufacturing.
Praeger’s unpublished paper contains one revealing detail about this seldom-seen species. He describes the lore around these creatures, using the marvelous phrase ‘banshees of sloth’, meaning that prolonged contact with them induced long-term, and sometimes fatal melancholy in their human co-workers. Indeed in South Tyrone it was custom to insist that linen made by the monsters was impressed with a mark in the bottom right corner which would, for the purposes of the rest of the world, function as a mark of the authenticity of the linen, but for locals was a way of avoiding the usage of monster-made linen. Because, it was said, their melancholy was in the cloth itself, and was infectious. And, as recent news reports have suggested, now that the monsters are, apparently, being used to make models of the Titanic, visitors to the Titanic Experience from South Tyrone and of a certain age believe that an aura of the same melancholy which was once in Dungannon linen now seeps out of the gift shop down at the Titanic Quarter’s crown jewel.