The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
“Some of old stonies will hold their heads high, and carry with them to the grave the feeling that they have left their mark on many a church, and on many a building, and that in years to come, there will be people to admire the work they have left behind them, as we of this generation respect and understand the work of the men of long ago. All men hope for praise of some sort, and it is a nice thing to see a man smile when he knows you are in earnest in liking his work. We become children again, and are mightily pleased with ourselves and want to show that we can do even better.”
From the book Stone Mad by Seamus Murphy, stone carver, 1966.
In this article, I write about some of the fine buildings and monuments in other parts of Ireland built using limestone from the Ballyduff quarries. There is a section on aspects of the lives of stoneworkers in Tullamore in the 19th century, and finally I have a look at a couple of Tullamore families that were prominent in stoneworking over long time periods.
In the first article on the Ballyduff quarries, I wrote about the use of Ballyduff and Tullamore limestone in buildings and monuments in Dublin in the 19th century. This was made possible by the extension of the Grand Canal to Tullamore in 1798. Quarried stone could be transported to Dublin relatively quickly and cheaply. However, Tullamore limestone was also used for buildings and monuments in other parts of Ireland, particularly in the midlands. And stonecutters and masons from Tullamore were much sought after. The following examples illustrate this.
St Brendan’s Catholic church in Birr dates from 1824. However, the window with stained glass over the altar was added in 1842. The Dublin Morning Register reporting on the completion of the window praised the Parish priest, Father John Spain for among other things “procuring the services of Mr. Wrafter of Tullamore, whose name is so justly celebrated in the stonecutting department”.
St Brendan’s Catholic church in Birr. Stained-glass windows in a limestone structure completed in 1842.
John Wrafter (born 1794) was contracted to build an extension to the Mountmellick workhouse in 1851. Because of the famine at the time, the workhouse was almost certainly overcrowded with inmates, and more accommodation was required. Still in Mountmellick, the former Presbyterian church was officially opened on the 27th August 1854. John Wrafter was contracted to build the church. Much of the chiselled stonework for the church was produced in Ballyduff during the autumn of 1853. The stonework was produced by stonecutters in the employment of the Wrafter family. The building, located in the centre of Mountmellick, is now The Forum and operates as a hostel.
Former Mountmellick Presbyterian church, completed 1854. Photo: National Inventory of Architectural Heritage
John Wrafter’s son, also John (born 1828), was awarded the contract to build St Fintan’s Church in Mountrath in Co Laois in the 1860’s. Although living in Rosenallis at the time John still had a business involvement in the quarries at Ballyduff. The church of St. Paul at Emo near Portarlington was built about 1862 by John of Rosenallis, from the designs of John Sterling Butler, Stephen’s Green, Dublin. The church is built almost entirely of chiselled limestone. Butler was one of the foremost ecclesiastical architects of his time in Ireland. Also built by John Wrafter (again designed by Butler) was the Catholic church in Allen village in Co Kildare, and completed in 1869.
Church at Emo, Co Laois, completed 1862.
Stone from Ballyduff was often used in buildings when high quality was a requirement. An example of this is the former St. Mary’s College or the Hevey Institute in Mullingar built in 1858. Its cornices and dressings are of Tullamore limestone. A rich local Catholic landowner/brewer James Hevey, who died in 1837, left lands and money to fund the construction of a school to ‘provide for the education of the poor children of Mullingar’.
St. Mary’s College, Mullingar, completed in 1858. Photo: National Inventory of Architectural Heritage
Another elaborate building in Mullingar, the psychiatric hospital or asylum built in 1855, received objections and complaints because according to state inspectors “there was unnecessary use of Tullamore stone and ornamental work” for a building of its nature. This structure was designed by J. S. Mulvany (1813-1870), possibly the most celebrated architect operating in Ireland at the time.
Former psychiatric hospital St Loman’s in Mullingar, built 1855.
