History Chiselled in Stone

In the 1800’s our local quarries and stone cutting industries employed hundreds of people.

Ross Quarry

Quarrying and stonecutting have been part of the local industrial heritage for more than two centuries; there are records from the early 1800’s. Stone quarries operated locally at Ross, Crossrah, Crossdrum Lower, Moate and Ballinascarry townlands. The range of stone products included monumental stone, building stone, lintels, sills, quoins (corner stones), ashlar blocks (smooth cube blocks) gate posts, and kerbs, as well as general stone for road making and for lime making. Lime kilns are located near most of the quarries. Crushed ground limestone and road making stone was produced from the quarry at Ballinascarry.

The first scientific topographical survey of Ireland was carried out in the 1830’s by the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. At the same time a group of geologists started surveys to record and map the underlying bedrock. A separate organisation named the Geological Survey of Ireland was later set up. In July 1864 George Victor Du Noyer, a renowned map maker, geologist, and artist who had previously worked with the Ordnance Survey, did a survey of Ballinacree and beyond and took rock samples from various locations where the underlying rock had been exposed.

He described the rock in Ross Quarry as a pale grey crystalline limestone. He also recorded the prices of stone (See box below ).  He noted also that dressed and cut stone from this quarry was forwarded to the new police barracks in Phoenix Park and other buildings in Dublin, and that P Aherne was the leasee quarry manager.

The building stone from the quarries at Ross and Crossrah gained a reputation in Dublin and throughout the midlands for its durability, its attractiveness, and its ability to be worked.  During the 1800’s there was a boom in the construction of stone buildings throughout Ireland. Estate owners, professionals and merchant classes decided to build new houses.  Many new churches, like the one in Ballinacree(1825) were built after Catholic Emancipation in 1829. With the coming of rail transport in the mid 1800s demand for building stone increased even further.

Ballinacree Community Plaque

Ballinacree Community Plaque

Local tradition has it that cut stone from Ross quarry was used in the following buildings: Crossdrum House 1817; Loughcrew House 1823; and Dowdstown House, (in the grounds of Dalgan Park Navan); the Boyne Viaduct 1855; the Garda Headquarters in the Pheonix Park 1863; St Mel’s Cathedral Longford 1865; St Peter’s Church, Drogheda 1880; Kells Church and the Courthouse Drogheda in 1892; the Market House in Drogheda; St Brigids Church, Oldcastle 1904. It is also believed that cut stone from here was used in other projects but these are difficult to verify: extensions to Kylemore Abbey Galway 1846, Leinster House and Maynooth College.  The stone was probably also used locally in the reconstruction of Ballinrink and Ross bridges in 1879.

It is likely that the quarry gave good employment during the famine years and reduced somewhat the worst effects of crop failure in the local area. A lot of the quarry workers lived in houses around the crossroads at Ross. The census figures for the townland of Ross from 1841 to 1881 are revealing. In 1841, four years before the famine the population of Ross was 528 people. Ten years later it had dropped by 42% to 304; in 1861 it had dropped by a total of 55% to 236. In 1871 it rose again to 254 and in 1881 to 344. The large increase between 1871 and 1881 reflects the number of men working at the quarry, and the demand for stone during that period.

The first recorded quarry operator at Ross was a man named Sharpe who employed a number of stonecutters. The Ahern family came from Cork to work for Sharpe, but later started a quarry across the road from Sharpe’s quarry.  The late Mrs Alison Nugent-Hirschberg who died in 2008 recalled seeing “forty stonecutters each in their own stall, cutting, chiselling and carving for a wide range of buildings; some specialised in writing, and produced really beautiful lettering.”  Stone cutters normally worked in temporary canvas covered stalls which protected them from the elements, and it allowed the wind to blow away the dust produced.

Staff of Ross Quarries

Staff of Ross Quarries

Quarry and stonecutting demanded various skills. The first stage involved the removal of large blocks of stone from the quarry face using basic tools such as sledge hammers, lump hammers, stone picks, wedges, and crowbars.  Limestone is usually found in bedding layers of varying thickness which may be easily moved when split vertically from the rock face. This was achieved by making a line of holes a few inches apart and a few inches deep with a stone chisel and then using the wedges, sledge hammer, and crowbars to split the block from the rock face. This task was done by the stone cleaver or quarryman. The carters then brought the stone to where it was trimmed and squared by the stonecutter to the required size, with a minimum of wastage. It was then dressed and fine finished to give the correct texture. An experienced stonecutter always dressed the best face of the stone first, and used the best edge as his starting point. Tools used included stone chisels, picks, punches, and hammers. Stones were numbered for identification and location as set out in the drawings so that the stonemason could fit them on site.  Winnie Moynagh (nee Brady) whose father was the quarry ganger, recalled seeing Willie Ahern and her father marking out the patterns from the building drawings laid on the kitchen floor. The stone carver, who was usually a highly skilled stonecutter, would complete the work on high quality finished pieces such as monumental and decorative stone.  The finished product was transported by horse and cart to Oldcastle and Ballywillan rail stations, to be transported to Dublin and elsewhere.

