The limestone quarries of Ballyduff, Tullamore. By John Wrafter


On the 1809 map of King’s County by William Larkin, one can easily fail to spot the tiny T-shaped symbol about 1 mile northwest of the town of Tullamore. There is no description to inform the reader what the object represents. Its shape and its location, however, leave no doubt as to what it symbolizes. It is the first post-Reformation Catholic church in the parish of Tullamore. Erected in 1775 in the townland of Ballyduff, the chapel’s out of the way location some distance from the town of Tullamore seems peculiar today. Another look at the 1809 map provides at least a partial clue to its location. Not more than about a hundred metres from the chapel is a quarry, probably one of the earliest limestone quarries to be opened in the area and almost certainly the source of the stone of which the chapel was built. The chapel was presumably built by the workers and tradesmen of the local quarries. Today the ruins of the Ballyduff chapel are located in the middle of the Axis Business Park accessed from the Clara Rd.

Fig. 1. From the 1809 map of Kings County by William Larkin. Ballyduff chapel is represented by the tiny symbol in the upper-left quadrant of the map.

For at least 200 years the quarries of Ballyduff contributed enormously to the development of Tullamore and its surroundings. Despite this, the history of the quarries and the hundreds of quarrymen and stonecutters who worked in them has not been all forgotten.

But there was a time when the quarries at Tullamore were renowned for the quality of the stone they produced, and the stone cutters who worked there were considered to be some of the best in the country.

My interest in the history of the quarries and the stone industry in Tullamore stems from my experience as a boy growing up close to the disused quarries in Ballyduff. Sneaking off to the quarries with siblings or friends was always a bit of an adventure. Much later in life as I delved into family and local history, it became clear that quarrying and stonemasonry were important aspects of the lives of many of my ancestors, and for the local community in general. Several generations of Molloys, Horans, Brackens, Wrafters – my own family, and many more made their living as quarrymen, stonecutters, and carvers.

In order to put together a history of the quarries and the people who worked them, I gathered information from newspaper archives, birth, marriage and death certificates, historic maps, emigration records, and so on. A particularly valuable source of information was a logbook of work carried out at one of the Ballyduff quarries, mainly for the year 1853, that has been in my family’s possession since that time.

While researching the history of the Ballyduff quarries a fascinating story of hard work, skill, pride and ambition emerged. The story is not confined to the vicinity of Tullamore. Buildings and monuments in many parts of Ireland are made of Tullamore limestone. Stonecutters who had learned their skills in Ballyduff employed these skills in other parts of Ireland, but perhaps more significantly many brought their skills to other parts of the world, including Australia and USA. Some of this story is told below.

The quarries

The low-lying areas of Offaly, which is almost all of the county apart from the Slieve Bloom Mountains and Croghan Hill, consists of a variety of limestones laid down in the Carboniferous period, more than 300 million years ago. The former quarries of Tullamore and Ballyduff are located in these limestone rocks. Limestone is a very useful material as it is strong enough to build with but also soft enough to work, carve and shape.

The quarries had probably been actively worked for some time before the erection of Ballyduff chapel in 1775 given the need for a supply of stone for construction work in the town of Tullamore, which had been growing slowly but steadily since the early eighteenth century.

The ordnance survey map of ca 1837 suggest that several quarries were opened in the intervening years since 1809. Despite being generally referred to as the Ballyduff quarries only a couple of smaller quarries were actually located in this townland; most of the quarries were in adjacent townlands: Sragh, Muiniagh and Arden. There were other quarries in the townlands of Ballydrohid and Puttaghaun. Sir Charles Coote owned almost all the land in Srah, Muniagh, Arden and Ballydrohid, comprising about eighteen hundred acres.

The next map record of the quarries is from the ordnance survey of the 1890s. Between 1830s and 1890s it was primarily the quarries beside Ballyduff house (in Sragh townland) that showed a marked increase in size and was presumably the most active in that period.

The quarries on Collins’ Lane straddling the border between the townlands of Muiniagh and Arden and worked by the Horan family were relatively large already in the 1830s. Collins’ Lane links the Clara Rd. with Arden Rd or the Kilbeggan Rd.

Fig. 2. Ordnance Survey map of ca 1900.

Another early quarry of interest in the Tullamore area was that situated between Lower Barrack St (present day Kilbride St) and the canal. The 1837 Ordnance Survey map would indicate that this quarry was water-filled and no longer in use at the time. Perhaps the construction of the canal in about 1800 made it unsuitable or unsafe for continued use. On the north bank of the canal was Tinkers Row, also known as Quarryview. Several of the small, thatched houses on this road were occupied by stonecutters and their families up to the beginning of the 20th century. Today it is known as Clontarf Road.

