The Story of Brickmaking in Pollagh, County Offaly. By Caitriona Devery

Pollagh Heritage Group’s first book The Story of Brickmaking in Pollagh, County Offaly will be launched  by Cathaoirleach of Offaly County Council, Peter Ormond, on Sunday 8 December at 2pm in Pollagh Community Centre. The book represents almost two years of work by the group to locate, collect and represent research materials including recorded interviews, photographs, historical reports and minutes, newspaper archives and academic articles.

20191120 Pollagh brick jacket
The new book will be launched on Sunday 8 December 2019 at Pollagh Community Centre at 2 p.m.

The Heritage Group started in 2015 and have an interesting track record of projects, often at the intersection between history, heritage and culture. In 2015 the group won Heritage Council funding for an oral history project on early industrial peat harvesting in Turraun bog, one of the first sites of its kind in Ireland. Turraun was the home for early Irish State Turf Development Board which became Bord na Mona. Many workers from all over the country worked on these ‘camps’ in the 1940s and 1950s and beyond.
In 2017 the group won Creative Ireland funding for a project called ‘Places of Holes’. The group worked with an American artist called Rachael Champion to investigate the various histories of the bog; cultural, social, industrial and natural. Rachael met with many people on her visits to Ireland and created a set of sculptures in Turraun bog, inspired by these different stories.

7.Bogman scuplture Pollagh
The Bogman Sculpture, Pollagh (base of Pollagh brick)

After the focus on the bog, brickmaking seemed like the next obvious topic. Brickmaking is a major part of Pollagh’s history, in fact you could say bricks are truly foundational to Pollagh. Without the brick industry of the 19th century, the village might not even exist. The abundance of the blue-grey clay which lies along the Brosna valley may have attracted early settlers to Pollagh during the construction of the Grand Canal, which reached the area in the early 1800s. The canal itself is of crucial importance, as it allowed brickmakers to transport their bricks to Dublin.

064925 Shackleton Collection - reduced
Brick kiln, Pollagh, 1894  Courtesty of the Shackleton Collection

Brickmaking was carried out all over Ireland. Many places in Offaly manufactured the same pale biscuit-yellow bricks just like in Pollagh. Gallen near Ferbane was famous for this, as was Rahan and other places, and we hope that while our book focuses on Pollagh, it will resonate with the histories of these brickmaking communities as well.
Making bricks by hand was a skilled process, which we outline in detail with some amazing pictures from Maura Corcoran of Gillen in the book. It was tough and dirty manual work, but it allowed families to make a living and survive the difficult 19th century. Workers on a brickyard had carefully defined roles and they had to work together like a machine. A brickyard would aim to make 5200 bricks per day, 200 extra were called ‘dog bricks’ and made as spares in case a dog or other animal walked over the wet bricks and destroyed them.

3.Brick labourers and kiln, Gillen (image - Maura Corcoran)
Brick labourers and kiln at Gillen – image from Maura Corcoran

The bricks were used for housing in Pollagh and all over Offaly, and also in historic buildings in Pollagh including St Mary’s Church which was built by the community to an unusual design (now adapted to a more conventional shape), and the original St Mary’s National School. The bricks were also sent up to Dublin where they were used mainly in internal building. These days, the bricks are highly prized for decorative features in houses. They are used in the Bogman sculpture on the canal in Pollagh.

Cross section of clay and Brick mould
It was a rewarding if arduous process writing the book. It took longer than we expected but we are very happy to have recorded the history of our community in this way. The group are very grateful for the support and encouragement of Amanda Pedlow, Heritage Officer at Offaly County Council, to John Feehan for contributing a chapter on the clay and geology, and many other people who we’ve listed in the acknowledments.  The book is filled with full colour images and is beautifully designed. It was important to us that the book has the stories of everyday people at its heart. While it’s about a particular place we hope it offers an insight in to 19th century working life and the rise and fall of manual and craft industries such as this.

6.The original St Mary's National School Pollagh
Original St Mary’s NS Pollagh, built with Pollagh brick

The book  sells for €15 with 55 pages, full colour. It can be bought at the launch, from the Community shop in Pollagh and through an online link which we will post after the launch on the Pollagh Heritage Group Facebook page. It will also be available at Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore and at its stall at Bridge Centre in the days before Christmas.

8.House at the Fingerboard
An attractive Charleville Estate cottage of 1841 at the Fingerboard, Tullamore (built with Pollagh brick)