Granite as a building material in Dublin in the early eighteenth century

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Featured-Archive-Post, Features, Issue 6 (November/December 2014), Volume 22

One of Malton’s views of College Green (1792–9), with the parliament building and the façade of Trinity College, and a detail (inset) showing a blockwheel cart or ‘Irish carr’ used to transport heavy goods, including granite blocks. In both buildings granite was used to construct the walls, and Portland stone for the columns, pediments and friezes. (NLI)

One of Malton’s views of College Green (1792–9), with the parliament building and the façade of Trinity College, and a detail (inset) showing a blockwheel cart or ‘Irish carr’ used to transport heavy goods, including granite blocks. In both buildings granite was used to construct the walls, and Portland stone for the columns, pediments and friezes. (NLI)

In 1772 John Rutty, in his ‘Essay towards a natural history of the county of Dublin . . .’, stated that granite ‘within these thirty years, is introduced and greatly used and esteemed in our buildings in the city of Dublin . . . insomuch as to have in some measure supplanted the use of Portland stone’. The first part of Rutty’s remark dates the introduction of granite for construction work in Dublin to the early 1740s. In the second part Rutty describes the construction method that had been adopted in Dublin, which used granite to construct the walls and Portland stone for the columns, pediments and friezes. This approach reflected the fact that each block of Portland stone used in columns, for example, weighed about five tons and had to be transported by sea from the south of England.

One of Malton’s views of College Green (1792–9), with the parliament building and the façade of Trinity College, and a detail (inset) showing a blockwheel cart or ‘Irish carr’ used to transport heavy goods, including granite blocks. In both buildings granite was used to construct the walls, and Portland stone for the columns, pediments and friezes. (NLI)

One of Malton’s views of College Green (1792–9), with the parliament building and the façade of Trinity College, and a detail (inset) showing a blockwheel cart or ‘Irish carr’ used to transport heavy goods, including granite blocks. In both buildings granite was used to construct the walls, and Portland stone for the columns, pediments and friezes. (NLI)

An alternative stone was granite, which was available locally in south Dublin and north-west Wicklow, but this could only be transported to Dublin in blocks of up to a quarter-ton on the blockwheel cart or ‘Irish carr’, which was the standard transport vehicle used in Ireland until the early nineteenth century. An example of an ‘Irish carr’ is shown in the foreground of Malton’s print of College Green, and if one examines Malton’s entire set of prints of Dublin it becomes clear that spoked wheels were only used in carriages, while blockwheels were used in all transport vehicles at that time. Consequently, the use of granite stone was restricted to walling, and the combination of granite for walling and Portland stone for the columns, capitals, etc. became a distinctive feature of Dublin’s architectural style in the late 1700s.

Source
In 1712 Trinity College commenced building its great Library, but the accounts show that it used stone from Palmerstown quarry, which is a type of limestone, and there was no reference to the use of granite. The next reference to granite in Trinity accounts was in 1720, when John Bawnan was paid £11-10s-7d for ‘Blessington Stones delivered for work on the new kitchen’. While this indicates the source of the granite as Blessington, the reference must be to the wider area or to the Blessington Estate because the nearest outcrops of granite are a few kilometres from the town.

Blessington was again referred to in 1721 in a receipt for payment for ‘Blessington Stones delivered for ye new buildings over ye cellars in ye College’, which may refer to granite being used for building work. In 1726 a Mr Whinery was paid for ‘a Cornish of Blessington Stone for the new building adjoining the laboratory’, which indicated that a high degree of competence in the carving of granite then existed. Later uses of granite in Trinity included its use in the ‘stew holes in the kitchen’ and for further repairs to the ‘boggs’—which were a recurring problem in the college!

Stonecutters
Apart from identifying the Blessington area as the origin of the stone, the receipts have identified a number of individuals as suppliers of stone and as stonecutters. These include William Reily, Robert Smith and Nathan Hall. The surnames Reilly, Smith and Hall appear in the parish registers of St Mary’s Church of Ireland church in Blessington, with some entries going back to the late 1600s. The family addresses in the register were at Burgage for Reilly, Boystown for Smith, and Burgage and Butterhill for Hall—all of which are outside the town of Blessington and lie adjacent to the line of the nearest granite outcrop. The names of Richard and William Osborne are identified in the receipts as stonecutters and this family name appears in records from the early nineteenth century in the local Catholic parish, for which eighteenth-century records do not exist. This family may have been present in the Blessington area much earlier and played a prominent role as quarry-owners in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Intriguingly, Dr Claud Gilbert, named in the Muniments as bursar of Trinity between 1701 and 1712, appears to have been Professor of Divinity in 1738, and the Gilbert family name appears in the parish registers, with many entries in Humphreystown, which lies adjacent to the line of the granite outcrop.

We are fortunate in having a detailed map of the Blessington area, surveyed by Jacob Neville, which was commissioned by the Wicklow grand jury in 1755 and published in 1760. Neville’s map indicates two granite quarries located to the east and to the north-east of Blessington. He refers to them as ‘freestone quarries’, which meant that the blocks of stone could be easily dislodged with the wedges and basic tools then available to stonecutters.

Neville did not name these two quarries but faint traces of them remain to this day at Woodend and Threecastles, with the Woodend quarry probably coming into use first. Both Woodend and Threecastles were on the Blessington Estate, established by Michael Boyle in 1667, and the main east–west spine road of the estate led directly from Woodend quarry to Blessington, the estate town. So one or other of these quarries is the likely source of the ‘Blessington Stone’ supplied to Trinity College in 1721. The papers of the Blessington Estate include a 21-year lease for a farm, dated 22 October 1766, from William, earl of Blessington, to ‘Jonathan Ravell of Three Castles in the County of Wicklow, Stonecutter’, which identifies him as a quarry-owner.

Neville’s 1760 map of the Blessington area, with granite outcrops and quarries indicated. (TCD).

Neville’s 1760 map of the Blessington area, with granite outcrops and quarries indicated. (TCD).

Jonathan Ravell appears in the registers of St Mary’s Church, Blessington, as early as 1725 and again in 1728 with an address at Three Castles. By 1740 his address was Woodend and in 1744 Woodend-Oldcourt, so perhaps he lived initially at Threecastles and moved to Woodend as the quarrying business developed. Ravell was well connected, because in 1747 his daughter, Elizabeth Ravell of Woodend, married Revd William Walsh, rector of St Mary’s Church, Blessington. This was William Walsh’s second marriage, his first wife being Mary Stewart, a cousin of the earl of Blessington.

Workforce
The quarries at Woodend and Three-castles supported a significant industrial settlement located at Oldcourt, which lay between both quarries. The quarries employed perhaps over 100 men, many of whom came from the mountain townlands east of Blessington. These workmen were mostly Catholic, in contrast to the quarry-owners, who were Church of Ireland, so we do not have surviving parish registers to consult. Many of the families involved in working these quarries can, however, be identified through the large number of headstones from the eighteenth century that survive in the nearby Catholic graveyard at Manor Kilbride. The early dates, absolute numbers and intricacy of the carving on the headstones of the Brady, Nolan and White families suggest that they were involved in quarrying from the early eighteenth century.

John Hussey is a civil engineer.

Read More: When was granite introduced?

Further reading

J. Hussey, Wicklow Granite—a history of quarrying at Ballyknockan, Golden Hill, Threecastles and Woodend (forthcoming e-book).

The author acknowledges the support of Blessington History Society and the staff of the Manuscript Library and the Glucksman Map Library, Trinity College, Dublin.

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