Fig 3. Ordnance Survey map of 1838 of part of Tullamore showing the location of the quarry (water-filled) just south of the canal.

An essay written in 1937/38 by a pupil at a school in Tullamore as part of the National Folklore Collection summarises the role quarrying had in Tullamore and even claims how old the quarries are.

The quarries were opened about 250 years ago, and according to tradition, the first quarry at Muinagh was worked by a man named Jack Horan. Other quarries were worked at Ballyduff by the Molloys, Wrafters and others. Over 200 men were employed at the time, most of whom were skilled craftsmen – a boy was apprenticed to the trade for seven years. All the principal buildings and churches were erected from stone supplied by the Tullamore quarries.

Tullamore was an insignificant town before 1700 but increased in importance throughout the 18th century. A military barracks was built in 1716. Factory buildings were erected for the flourishing linen industry from the 1750s up to about 1800. Some buildings in Patrick St date from the mid 1700s, including the former D. E. Williams building. Several stone houses in both High Street and O’Connor Square were also erected at this time, many of which survive to this day. Judging from the surge in the development of Tullamore in the mid 1700’s then it is probable that the quarries in Ballyduff were producing building stone as early as this.

Well-known in the 19th century

While researching the history of the Tullamore/Ballyduff quarries I did not expect to find many, if any, published accounts of the quarries. Neither did I expect that the quarries would have generated much interest outside the Tullamore area. While generally true for the 20th century, in the 19th century the quarries attracted considerable attention and are mentioned in several publications and newspapers.

In the Transactions of the Geological society of London (volume 5, 1819) it was stated that “limestone was quarried and wrought for various purposes, near Tullamore in the King’s county being of a greyish white colour, and of a large granular texture”.

In Practical geology and ancient architecture of Ireland (1845), the author George Wilkinson notes that:

At Tullamore several varieties of very excellent limestone occur; these have been used in many of the mansions and modern castles in the county for miles around, as the material good in itself, is worked here by very good masons. In the town and neighbourhood of Tullamore, limestone is universally used; blocks of large dimensions can be obtained.

In an 1865 publication by the Geological Survey of Ireland one can read: Very extensive quarries are open in it (gray limestone) in Ballyduff, one mile NW of Tullamore, where, the stone, which is of very superior quality, and can be obtained in very large blocks, is much worked. It takes a fine polish and is much used for tombstones and other purposes where cut stone is required.

In a footnote to the above description, it is added: The price of best Ballyduff limestone delivered in Dublin would be about 1 s, 6d per cube foot in the rough. Strongly chiselled ashler about 2s, 6d per superficial foot, and tombstones, four inches thick, about 2s per superficial foot, delivered in Dublin.

The Grand Canal – new opportunities in the 19th century

The history of the quarries at Ballyduff is closely associated with the growth of the town of Tullamore, as mentioned above. Most of the stone required for building purposes in the town from the 18th to 20th centuries was almost certainly extracted from the Ballyduff quarries. Perhaps more significantly, it was the extension of the Grand Canal to Tullamore in 1798 which opened up possibilities for the transport and use of Ballyduff limestone in Dublin and even further afield.

From a House of Commons report, written in 1830, on the feasibility of building a canal branch from Tullamore to Kilbeggan, an understanding of how quarried stone was shipped to Dublin can be gathered. Building stone was loaded onto carts at the quarry at Ballyduff for transport to the canal at Tullamore, about 1 ½ miles. The stone was unloaded at a convenient place, probably at or near the harbour. When a Grand Canal boat was available, a load of about 40 tons of stone was loaded for further transport to Dublin. About 350 freight boats operated on the Grand Canal in the early nineteenth century. Charges in 1830 for stone, bricks and similar merchandise was 11/2 d per ton per mile, but not exceeding 1s 1d for the complete trip to Dublin. The stone from Ballyduff was probably unloaded at the Grand Canal docks in Ringsend, the building of which was completed in 1796.

The catalogue of buildings and monuments in Dublin that have used Ballyduff limestone in their construction is truly impressive, and as far as I know has not been previously documented. I will refer to just a few notable examples here.

  • The Chapel Royal, part of Dublin Castle, built between 1807 and 1814. The chapel is decorated with more than 90 heads of various Irish dignitaries and saints carved out of Tullamore limestone.  The carved heads include those of Brian Boru, St Patrick and Jonathan Swift. The exterior is clad in a thin layer of Tullamore limestone.

Fig 4. Sculpture of Brian Boru at the Chapel Royal, Dublin Castle.

