The impetus to commercialisation of native decorative stone extraction, development of marble mills and cultivation of artisan craftsmanship in the capital and rural Ireland early in the 19th century was prevalent, post-famine industrial drive.  The advent of industrial education in Victorian Ireland, countrywide mapping by Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI) and the Geological Survey of Ireland (GSI), promotion of industry at the trade exhibitions, and advancements in transport and infrastructure assured the inauguration of the Irish decorative stone industry.

Transport and Infrastructure

The pier at Killaloe, courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The radical polychromy of the Museum Building at Trinity College Dublin did not emerge Minerva-like from the brow of Benajmin Woodward, but rather from an imbrication of architecture, geology and engineering. (fig.1 ) While much is known about developments within these disciplines in the early Victorian period, relatively little is known of their relationship. Though the polished ‘marbles’ of the Museum Building owe much to the developing taste for Byzantine, Romanesque and Venetian architecture, this precocious interior is also indebted to industrial entrepreneurship and a patriotic commitment to realise the economic potential of Ireland’s natural resources. Without the quarrymen, engineers and stone merchants who developed methods of extraction, transport and production, polychrome stone architecture on such a monumental scale was inconceivable.

The conditions which made possible William Manderson’s marble contract at the Museum Building were decades in the making. Yet the role of materials and technology in architecture has traditionally been relegated to secondary status, the means to an aesthetic end. While the impact of Ruskin, of the Great Exhibition and of mid-century texts on polychromy were clearly factors in the novel use of coloured stone in the Museum Building, economics, politics and science played a significant and underestimated role in the emergence in Ireland of a taste for polished and coloured stone.

Consultation with architects, builders, artists and leading patrons was an integral part of the testing process and essential in introducing Irish stone to the British market and knowledge of newly opened quarries spread quickly. A major impetus to quarrying all over Britain was the rebuilding of the Westminster Parliament following a devastating fire in 1834. A Royal Commission was established to choose stone for the building. Petitions came from quarry owners all over Britain including one from Limerick which called for the ‘fostering hand of British enterprise’ to draw Irelands ‘most beautiful marbles’ and make them ‘sources of wealth and happiness’ and ‘superb ornaments’ at one third the price of foreign productions’.

Barry and his fellow commissioners made the calamitous choice of Bolsover stone from Derbyshire, of which there was insufficient supply, and which was substituted for by the perishable and more importantly, indiscriminately worked, Anston stone. A petition from the ‘operatives of Limerick and its vicinity’ cited the ‘variance … of so many scientific men’ to Barry’s choice and cited a letter from the civil engineers and architects of southern Ireland, including Sir Thomas Deane, testifying to the strength and ‘good colour’ of the Ballysimon limestone. This public debate about a building ‘of such magnitude and national importance’ served to fuel a patriotic interest in native building materials which had been prevalent since the eighteenth century.

The Museum of Irish Industry

In 1846 the government obtained No. 51 St. Stephen’s Green to house the Museum of Irish Industry and Sir Robert Kane, the appointed director of the institute, set out to convert the premises into an exhibition of Irish industry.  Kane, a Dublin-born chemist, educationalist and author of Industrial Resources of Ireland (1844), was a key promoter of Irish Industry.  He received building stone collections from the Officers of the Royal Engineers in Ireland, the Commissioners of the New Houses of Parliament in London and from George Wilkinson, author of Practical Geology and Ancient Architecture of Ireland (1845).

Early in 1848 Kane had plans to procure panels of Irish marbles, deserving of public attention, for display in the entrance hall of the museum, though he noted that obtaining such a range of samples could take some time as not all were to be found in commerce.  Established in 1845, the Geological Survey of Ireland undertook geological mapping of the country, no doubt aiding Kane in his quest to gather diverse samples of Irish marble.  It was not until March 1849 that Kane announced, “The collection of Irish marbles, for the fitting up of the entrance hall, is nearly complete”.

Kane’s entrance hall, adorned with indigenous marbles, was unveiled in time for the 1853 Dublin Great Industrial Exhibition.  An extract from The Cork Examiner in August 1853 described the Museum of Irish Industry and its influence on the revival of the marble trade in Ireland, which by that time was “all but extinct”.  It stated, “Simulated by the example of the hall of the Museum of Irish Industry, the Board of Works have directed the substitution of Irish for foreign marble in buildings erected under their charge.  The architects of the new buildings to be erected in Trinity College propose to decorate the hall and staircase with Irish marbles; and the Royal Dublin Society have exerted themselves to provide for the Great Industrial Exhibition specimens of some of the same marbles which are in the Museum in Stephen’s-green…”.  The entrance hall plausibly intended to illuminate the applications of Irish marble for decorative architectural purposes.