Later in the 19th century, John Molloy of Ballyduff quarries was contracted to build at least two churches. Work on the Catholic church in Clara commenced in 1875. St. Michael’s Church in Castletown Geoghegan, Co. Westmeath was constructed circa 1885, its dressed stone (cut and shaped stonework around the doors, windows, etc.) acquired from the Ballyduff quarries.
Catholic church in Castletown Geoghegan, built 1885. Photo: National Inventory of Architectural Heritage
Other buildings that used limestone from Ballyduff are the Catholic church in Kinnegad, built 1906, and a convent chapel in Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan built for the Sisters of St. Louis about 1913.
Convent Chapel, Carrickmacross, built 1913. Photo: National Inventory of Architectural Heritage
Ballyduff limestone was popular for the construction of public memorials and monuments. For example, the pedestal of the 1798 memorial in Enniscorthy, erected in 1907, was constructed of Ballyduff limestone.
1798 memorial in Enniscorthy, erected 1907
A World War 1 memorial, unveiled in 1923 by Lord Powerscourt at Bray, comprises a Celtic cross made from Tullamore limestone on a plinth of Wicklow granite. It lists the names of almost 200 people from Bray who died in World War 1. It was constructed by architectural sculptors Charles Harrison and Sons of Dublin.
World War 1 memorial in Bray. Photo: Irish war memorials’ website.
In Bodenstown graveyard in Co. Kildare there is a memorial tablet to the honour of Wolfe Tone. Produced in 1895 from Tullamore limestone and sculpted by Farrell and Son of Glasnevin, the tablet is kept in good condition as the photograph below shows.
Wolfe tone memorial in Bodenstown graveyard, erected 1895.
“One thing we always enjoyed was the visits of the tramp stonies or journeymen. They would arrive from all sorts of far-away places, Tullamore, Stradbally, Waterford, Ballinasloe, and they brought news of all the connections the men had on the various jobs. Questions were asked about this man and that, were they alive or dead? What work was going on up the country? Everyone listened eagerly and old memories were revived and old stories told.”
Seamus Murphy in his book Stone Mad from 1966 recalling the life of stoneworkers in the 1920s.
Stonemasonry is one of the oldest crafts or trades in history. In medieval times there were three classes of stonemasons: apprentices, journeymen, and master masons. Apprentices were bound by an official agreement to work for a master craftsman for a length of time (often seven years) as the price for their training. Journeymen were qualified craftsmen who were paid by the day, and master masons were considered freemen who could operate as self-employed craftsmen and train apprentices. A similar system was still in operation in Ireland up to the early 20th century.
Absconding (quitting without permission) from one’s service as an apprentice was considered a serious matter. In 1857, John Molloy of Ballyduff quarries summoned two apprentices, Joseph Keogh and Laurence Madden, for absconding from their apprenticeships. The cases were heard at a sitting of the Tullamore Petty Sessions. It was claimed by the prosecuting side that Keogh had three years of his seven-year apprenticeship left to serve. The counsel for the defendant (Keogh) claimed that no legal contract ever existed between the parties. The case was postponed until the next petty session in order that a document might be produced in evidence. Madden was not as lucky, and having been found guilty he was sentenced to one month in goal, after which he was required to return to service. Hard times indeed.
Stoneworkers can be divided into different categories.
Quarrymen remove the stone from the quarry.
Stonecutters shape or dress the stone into geometric pieces
Stonemasons uses the stone to build with and this usually requires reshaping the pieces.
A stone carver carries out detailed work such as lettering on gravestones, or foliage and figures on buildings.
Many of the finer buildings from the 19th century in Tullamore and elsewhere are built of ashlars, which are square or rectangular blocks that are dressed (cut or shaped). A typical day’s work for a stonecutter at the Ballyduff quarries in the mid-19th century was about 10 pieces of rough ashlar. The main tools used by stoneworkers were mallets and chisels (see photo below).