  • In a history of Dublin from 1818, the chapel is highly praised for its workmanship. The sculpted heads are of “dark blue marble from the quarries of Tullamore” and “has a susceptibility of expression not inferior to the finest statuary marble, and a durability of texture which the action of the atmosphere will not erode in any given time”.
  • The tracery, windows, and dressings at St. Patrick’s Cathedral are done with Ballyduff limestone. This was part of the restoration of the cathedral which was funded by the Guinness family in the 1860’s.
  • The pillars and cornices of the Kildare Street Club at 1 Kildare Street are of limestone from Ballyduff. The Kildare Street Club was a member’s club in Dublin for gentlemen from the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy. They moved into their new premises at 1 Kildare Street in 1860. In 1900 the club was called by a member “the only place in Ireland where one can enjoy decent caviar”. An interesting additional connection with Tullamore is that the Kildare Street Club was designed by Benjamin Woodward, a native of Tullamore. Woodward was the architect behind the Museum building at Trinity College, Dublin, and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Fig 5. Part of the Kildare Street club house of 1860. The pillars and cornices are of Ballyduff limestone. Photograph: Patrick Comerford

One of the people responsible for the use of Ballyduff limestone as a building stone in Dublin was James Patrick Beardwood. James came from a Dublin family of architects and builders. James was active as a builder from the 1840s until the 1860s. The Beardwoods were responsible for the erection of several notable buildings in Dublin including the Catholic University Church in St. Stephen’s Green South, built in 1854-56 by Beardwood and Son of Westland Row, and the Royal College of Physicians at 6 Kildare St in 1861 by James Beardwood.  Large quantities of limestone from the Ballyduff quarries were purchased by James Beardwood in the early 1850s, presumably destined for Dublin by way of canal transport. For which buildings the stone was used has not been established.

The quarrymen and stonecutters

The buildings and monuments that were constructed from Ballyduff limestone in the period mid-18th to mid-20th century were the result of the labour and skill of hundreds of men. Here are some that caught my attention:

John Wrafter, born c. 1794, died Ballyduff 1852. John became an apprentice stonecutter in 1807 at the age of 13 and went on to become a skilled stone carver. In 1826 the same John Wrafter was appointed sculptor for the new county goal in Tullamore; this is recorded on an engraved stone plaque over the entrance. He built up a successful quarrying and building business in the first half of the 19th century employing up to 40 men. In 1840, he was awarded the contract to build the workhouse in Tullamore. The workhouse was completed in 1842. Also in 1842, John constructed the window over the alter in the new Catholic Church in Birr. In an article about the church in a Dublin newspaper the Parish Priest is complemented for among other things, “procuring the services of Mr Rafter of Tullamore, whose name is so justly celebrated in the stonecutting department”. In about the year 1848 he was contracted to provide the stone dressings for the windows of the new St Laurance O’Toole church in the centre of Dublin. John was my great-great-grandfather.

John Molloy, born 1821, died Ballyduff 1898. Lived at Ballyduff house in the second half of the 19th century. John was the most prominent person in the stonemason business in Tullamore between the 1850’s up to the time of his death. He was the owner of a thriving quarrying and building contracting business based on the quarries behind his residence in Sragh. In 1875 he was contracted to build a Catholic Church in Clara. He was awarded a gold medal for the quality of the stone at the Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures in Dublin in 1882. At least three of John’s brothers, all stonecutters by trade, emigrated to Tasmania, Australia in the 1850’s. One of the brothers, Bernard (b 1825, d. 1913), established a successful stonemason and building business in Hobart, the main town in Tasmania. Together with Patrick Cronly, another Tullamore stonecutter, they carried out the stonework on the Church of St Augustine at Longford, Tasmania, built in 1866-67.

Fig 5. Photo of John Molloy (late 19th century).

Fig 6. Photo of Church of St Augustine at Longford, Tasmania, built in 1866-67. Courtesy of  Monissa Whiteley

On 20 March 1916 in Tullamore two of the prominent participants in the so-called Tullamore Incident were stonecutters: Peadar Bracken and Joe Wrafter. The Tullamore Incident refers to a breach of law and order in which shots were fired by the Irish Volunteers, Bracken, Wrafter and Frank O’Brennan. RIC Sergeant Ahern was injured by Bracken. It is frequently referred to as ‘the first shots of the Rising’ although it occurred a month before the Easter Rebellion. Peader went on to play an important role in the Easter rising in Dublin. Peader’s father Joseph and several of his brothers were also stonecutters.

I hope to relate more about the people who worked the stone of the Ballyduff quarries in a future article.

Our thanks to our new contributor John Wrafter, formerly of Ballyduff.