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East Clare historian Ger Madden

East Clare furnace industry a hot topic


EAST Clare had an extensive charcoal blast furnace industry in the 17th century based around several rich haematite mines, and this industry has sparked a visit by an international Historical Metallurgy Society next month.

The Historical Metallurgy Society is an International forum for the exchange of information and research in historical metallurgy.

Local historian Gerard Madden of East Clare Heritage has been researching the iron works and woods of Sliabh Aughty for the past 20 years. Together with Belgium born Paul Rondelez, who now lives in Mitchelstown County Cork, Gerard is to publish a transcription of 80 hitherto unknown letters written between 1693 and 1701 primarily on the iron works of Scariff and Woodford.

John Emmerton owned ironworks in Scariff and Woodford from 1692 to 1697 and the recently acquired letters are from his managers there, George Young and William Downes.

In 1997 Gerard published an article in the East Clare Heritage Journal, Sliabh Aughty Vol 7, on The Iron Works of Sliabh Aughty and in 2010 he followed this up with Sliabh Aughty Ramble. It was around this time that what are collectively known as the Emmerton letters in Nottingham Archives came to light.

Some were very difficult to read and so it has taken a long time to decipher them and other 17th century documents, which have also been sourced. Gerard met up with Paul Rondelez, who is currently working on a PhD doctorate entitled The archaeology of ironworking in late medieval Ireland (c.1200-1600). Since then Gerard and Paul have been collaborating on a publication focusing on these ironworks.

In an interesting development, more than 40 delegates are coming from England and Wales on April 12 to see the furnaces in East Clare as they are so well preserved.

Speaking about the history of these furnaces, and also the potential they could create, Gerard outlined that the highest number and best preserved iron furnaces in the country are in East Clare.

He added that the letters offer up completely new material that he believes will bring huge benefits to East Clare in the future.

“Ironworks destroyed the woods but a few survived. Some of the iron mines are still the same as they were in the 17th century. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, when the Plantation of Ireland got underway, the settlers encountered pristine woods remaining in many places. One of the uses found for these woods, seen as cheap resources, was to convert the timber to charcoal for producing iron. At that time, the price of iron in Britain was rising because of the increasing cost of charcoal. For this purpose, blast furnaces were constructed throughout Ireland. These furnaces were large square stone buildings with a water-supply system to power the bellows and produced about a ton of iron per day. In most other places, these early blast furnaces did not survive the ravages of time, but in Ireland a few have survived in various stages of preservation,” Gerard explained.

The area with the best preserved blast furnaces is between Tuamgraney in East Clare and Woodford in County Galway. Here, in an area of approximately twenty kilometres by five kilometres the remains of four of these furnaces survive, dating to the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. It is understood that three more were active in the same period, but are now gone. Twelve Walloons from Liege in Belgium were brought over to work in the iron works in Tuamgraney in the early 1630’s.

“In 1630, a group of London merchants built an iron works on the Scariff River. Two of them, Ffoote and Beeckx, later went over to America and started the first successful ironworks in America, modelled on the Scariff venture. The Saugus Ironworks, just outside Boston is recognised as the birthplace of the American Iron and Steel Industry and is a National Historic Site. The connection with Boston has never been known about, not alone promoted. This has huge potential for tourism,” Gerard outlined.

The significance of the Sliabh Aughty Iron works has never been recognised and it is for this reason, the Historical Metallurgy Society, on their first field trip to Ireland, will visit the area.

“The Historical Metallurgy Society has members worldwide and is devoted to the study of the production of metals in human history. The field trip is part of a meeting of the society, which has the history of iron making in Ireland as its theme. At least three, and possibly all of the four standing furnaces in the Tuamgraney and Woodford area will be visited in April,” he said.

Among them is what is known as the mystery furnace in Ballyvannan, near Tuamgraney. It is described as such as not only is this furnace not mentioned anywhere in the relatively extensive documentation on the area, but it is also located unusually far from both water and a road. According to Gerard its primitive construction could indicate it might be of early seventeenth-century date.

The next location is at Furnace, Whitegate, where imposing remains of a very large furnace of highly unusual construction are located. Here there are remaining walls, suggesting an irregular ground-plan, and also present is a large tunnel at the back of the furnace. This furnace is estimated to date back to the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century.

A further small, but well preserved furnace exists at Derryoober, to the south of Woodford. “It is unclear if it was ever used, or even completely built. The building gave its name to the now disappeared small hamlet of Furnace, visible on nineteenth century maps,” Gerard said. The date of this facility is unclear but is likely to date to the eighteenth century.

Bealkelly, at Ogonnelloe and close to Raheen Woods is the site of another well preserved furnace, this one having much larger dimensions. It is located next to a small stream, and both the casting and blowing arch are in good condition. Gerard says the upper part of the furnace suggests it had an additional timber structure attached.

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