Picture taken at the quarry worked by John Molloy in Ballyduff. Date unknown but most likely towards the end of the 19th century. (Photo: Molloy family tree, www.ancestry.com)
Stoneworkers were often paid according to how much work they produced, so called piecework. This changed towards the end of the 19th century when it became more common for stoneworkers to be paid by the week. In 1896, stonecutters at the Ballyduff quarries managed by Molloy and Horan got a raise from 26 to 30 shillings a week.
The stone blocks produced by the quarrymen were worked by stonecutters on site at the quarries into pieces that were required for different parts of a building, for example, bond stones, quoins (or cornerstones), windowsills, arch stones for doorways, keystones for arched windows, and cornices.
The front of the former Mountmellick Presbyterian church showing a variety of dressed stone used in window construction. The stonework was provided by the Wrafter-run quarry in Ballyduff in 1853.
The cut stonework was usually transported by horse-drawn cart to the building site.
Stonework for the building of the Mountmellick Presbyterian church was delivered in this way, each delivery by cart consisting of between 5 and 10 pieces of worked stone. Between 16th September and 14 November 1853 about 45 separate deliveries of stone to Mountmellick arrived from Ballyduff, a round trip of about 60 km. Two of the drivers of the horse drawn carts were Pat Wrafter and a man by the name of Bergan.
In 1869, according to the Kings County Chronicle, there were 100 men working the Ballyduff quarries. Earlier in the 19th century, the numbers employed were most certainly higher, given the many large building projects that were carried out in Tullamore prior to the famine, e.g., the goal and the courthouse.
According to the 1901 census of Ireland, the earliest census for which all or most records survive, a total of 52 stoneworkers were living in the Tullamore area at the time. In 1911, that number had fallen to 40. The breakdown according to occupation for both years is as follows:
Type of stoneworker19011911Stonecutter or stone dresser2929Master stonecutter10Stonemason79Apprentice stonemason10Quarry labourer or stone breaker122Other2Total5240Below age of 20 y24
It should be kept in mind that the occupations in the census are given by the respondents themselves so that there may be some overlap between the different categories. For example, in 1901 only one describes himself as a Master (Charles Neill of Barrack St) although about half of the stonecutters and stonemasons were older that 30 years, many of whom were certainly both experienced and skilled. Another interesting fact is that only one (a John Gallagher of William St in 1901) gave his occupation the prefix “apprentice”. Whether this reflects the real number of apprentices is difficult to say. The fact that only a few stoneworkers were under the age of 20 suggests that the trade was in decline at the time.
Of the 38 stonecutters and masons in 1901, about 20 were still pursuing their trade in Tullamore 10 years later.
Traditionally, the trade of stonecutters and masons was a relatively closed one, so that families remained in the trade generation after generation. Strictly speaking, no one could become a stonecutter unless his father was one. This was not peculiar to Ireland but was a feature of stonemasonry in Europe since medieval times.
The Horan family is one example of this tradition. I have identified at least 16 Horans born before 1900 who at some part of their life worked as stonecutters. Five were born before about 1825 suggesting that the family was involved in the stonecutting trade as far back as the 18th century.
NameBornDiedOccupationLivedPatrick Horanab 18201875Stonecutter/farmerMuiniaghMathias Horan1821-18311905Stonecutter/farmer (Brother of Patrick above)MuiniaghPatrick Horanbefore 1815after 1866StonecutterClara RdMichael Horan 1810-1825?StonecutterPuttaghaunJohn Horanab 1813?1882Stonecutter ?
One family lived next to the quarries on Collins Lane and the family business, Horan Stoneworks, continues at the same place in 2022, although the quarries are closed and have been filled in. There are not many family businesses around today that can claim to have been operating in one form or another stretching over four centuries.
In addition to running their own quarry, several Horan stonecutters were employed at the quarries managed by Wrafter and Molloy throughout the 19th century.
In 1837, John, Mathias, Pat and Peter Horan signed their names to the following declaration rejecting membership in a society of stonecutters.
