By Seán Beattie
In the summer of 1893, two wealthy middle-class travellers from Sydenham in London arrived in the north west of Ireland. Their visit was no grand excursion, common in the nineteenth century, but was prompted by accounts in the English press about famine conditions in west Donegal.
Mass evictions on the Olphert estate in Falcarragh attracted international media interest and, as journalists filed their reports to London, they painted a gloomy picture of deprivation and hardship.
Alice and Ernest Hart were shocked at the news reports and decided to travel to Donegal to see the situation at first hand. Alice had studied medicine in Paris and her husband was a medical doctor and editor of the British Medical Journal. Alice Hart’s father had acquired considerable riches as the owner of the Macassar Oil Company.
Alice immediately recognised that there was a shortage of work. Weaving, spinning, knitting and embroidery were good sources of income in earlier decades but were in decline at this time. Collectively known as ‘cottage industries’, she decided to make an effort to revive them as a means of raising family income.
In 1883, she made a decisive move and established the Donegal Industrial Fund (DIF) with a donation of £50 from her own resources. A series of letters were dispatched to newspapers eliciting contributions.