The Rathnew Brickworks
The story of Rathnew Brickworks begins in the 19th century with the identification of fine clay which was to be found on land which belonged to Major Humphries and which was later purchased by a Mr. Giffney. Clarke’s of Lower Rosanna then took over a lease on the land, having first recognised the quality of the clay. They began a business making fine quality bricks by hand. During the mid 1870s the works were advertising bricks for sale at a cost of 30/- per 1,000. There was a stock of 150,000 bricks to choose from. A visiting Welshman, Mr. Thompson, of Kingscourt, Gowan Lane, Co. Cavan viewed the bricks produced by the works and saw the potential in making a quality mass produced product. In 1895 he moved to Rathnew and set about establishing his business. He commenced work on the land at Milltown. In 1896 he was employing ten men who were busy erecting the buildings which were essential to the mass production of his product. In February and March he had established a Mill house and Wash Mill and commenced operations with a traction engine used for hauling the clay. In May a boiler had been installed, the engine was ‘started with a couple compound power of 120 horsepower driven by ropes and from this point on, development was rapid.’ Six men worked in the clay pit, four worked on the grinding, two worked on the hauling gear. Mr. Thompson who was establishing a reputation as the most popular man in Rathnew also employed three men who set out the bricks. Three other men took them out, two men and four boys worked in the brick house. There was a man in charge of the drying kiln, a gaffer and clerk with office staff. Soon he had six men employed in the clay hole. When he was building the kiln in 1898, Thompson had an accident. The outlay for the kiln was considerable for the time. The man in charge of the kiln was from Belgium. He could not read or write in the English language. The kiln was the second of that type in Ireland. In October Mr. Thompson was inspecting the works, he was on top of the kiln when he slipped and fell. He was fortunate not to break any of his bones, but, his right arm and wrist were badly bruised. The kiln was tested for firing and after a few tense hours it proved a success and was operational by 1899. The kiln was kept at peak temperature twenty four hours a day with various shifts.
The work was done in considerable heat, with workers stripped to the waist. The brickworks were growing from strength to strength and it was soon known that ‘every man who desires to work, can find any amount of employment’ with Mr. Thompson. The businessman stayed at the helm for another two years, he was then made an offer he could not refuse. There was a new man in charge at the brickworks, Mr. Norman Wallace, who took over in 1901.
A Fatal Accident
This was also the year in which a fatal accident took place at the works. John Curtis was 25 years old and he lived at Ballybeg with his father and sisters. He was the only financial support for his family. John was well known as a happy go lucky type, he was in work before 8am on that fatal morning of June 28th. The works were connected to the rail system, a siding for the main line, which was also used by local farmers to move produce and livestock and by the Guinness Brewery to move supplies to public houses. ‘Bogies’ or ‘Bogeys’ ran on the rails and were used for the transportation of clay. John was working with Michael Cullen who was busy hacking away at the clay in the pit. Curtis had just finished loading his ‘bogey’ when the cry went up; ‘Watch out! – falls coming!’ Cullen, who was the quicker of the two men, threw himself under the bank as the fall of clay began. Curtis was not fast enough to avoid the fall, he was struck in the back and jammed into the ‘bogey.’ The force of the fall broke his neck and he died instantly. Health and safety requirements were unknown at the time and the pit was not shored up. At the inquest Cullen confirmed the fact that ‘the bank was not butted for a fall’ and added ‘we were always cautioned.’ He estimated the height of the bank to be about eighteen feet and the amount of clay which fell after the collapse at ’12 or 14 tons.’ When he was pressed as to the cause of the collapse he declared ‘it was the rain.’ It had rained substantially the previous night. Philip Doyle was also working in the soil pit and he had heard the warning but did not get clear in time, he was struck by the clay. He had almost suffocated by the time his workmates dug him out. John Curtis was the sole provider for his elderly father and sisters. The Inquest was held the next day in Short’s public house in the village. Sitting on the Jury were Patrick Short (Foreman,) James Byrne, Patrick Doyle, John Harman, Thomas Chapman, John Byrne, Edward Murphy, James Doyle, James Brady, Michael Connor, William Giffney and Thomas McDonnell. Employees of the brickworks attending included Patrick Carey, Michael Cullen, Patrick Connor (Overseer,) Mr. Nesbit, Philip Doyle, George Cullen, (Michael’s brother) and Peter Byrne. J.H. McCarroll represented the family. He charged that there had been a lack of supervision on the day. This was in response to a statement by George Cullen that no one was in charge of the pit that day.