In the early 1920’s the demand for building stone began to dwindle and the operation of the quarry was less viable and for many years little quarrying was done. Today the quarry is again in production under the ownership of James Gogarty Stone, a long established family-run business based in Donore. It produces split stone for walls, architectural and monumental stone, floor tiles, window sills, quoins and wall and pier capping. These are processed using modern machinery at their factory in Donore.  George Victor du Noyer also surveyed the quarries at Crossdrum and Moat. He describes the stone at Crossdrum Lower as an irregularly bedded, grey, coarsely crystalline limestone. The price for gate posts is £1.5s. per pair, and window sills 11d. per foot. Griffiths Valuation of 1854 identifies John Cantwell as the occupant of this quarry. At Moat, according to du Noyer, the stone is a grey, very coarse, crystalline limestone similar to Crossdrum. The upper exposed beds are thinner and darker in colour and more compact. He gives no prices for stone. These quarries have not been used commercially for many years.

Aherne family, Ross

Gerald Ahern, Verne Getty, Henry Morgan Ahern, George Washington Ahern, William Wolfe Tone Ahern, May Ahern, Michael Wall, Fredrick Anthony Ahern Anne Ahern Getty, with son. William with Elizabeth Ahern and Mary Ahern. Jane Ahern Wall with daughter Nancy, Mary Anna, Leo, Patrick Ahern with child William Geraldine Ahern with niece Mary Wall. Seated front Richard Vincent Ahern, Joseph Ahern, Eileen and Josie Ahern daughters of Patrick. The Aherne family owned Ross quarries for many years. Some members also played football with Ballinacree and served in the Irish Army

Rough Stone: 1s per cubic foot.
Window sills: 1s.3d superficial foot.
Average size 3’ 6” to 6’
Gate Posts - rough dressed: £1.15s per pair.
Arch stones – punched: 1s. per superficial foot. 
Tombstones: 7’ x 3’: £10 with cut pedestals.
Headstones: 5’x 4’ to 6’x4’ : £5 to £6 with letters.
Chiselled quoins: 1s 6d. per superficial foot.
Prices in Ross quarries in 1864

Quarries in Moat

Sean McCabe takes up the story here:
There were three quarries around Lower Moat.  One was in what we call Maggie Con’s field; Thomas Myles McCabe had another and Terry Callery a third. Terry, an industrious fellow, was quarrying at the back of his own house, but the water level got the better of him. He couldn’t manage it so he bought the site from Maggie Con Gibney’s people and he opened a new quarry and  built a lime kiln there.

Mylie McCabe explained to me the various trades involved. First were the quarriers.  Sometimes they used black powder to blast out some of the stone. They had three-man crowbars with heels on them, which they put into the crevice of the rock to jolt out the stone. Next came the fellows they called knoblers who with a scabble and hammer dressed the stone. The stonecutter finished it off and did the fine work.  Mylie often told me himself that when he was a youngster his father, would sometimes send him down to the quarry early in the morning before he went to school to see if all the men were at work. There were sixty eight men working there; they started at six and broke at eight for their breakfast. They worked from six to six.

The apprenticeship period for a stonecutter was nine years; only after that was a man regarded as completely qualified and allowed do letters and decorative work. Tommy told me that the first lettering that his father let him do, was the plaque for Ballinacree School– you can see it on the Community Centre today.  When the railway came to Oldcastle it brought benefits but it also brought problems for the quarrymen; they found it hard to get carters; it was all horse and cart in those days. The railway was paying above the odds for the carter so every able-bodied young men who had a good horse, and a new cart went to the railway. Old Tommy used say that when he finished on the railway the horse was bet, the cart was broken, and the man was bent.

Martin’s Quarry Crossdrum

Many a long year ago Jamsie Martin, a young lad of about fourteen, arrived with an ass and cart to the quarry in Crossdrum (now Tighe’s of the Quarry Hill) from Drumkilly, down near Kilnaleck. He wanted a yard of lime. At that time you could buy a yard, or half a yard of lime. It was put into a box, which had four handles and you lifted it up into the cart. The quarry workers were going for their dinner when he came and they told him he would have to wait for an hour.  While he was waiting he picked up a hammer and chisel and tried his hand picking at some stone. When old man Caldwell came back and saw him at it he asked “Do you like that work?” He did. Now it was more or less a closed shop at the time – you had to be the son of a stonecutter to become a stonecutter. But Caldwell’s son had gone on to the priesthood, so he took on young Jamsie Martin and trained him. Several years later Jamsie took over the running of the quarry and married a great grand-aunt of mine in 1874.  (The Tighe family now lives there.)

chiselled in stone

Chiselled in Stone

They had lots of stonecutters working in Martin’s Quarry. I don’t know the exact number but it was a big business, bigger than Miley McCabe’s here at the time. They did a lot of monumental, sculpture and kerbing work. We know that many lots of 200 feet by three inch kerbing were put on the train for Dublin.

One of the big projects from the quarry was St Mary’s Catholic Church in Granard. They had the pattern for the spire cut out of wood. The stone was carted to Oldcastle and sent by train to Ballywillan Station and then carted from there to Granard.  There were a number of other names associated with quarrying, stonecutting, and monumental work over the years; names like Rennicks and Tully to mention but two. In times past it was a huge business in this parish.


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