The Avondhu - By The Fireside
Araglin like many areas the length and breadth of Ireland has placenames that are not townlands and usually don’t appear on maps but are used extensively locally. The Furnace in Araglin is one such placename, but what’s the story behind the name?
The obvious answer is the name itself, yes there were functional furnaces in the area, two blast furnaces, but less obvious is the timeframe, these were constructed 400 years ago and were in operation for nearly 150 years in various forms and are the oldest of their type in Ireland and further afield.
The person responsible for the construction and development of the furnaces was Richard Boyle. Richard Boyle, born in Canterbury, England in 1566, died at Lismore Castle in 1643 and is buried in Youghal in an elaborate tomb. Richard is best known as 1st Earl of Cork and locally as the person that developed Lismore Castle and resided there for many years, but there are many aspects to Richard, among which are politician, landlord, entrepreneur, planter, coloniser, father to fourteen and industrialist. Richard Boyle’s story is well documented and a most interesting one at that, but the aspect of interest here is Richard Boyle, the entrepreneur and industrialist.
After getting into financial difficulties, Walter Raleigh sold his vast estate to Richard Boyle in 1602 and in the following years Richard began exploring for viable mines for iron extraction to enable his ironwork venture to commence. The surrounds of Tallow, Co. Waterford were to be his main base for the venture and in 1607 a furnace and finery forge were established at Kilmacow, north of Tallow. Iron ore mines were opened nearby at Ballyregan in 1614 and at Ballygarran in 1618. Two new furnaces followed at Cappoquin in 1615. 1624 was the year of the largest expansion, with two finery forges at Lisfinny, eight at Tallowbridge and a silting mill also at Tallow bridge.
The discovery of iron ore in the parish of Ballyporeen, Co. Tipperary resulted in Richard Boyle sanctioning the construction of two blast furnaces at Araglin in 1624. Both were built close to the Araglin River, one being at Knockbaun and the other in Ballinaleucra, both on the south side of the river in Co. Waterford. The furnace at Knockbaun, close to where the three counties of Waterford, Cork and Tipperary meet, is the area that is known to this day as ‘The Furnace’. This blast furnace is still very visible today, in that the basic structure is standing with the main components still or partly intact.
The accompanying sketch of a typical 17th Century blast furnace, gives a good indication of its layout and operation. A blast furnace is a substantial structure and the Araglin one falls into the large category, the height being 7m with the sides being 7m on the blowing arch side and 7.6m on the tapping arch side. The blowing arch facilitated a large bellows which was powered by an axle, driven by a water wheel.
Looking at the natural layout, the possible source is the stream running down the valley parallel with the Knockbaun road to Ballyduff, this could have been diverted to a large pond which was used to drive the water wheel, with the runoff channelled into the Araglin River. The bellows was key for forcing air into the brick lined hearth to enable the high temperatures to be reached for the smelting process to function. Charcoal, iron ore and at times limestone was fed into the charging point or chimney at the highest point.
Again, the natural layout of the land greatly assisted in that filling the gap between the furnace on the south side where the hill rises with rubble gives an easily constructed bridge. This facilitated the transporting of the raw materials for charging the furnace. In most cases due to the height, a wooden bridge had to be constructed to enable the raw material to be transported, but in Araglin this wasn’t the case.
The Tapping Arch is where the resultant molten iron and
ARAGLIN RIVER slag are drawn or tapped off. As in the sketch, the molten iron is channelled along a header moulded in sand or iron clay with multiple branches into rectangular moulds which resulted in cast iron bars, which were known as sows. Latterly these were known as pigs, the reasoning being that when the molten iron is running along the channels and moulds, it resembles a sow feeding multiple piglets. Incidentally, this is where the saying ‘For the pig iron’ is derived from.
Separately, molten slag is also run off, but this has too many impurities for it to be of use. The cast iron bars in this state are not of much use as they will shatter when struck. They are brought to a finery, with Cappoquin being the nearest in the 1600’s, where they are re-smelted to remove excess carbon which results in wrought iron bars. These are now ready for blacksmiths to form into whatever shape is required.
The second furnace at Ballinaleucra is only 2km east along the Araglin Valley, close to Kingston Bridge. There is no visible features of the furnace evident today, but blue blast furnace slag was located several years ago which pinpoints the furnace location.
These two furnaces operated to great effect offering employment, both locally and for English tradesmen skilled in the art of building and operating blast furnaces. Records point that at various times two and one blast furnace were in operation. The size of the Araglin furnace dictates that the output was 1 ton per day of useful molten cast iron and 1½ ton of molten slag, which is of little use. In the 1730/40’s the operation was extended, and a finery was constructed possibly at Knockbaun. There is a structure still standing which points to a substantial structure, as this remaining section is over 7m high.
Similarly, the old ordnance maps from 1850’s indicates a substantial rectangular disused building. However, the exact purpose and timeframe is still up for discussion, as its location is exactly where the molten iron would have poured into the moulds from the tapping arch. With the advent of the finery and forges along with bar iron, the following were manufactured in Araglin as listed in an ad in the Dublin Journal in 1750, ‘Iron Pots, Pans for Soap Boilers, Tallow Chandlers, Dryers, Bleachers, and Brewers, Stills, Plates for Pressers, Griddles, Anvils, Ovens, Dish and Fish Kettles, Stoves for Sugar-Boilers, Indigo Mills, Mortars, Smoothing Irons, Coach and Cart Boxes, and all other kinds of Cast Iron Wares’. In the same ad, it’s noted that Araglin Goods would be ‘marked with two C’s in a Cypher’ to avoid inferior products being traded as being from Araglin. Hence, counterfeit of goods is far from a 21st Century problem, however it does point to the high quality of the Araglin iron items being manufactured there.
With the establishment of the furnace and accompanying finery, Araglin village developed over time to meet its needs with the opening of Mahoney’s public house, shop, post office and RIC barracks amongst others.
The wood for producing the charcoal is key to the viability of the furnace and this was sourced locally from the surrounding area. Newspaper ads from the 17th and 18th Century where woods are for sale and note that the trees are ideal for use at Araglin Iron Works, include the following townlands and areas, Araglin, Glenacunna, Curraleigh, Croughmore, Gorteeshal, Moher, Rehill, Kilroe, Lyrebarry and others. However, by the 1780’s the operation like others in Ireland ran into difficulty in that the locally sourced wood was being exhausted as a fuel source and in conjunction with increased competition from abroad, the iron works ceased to operate.
Between 1937 and 1939, the Irish Folklore Commission instigated the documentation of local stories in the national schools under several headings. ‘The Furnace’ featured in a number of these stories being retold by the local school-going children, after asking their elders to recall local lore, history, stories etc. Both schools in Araglin took part, Araglin National School, and Ballyheafy National School. Ballyduff National School also contributed valuable information on the furnace.