‘Education in Tullamore down the Years.’ By Dr Moran, From Centenary records, Christian Brothers, St Columba’s Tullamore,1862-1962
Dr William Moran, a distinguished man of letters and former parish priest of Tullamore (1949–65),…
About two kilometres from Shannonbridge on the Clonmacnoise road (R444), in the townland of Clerhane, a narrow laneway leads to the site of all that now remains of a once thriving industry in limestone quarrying. While the origins of the quarries are lost in the mists of time it can be assumed that the stone for all the major building projects in the area was sourced locally. The heyday of the operations can be regarded as being from the early nineteenth to the mid twentieth century. While their many monuments and buildings in stone will stand for centuries, the memories of the quarries that produced them, their owners, the workforce and methods of operation are in danger of being totally forgotten.
The Rocks of Clerhane, as the area is known, contains two main quarries, both now flooded, in a wooded limestone pavement area. The quarries consisted of two separate businesses, Egan’s and Hughes’ (later Claffey’s). Following the laneway, the first quarry, Egan’s, is located on the right. The only building still standing is the quarry workshop, formally a herdsman’s house in the Williams Estate. The name Egan’s Quarry can still be read on the door which features a slot for letters. Another small quarry, Mannion’s, adjoins to the northeast. Just past Egan’s stand the ruins of Claffey’s house and further on, after a left fork in the lane, the abandoned Claffey’s quarry. No trace of buildings remains here. From Claffey’s quarry a one-kilometre rough track leads to the river Shannon ending in a short canal and the remains of a small pier. A second track from the quarries runs parallel some two hundred metres upstream (to by-pass a shoal in the river) and this was used to transport stone for the building of Athlone Bridge in the 1840’s.
logo of Hughes Quarry c. 1890.
The limestone quarries at Clerhane contain an abundance of fossils and a special seam which has been referred to as “Irish grey marble”. This is not a true marble, being sedimentary rather than metamorphic, but the term is used for limestone that can take a polish. The stone is in tilted beds with the layers varying in thickness up to half a metre. The layers facilitated quarrying by vertical cutting only, important where speed was essential in coping with the constant threat of water ingress from springs. Stone was split by drilling a line of holes, inserting an oak dowel and peg and tapping them until the rock split. This was known as the “plug and feather system”. A crane lifted the stone from the quarry floor, and it was transported to the shed where it was placed on a stone block, called the banker, for carving. All the other heavy work was done with horses.
The finished product was transported to the river or to the pier at Shannonbridge and onwards via the Shannon and the Grand Canal, as for example to Belmont Mill for rebuilding after the disastrous fire of 1879. The Parliamentary Gazetteer in 1845 recorded that, 3000 cubic feet of marble had been sent to Killaloe Marble Works, manufacturers of fireplaces, monuments and dairy slabs. The building trade was responsible for 90% of stone sales. An idea of the variety of goods produced can be gauged from this entry in the Industrial Directory 1939 for K.P. Egan and Sons – suppliers of marble, church fonts, headstones, monuments, altars and altar rails, marble mantelpieces, marble pulpits, statues, limestone, stone balustrades, corbels, cornices, kerbs, lintels, windowsills, doorsteps etc. As well as the prestigious work of church building, wall cappings, gate piers, land rollers and animal troughs were turned out.
Egan’s quarry in 2009.
Constant inflow of water from springs and the adjoining bog made an effective pump essential. In addition, the better stone was found deep in the quarry. Hughes / Claffey had a bucket conveyor, which when primed by water from a canal, would run until the quarry was empty. Egan’s had a windmill which was superseded by a Hornby steam powered pump, imported by Fayles of Birr in 1889 from the Hornby Grantham Works in England, for Wallers of Hunston and purchased by Egan’s c.1913.
Newspaper advert. for Egan’s in 1919.
