The Avondhu - By The Fireside
When I was young, I often heard that there were ironworks at Curraglass and Tallow at one time but I didn’t have any further details. However, there is plenty of evidence of ironworking around the area in the olden days.
Firstly, the Irish name for Tallow is Tulach an Iarainn, meaning the “Hill of Iron”. Also, some people in the Curraglass and Tallow areas still recall turning up lumps of blue material on their lands during ploughing operations, etc. This is probably the slag or clinkers left over after the smelting operation in the blast furnace.
It appears that ironworking was carried on at two local castles, Kilmacow Castle and Lisfinny Castle.
There are now no remains of Kilmacow Castle itself. It was built by the Fitzgerald’s but was taken by the English. It was later owned by the Croker family. According to local information the site of the castle is in a field east of Springdale House, owned by the Murphy family. It is marked on the 1716/17 Bateman Map.
Lisfinny Castle still stands on the north of the River Bride, close to Tallow bridge.
‘Lismore Castle Papers’ in the National Library of Ireland and also ‘Charcoalburning ironworks in the 17th and 18th centuries’ (Eileen McCracken) casts some light on the existence and the working of these old local ironworks.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, English settlers owned and ran profitable ironworks in many parts of Ireland. Often a number of works were owned by one family, for example, the Boyle family in East Cork and West Waterford. Boyle had furnaces in Youghal, Lismore, Mocollop and Cappoquin, among other places, but here we will concentrate on the ironworks at Kilmacow Castle in Curraglass and Lisfinny Castle in Tallow.
Sir Richard Boyle, who became the first Earl of Cork, came to Ireland in 1588. In 1602 he bought Sir Walter Raleigh’s estates of 42,000 acres for £1,500 in the counties of Cork, Waterford and Tipperary. He made Lismore Castle his principal residence. He also had a substantial residence at Youghal and owned the towns of Clonakilty and Bandon.
Boyle kept a diary from 1612 to 1643 and this makes possible a brief reconstruction of his business career. When he took over the lands from Raleigh, he could see the potential for iron working. Much of his estates possessed iron ore, plentiful cheap timber, water power for blast furnaces and forges and easy access to the sea in Youghal for transport to London and foreign markets.
Blast furnaces had two vast bellows, driven by means of a great wheel, which was activated by a stream, making the bellows rise and fall. Not too much initial money was used to build a blast furnace but the real burden lay in the cost of labour and raw materials. The furnace was often kept running for months at a time. Different kinds of workmen were used in the operating of the ironworks - woodcutters, refiners, sawyers, carpenters, smiths, carriers, colliers (who produce charcoal), furnace men, hammerers, refiners, etc. There were also unskilled labour, ‘who having no particular task, must help to put their hand to everything’.
In 1607, according to accounts, it took less that one and a half tons of charcoal to smelt two and a half tons of ore. Wood was often bought by the cord, which was 120 cubic feet. The wood was bought for one shilling a cord.
The initial capital investment for the furnace and double forges at Kilmacow was over £1,600 in 1608. At the very beginning of the enterprise, a refiner, a hammer man, 8-10 colliers and 12-14 woodcutters were brought over to Ireland. Later, however, figures were considerably higher than that. However, some of Boyle’s sub-tenants provided labour services instead of rent. The works and workers’ houses at Kilmacow covered 256 acres.
There were many disputes between the Earl and his tenants and one argument between him and William Chishall went before the English Privy Council. They came to an agreement in May 1612.
From March to September 1622, 169 tons of bar iron were produced. Bar iron was considered more profitable than sow iron. Bar iron sold at up to £13 a ton, whereas sow iron fetched £5 a ton at most.
In 1626 it was estimated the cost of maintaining an ironworks was £1,369 a year.
As the amount of timber available for smelting in England became scarcer and dearer, the Irish works increased in importance because charcoal was the dearest item in iron production in England. Charcoal is wood heated with a minimum of oxygen. Until about 1788, iron was smelted by charcoal in Ireland because of the abundance of timber, especially Munster. Before that date attempts were made to use turf, coal or anthracite, but they do not appear to have been very successful. As well as that, iron smelted by charcoal was preferred to that smelted by coal, as the latter contained impurities, which reduced its strength.
The work in the forges and furnaces was mostly done by Englishmen, often specially brought over for the purpose. The ironworks could thus offer employment to a class of immigrant who had not received a grant of land or who was not serving in the English armies during the conquest of Ireland.
Boyle let some of his ironworks to tenants or partners e.g. Wright, Blacknall, Ball, Ledsham, etc., who produced pig and bar iron for him under various terms. These arrangements usually ended in lawsuits.
Boyle started new iron mills at Lisfinny Castle in Tallow in 1620. In 1622, 158 tons were produced between March and September.
The Earl also built 150 new houses for his English ironworkers in Tallow. The workers and workers’ houses covered 400 acres. It appears Boyle built Tallow Bridge to facilitate materials being transported to and from the ironworks. It appears that Tallow was originally situated to the north of the present town, closer to the river. According to an article in The Dublin Penny Journal 1834, “Immediately in front of the castle is the town of Tallow”. It is not clear why the position of the town changed but it was possibly because of flooding from the Bride. Apparently, at one stage Boyle sent Lady Carew a Christmas gift of Tallow Knives.
In seven years he made 21,000 tons of bar iron, which at £18.00 per ton, brought him the immense sum of £378,000.
Boyle continued to prosper with his ironworks and in 1629 he was able to lend King Charles I, £15,000 at short notice. In 1632 the dowry of his daughter Margaret consisted of £3,500 and 500 tons of bar iron. Pipe-staves, pilchards… and a rich wife, all played their part in Boyle’s financial success, but so also did iron.
Eventually demand for the Earl’s bar iron dropped dramatically and profits were small. Instead of having a manager, he ran some of the businesses himself. He continued to run the businesses until the steep decline in trade in the mid 1630’s. The Lisfinny works were eventually leased to a man named Edward Russell from 1637.
Eventually he had to order his works to restrict production and ‘to make but 200 or 300 tons of iron yearly from Christmas forward’. Signs of decline had already appeared when a contract to supply a London merchant with 1,000 tons of bar iron a year had fallen through. Boyle found it difficult to find ‘able and solvent men’ to buy iron at a price which would give a reasonable return.
Another reason for the downturn in business was the rising cost of timber, which could be obtained for a cheaper price in Sweden.
It was clear that the boom period for Boyle and others was, in fact, over. He had made great profits but now this source of income brought in less and less. It was a fact that the Irish and English iron could not compete in the late 17th Century with the cheap iron from Sweden, and later Russia, and the production of pig and bar iron was no longer the economic success it had been.
It is very evident that Boyle was a good estate manager and greatly improved the prosperity of his properties. He built Conna bridge in 1633 and also the Market House, which is now the Dispensary.
Sir Richard Boyle was chased off his lands in the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and many of his ironworks closed. Later, his sons recovered the family estates after the suppression of the Rebellion.
Boyle died in Youghal in September 1643, having left a rich legacy of industrialisation after him, even though it meant cutting down vast areas of woodland. He was buried in St Mary’s Collegiate Church in Youghal. The ornate monument commemorating him was first built by the Earl himself in 1620 and added to in late 1642/43. It depicts his achievements and also has small figures of his children. His own effigy reclines in the centre recess of the tomb.
Boyle had good company, as eight Earls of Desmond were buried in the chancel of the same church.