I, Pat Coffey, do hereby declare, in the presence of witnesses whose names are undersigned that I shall from the date hereof and forever discontinue to be a member of a Society, namely for the combination [organizing] amongst my fellow stone cutters which I now perceive to be unjust in principle, opposed to our religion, and destructive of that order and harmony so essential to the peace and happiness of Society. And I moreover declare that, I shall use my best endevours and any influence I may possess over my fellow tradesmen to influence them to follow my example.
Dated this 4th of Feb. 1837
(sgd) Patt Coffey, Daniel Coffey
Witness Wm Doyle
The following stonecutters signed the above declaration:
Pat Horan, John Horan, Mathias Horan, Peter Horan William Coffey Patt Keegan, John KeeganPatt Cronly, Edw CronlyJim NagleWilliam Lyster Thomas Boland Patt Farrelley
The text in this remarkable document was reproduced in an article on the Cronly family that the late Br James Cronly, a Franciscan friar from Tasmania, published online some years ago. What kind of “society” it was is not absolutely clear, but it is likely to have been some kind of trade union, which at the time were treated with suspicion by the authorities and the establishment. Nonetheless, a notice in the Sligo Journal in January 1831 states that a meeting of the “Union of Trades” comprising coachmakers, carpenters, stone cutter and masons of Tullamore was planned, which indicates that such activity was at least partly tolerated at the time.
Another Horan stonecutter family lived in Clara Rd throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century. An obituary in the newspaper Leinster Leader in 1952 for Patrick Horan, Clara Rd (b 1870) states “His death has removed one of the most esteemed residents in the locality. He was a noted stone-cutter who took a particular pride in his work, and as a true craftsman was widely known all over the country, some of his work being brought to Australia. He worked on the building of the Church of the Assumption, Tullamore, from 1902 to 1906, and was also engaged on the rebuilding of Tullamore Courthouse.”
Men and women from stonecutter families often married into other stonecutter families. There are several examples of marriages in the 19th century between members of stonecutter families Horans, Brackens and Coffeys.
A study of the families employed at the quarries shows that many of the stoneworker families lived either close to the quarries in the townlands of Ballyduff, Sragh and Muiniagh, or in the town of Tullamore in present day Clontarf Rd (previously called Quarryview), Kilbride St. The Mallet Tavern pub on Kilbride St was a popular drinking place for the stoneworkers during the nineteenth century.
Bracken is another family that had a long tradition in the stonecutting trade.
This is particularly true of Denis Bracken, born ab 1814, and his descendants: his sons James, Joseph and Denis, several grandsons and at least one great-grandson, James born 1909. Joseph, born circa 1860, and his wife Anne (White) had at least four sons that became stonecutters in the early years of the 20th century. But work was scarce in Ireland and opportunities were plentiful abroad. The eldest son, Denis, emigrated 1910 or before to Australia, where he continued life as a stonecutter, first in Perth, Western Australia, and later in Melbourne, Victoria. His younger brothers Peader and James, also stonecutters, joined him in Perth, Peader in 1911. Peader was 24 years old when he emigrated but his involvement in the growing nationalist movement in Ireland enticed him a few years later back to Tullamore where he resumed his occupation as a stonecutter. In March 1916, during an incident in Tullamore, he fired a shot, injuring RIC Sergeant Ahern, which in hindsight is often considered to be the first shot of the Easter rebellion of 1916.
In total, I have identified at least 17 stonecutters with the Bracken name born before 1910, four of whom were born before 1840. Many of the Bracken families lived close to the various quarries, in the townlands of Ballyduff, Arden, Sragh and Ballydrohid.
A Joseph and a John Bracken were working for Wrafter in 1853, and a Denis Bracken worked for John Molloy in 1870.
The Bracken brothers were just a few of the Tullamore stonecutters that packed their bags and emigrated, taking with them skills that were often more in demand outside Ireland. In a coming article I will take a closer look at a couple of more stonecutter families, and the legacy that Tullamore stonecutters have left in places a long way from the shores of Ireland.