Among Kane’s primary objectives in founding the Museum of Irish Industry was to “exhibit what we have done, and are doing, so as to register and establish the merit of our success as well as to point out our ignorance or our indifference to the abundant means of far more extended and varied industry which nature has endowed us with”.  This intention was evident in the instructive collections of indigenous building stone, as well as other commercially viable natural assets (mineral specimens, textiles, wool, sea-weed &c.), which informed and propelled resource exploitation, inclusive of decorative stone, in Victorian Ireland.

The Industrial Exhibitions

The Great Exhibition was held in the Crystal Palace in London in 1851.  Connemara marble from Ballinahinch, Galway black marble from Phineas Franklin’s quarry in Menlough, Kilkenny black marble from Colles’ quarry, Cork red marble from Churchtown and white marble from Donegal was exhibited.  William Manderson of the Killaloe Marble Works, who supplied the coloured marble for the Museum Building, exhibited here also.

The post famine National Exhibition, Ireland’s first industrial exhibition, took place in Cork in 1852.  Sir Thomas Deane was the vice-chairman of the executive committee at Cork and Sir Robert Kane was a member of the Dublin Committee.  A range of Irish marbles were exhibited at the Cork Exhibition, including Limerick black from Ballysimon Quarry, Kilkenny black, Connemara marble from Clifden, Clonony marble, grey fossil marble (presumably from Clonmacnoise), Mitchelstown marble and variegated red marble (location not specified but presumed to be from either Cork or Pallaskenry, Limerick).

The Great Industrial Exhibition Dublin in 1853 featured “The Irish Marble Court”.  Reminiscent of Cork, Sir Robert Kane was a member of the committee for the Dublin show and an extensive range of Irish black, grey, white, red, green &c. marbles were exhibited.  A contemporary article in The Ulster Gazette (1853) described the selection process of Armagh marble intended for display at the Great Exhibition.  Mr David McCullough, of the Armagh Marble Works, was a key figure in manufacturing and finishing local marble.  He sent a chimney piece, executed in Armagh marble, to the Dublin Exhibition, which the Committee of Management met with admiration.  The committee sent a messenger, Mr R.J. Hannigan of the Geological Department, to acquire more of the marble and to ascertain its aesthetic qualities and abundance in the area.  He explored several quarries, which he declared to be of much value and capable of producing articles of great beauty and variety.  Upon approval from the Town Commissioners, street flagging was lifted from the town of Armagh in order to obtain specimens of diverse colour, and these were forwarded to Dublin for the exhibition.  The shades included fossil brown, purple, mottled blue, yellow shell, purple shell, red and white, yellow shell with other fossils, and red and yellow spotted.  The quarry belonged to The Lord Primate, Archbishop John Beresford.  The extreme and swift actions undertaken to assure acquirement of an array of Armagh stone reflect the industrial fervour surrounding the exhibitions and the momentum towards manufacturing and sales.

The efforts of Kane’s museum and other state funded bodies along with the industrial trade exhibitions and the inclination of architects and craftsmen to use native materials encouraged the discovery and promotion of Irish industrialism.

Transport was one of the principal cost factors in the stone industry and easy access to shipping was of the first importance. Some 20 square miles of slate was situated about midway along the river Shannon and the counties on its banks were considered ‘ legitimate markets’ together with the interior of the country reached by means of the canals.Though the company struggled against local opposition to gain direct access to a quay on the river and encountered much industrial strife, it eventually managed to strike a deal with the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company to ship its slates to Dublin and beyond.

Charles Wye Williams, engineer and managing director of the Steam Packet Company, was instrumental in linking the slate quarries to the Shannon. Williams was a vociferous champion of industry and commerce and instrumental in establishing the marble works at Killaloe. In an essay on the ‘State of Ireland and the want of employment’ 1831, he rejected speculative political remedies proclaiming ‘My politics are trade and commerce. These are the great pioneers of civilisation, and will continue to be so in all ages and in all countries’.


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