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Mark Wilson at work in his forge. Photograph by John Kelly

Celebrating East Clare’s iron industry

EAST Clare is all set to  host the inaugural Sliabh Aughty Furnace Festival  celebrating the region’s rich history with the iron industry.

Hidden on the western shores of Lough Derg, in the foothills of the Sliabh Aughty mountains are the remains of four blast furnaces. These furnaces are a witness to an industry that changed the landscape here forever. They were built 300 to 400 years ago to smelt rich local iron ores together with charcoal made from the oak woodlands there.

These hidden gems have recently been brought into focus again, due to the efforts of local historian, Gerard Madden and Dr Paul Rondelez. The two have been working on a publication to publish a transcription of 80 hitherto unknown letters, written between 1693 and 1701, primarily on the iron works of Scariff and Woodford.

The festival also follows a very successful visit to the area by the Historical Metallurgy Society earlier this year.

The festival will take place on September 20 and 21 in Mountshannon and will promote various aspects of life in 17th-century Ireland and will include lectures, day trips walks and re-enactments.

This is not only one of the best preserved group of blast furnaces in Ireland, but also worldwide. Several other ironworks from the same period did not survive above ground. One of these, in Scariff, is of particular historical significance, as it was built by the same people who later went to the New World, where they started up the American iron industry at Saugus near Boston.
Up to now, these furnaces have received very little attention and a group of people are now working together to preserve and spread the knowledge about these fascinating monuments.
For that reason, the Sliabh Aughty Furnace Festival has been organised.

On Saturday, September 20, a day of fun and learning is planned, when a host of events will be taking place in the Aistear Park in Mountshannon. The park already has a labyrinth and a maze and, at the centre, there will be an exhibition around the history of the local iron industry.
In the grounds, re-enactment group Claìomh will erect a large tent, around which they will demonstrate and discuss various aspects of life in 17th-century Ireland, such as leather and wood-working, games and sword-fighting.

Visitors will also be able to watch charcoal-making, try their hands at croquet, which was introduced into Ireland in the 17th century, and many other activities. Just a stroll away, Mark Wilson will be forging iron and answering any questions at the last functioning blacksmith’s forge in Mountshannon.

At the same time, a series of talks will be held at the Mountshannon Hotel, where Professor Audrey Horning of Queen’s University Belfast will talk about the archaeology of industry in 17th-century Ireland and the Americas. Dr Colin Rynne, University College Cork, will also give a historical overview of the industry along the River Shannon.

Meanwhile, Dr Christie Cuniffe, monuments adviser for County Galway, will talk about the work of T Clarke, who made the last liquid iron in the Sliabh Aughty Mountains. Mary Sleeman, county archaeologist for Cork, will explain the legal aspects of upstanding monuments and buried archaeology and answer questions on that subject.

Furthermore, local historian, Sean Spellissy, author of books on the histories of counties Galway and Clare, will provide a light-hearted overview of the past of the Sliabh Aughties.
Finally, the three organisers will talk about various aspects of the long-term project. Paul Rondelez will detail the importance of the local iron industry, both nationally and internationally. Gerard Madden will talk about one of the little treasures that out of the research: the Emmerton Papers, containing invaluable information, not only about the ironworks but also local life in the 1690s. Ewelina Rondelez will round off the day, with details on plans for the future, from digital archaeology to tourism trails.

Events will continue on Sunday, September 21, when a guided tour of some of the most impressive remains in the area between Tuamgraney and Woodford will be held. Among the points of interest are three blast furnaces, all different models, one of which has an unexplained tunnel in its back wall. The tour will also include a visit to the sites of two more furnaces.

At one of these, a large iron bar remains preserved, with the construction date of the furnace: 1681. This tour will last from 10.30am until approximately 5pm, starting from Mountshannon.
For more information, visit the website at www.furnaceproject.org.

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