The Egan family originated In Co. Wexford and were operating their quarry at Clerhane by the middle of the nineteenth century and continued until work finally petered out in the nineteen fifties. Over time they opened branches in Athlone, Salthill, Portumna, Kilcormac and Mountbolus. Their noted work included the repairs to the cap stone of McCarthy’s Tower, Clonmacnoise by Kieran Egan in 1868 for the Kilkenny Archaeological Society. Clerhane limestone was also used in the repair of the Nuns’ Church by the Society in 1865 where missing carved stones were replaced with plain voussoirs. Egans were also responsible for the supply of cut stone in Ballinahown Church, being paid over £800.00 for the contract, with the crinoidal limestone clearly visible on the threshold stones and door surrounds. The last entry in the Parish Disbursements Book on 30th January 1904 reads “Egan, Stone Cutter, for six gate piers at road wall £15.00.” A successful stone business is conducted to this day by Michael Egan and family in Kilbeggan.
James Hughes operated the second quarry, and the adjoining farm of 117 acres. Hughes were masons from Newry, Co. Down who came south to work on the bridge at Athlone in the 1840’s. They operated a coal, corn, potato and general merchant business trading as F.P. Hughes, The Quay, Athlone. Many headstones by Hughes can be seen in cemeteries throughout the midlands and they also supplied stone to businesses such as Belmont Mill. The Hughes family sold their property to Michael Claffey and emigrated to the United States in the early 1900’s.
Michael Claffey ran the quarry producing monuments in cut stone, of which there are many fine examples in local graveyards. He supplied rubble stone for road making. Unfortunately, production came to a premature end in 1940 when a spring broke through and flooded the quarry, there being no pump available with the capacity to cope with the situation.
In the 1940’s, Martin (The Dean) Flannery set up his monumental works at Clerhane . He carved the fine Old I.R.A. monument that stands in front of the courthouse in Moate. He carved the memorial to United Irishman, Michael Conway, who was hanged in Ballycumber in 1798. This memorial, erected by “local republicans” in 1934 stands in Liss graveyard. His brother Kieran Pat Flannery was a noted sculptor.
Claffey’s quarry, limestone beds tilted at 30 degrees.
Many local workers were employed in the industry at peak times. It’s now hard to estimate, but a total workforce of up to one hundred has been mentioned, but unfortunately most of the names do not survive. The numbers were augmented from time to time by travelling quarry workers, “stonies”. These journeymen travelled from quarry to quarry working for a while and then moving on. The stonies were generally regarded as “characters”, tough, hard-working and hard drinking. They kept to themselves and a propensity to move on without notice often caused headaches for quarry owners. One such stonecutter was Terry Callery who came to Clerhane from Oldcastle, Co. Meath and stayed with the Claffey family for over thirty years. He had expertise in dealing with water ingress problems. He was remembered as a great Irish dancer, who wore clogs, was afraid of ghosts and dug for gold at night. He died in Tullamore Hospital on Pattern Sunday 1937.
Claffey family and Terry Callery at Claffey’s house Clerhane c. 1935. L. toR.: Annie Claffey (Sr. Monica) Michael Claffey, Terry Callery, Elizabeth Claffey, Joseph Claffey, Margaret Claffey (Mrs. Turley).
The lucrative headstone business was a mainstay of the stone business and remains so to this day. There was intensive competition between the quarries for this work. As designs evolved hand carved twelve-foot-high Celtic crosses with inscriptions in relief or marble inserts were developed. At a cost of £60.00 in the 1920’s, they were often erected with “money from America”.
The decline of the stone industry can be attributed to many causes. Quarries were abandoned due to a combination of diminishing returns, increased depth of workings, reduced demand, lack of space for removal of spoil and flooding. The introduction of concrete to the building industry with the arrival of cement production in the 1930’s, coupled with a transport and labour shortage during the Second World War, sounded the death knell of the stone industry as it then existed.
The quarries were an essential part of the local economy in difficult times when just to survive was a constant struggle, with privations and hardships which are now difficult to comprehend. The industry made a significant contribution to the built heritage in the immediate area and much further afield.
Egan’s quarry workshop.
In more recent times, in a link with the past, the water fonts in St. Kieran’s church in Shannonbridge (1965) were carved by Kieran Egan, the exterior stonework of the Clonmacnoise Visitor Centre (1991-92) utilises limestone from Claffey’s quarry and the magnificent countertop in the reception area and some floor inserts are of crinoidal marble from Egan’s quarry. This may have been the last ever contribution from the Clerhane quarries, which have given so much to our heritage over the last two hundred years. Now silent, their legacy will long remain.