Curtis had been ‘full of life and vigour’ as he went to work that day ‘laughing and joking as was his wont, little dreaming of the horrid death that was to befall him.’ As the Wicklow People newspaper later stated ‘John Curtis, aged 25, was suddenly sent into eternity.’ After all the evidence was presented the Coroner stated ‘I am clearly of the opinion it was an accident.’ The Jury retired for a short deliberation and returned with their verdict. The death was accidental with no blame attaching to either Curtis or the company. ‘A rider was added recommending the family of the deceased to the consideration of the company.’ At the end of March 1912 there was another accident at the brickworks. John Murray of Ballybeg, was an old man who worked one of the brick bogeys. It suddenly left the rails. It struck him on the left leg but he was fortunate not to be badly hurt. He was removed to the Co. Infirmary where his injuries were attended to. He ended up with a badly bruised ankle and was detained for some time. Fifty men had been laid off at the brickworks in this month. A miner’s strike in England left a considerable impact in Rathnew. Coal was in very short supply and this was used to make bricks at the works. Trains were not running to schedule with the shortage and so bricks could not be transported from the works. Wicklow coal merchants had just 300-400 tons of coal with the town using 100 tons a week.
Decline During Wartime
From 1901 to 1914 Mr. Wallace ran the company, employing up to 60 men who were paid wages of 14/- to 18/- a week. In January 1914 the company was registered as ‘The Rathnew Brick Company Ltd,’ and was run by the Dublin Brickwork Company Ltd. The outbreak of World War 1 brought serious consequences for the company as building worked slowed down considerably. In 1915 there was a strike about wages at the company and it closed down until March 1918. The strike however was not the main reason for the closure. Industrial stagnation continued to keep the business closed throughout the war. The company opened again in August of 1918 and continued in business for less than a year. It closed in July 1919 when the accumulation of bricks on the site numbered one billion. There was a considerable decrease in demand for them. Most of the huge amount of bricks went into the building of Tallaght Aerodrome and Kynock’s of Arklow. During the boom times the brickworks turned out 30,000 bricks per day. The principal trade was with Dublin, many of the brick houses in Wexford were built with Rathnew bricks which also went to Cork, Waterford and Carrick-on Suir. The bricks were also transported to London and Paris. Most of the labourer’s cottages in Co. Wicklow had these bricks in them. In the boom years cartloads of bricks left daily for the Dominican Convent at Wicklow and for the port and docks of Dublin. The bricks were sent countywide according to demand. Four types of bricks were produced, the Arch, Chamfer, Common and Bull Nosed.
‘The Finest Bricks In Ireland’
They were recognised as the finest bricks in Ireland. It was said that the bricklayers in Kynock’s of Arklow were so aware of this fact that they would handle no other brick except the Rathnew product, due to ‘their adaptability and purity.’
The sidings were also used to great advantage by others as Mr. A. Murphy of Mt. Alto, Ashford, pointed out in his piece on the brickworks titled ‘The Old Brickworks.’ He pointed out that ‘local traders and farmers, and especially the leading builder and civil engineering firm, contractors at that time, William Hender, laid vast sections of the main Dublin-Wexford road and many of the secondary roads in the area. William Hender had thousands of tons of stone brought by rail from Baleece Quarry, Rathdrum and quarries in Co. Wexford to the Wallace sidings and employed dozens of carters to transport the stone to his numerous road building projects.’ The sidings were also used by the Guinness brewery to supply the local public houses. Many carters were employed to move the product. The sidings were also used to transport large quantities of oats to the British Cavalry base at the Curragh in Co. Kildare. Livestock were also transported from the sidings.
In 1922 the Secretary of the Dublin Brick Company Limited, P. Deey, submitted a report to the Town Clerk of Dublin, he outlined the reasons why the Rathnew works were closed and would remain that way. The cost of building in Dublin was ‘restricting enterprise and causing widespread unemployment.’ Two brick works in their company had closed down due to a lack of orders in the last five years. These were at Dolphin’s Barn and Rathnew. The company also had a brick works in Co. Carlow, which was closed by this time. Dolphin’s Barn had re-opened ‘due to Dublin Corporation having placed large orders with us, otherwise it would not be operating. It is quite evident that one of our three works has been sufficient to meet all demand in Dublin.’ Mr. Deey then outlined that dividends paid out over a ten year period, which included Rathnew Brickworks, worked out at an average of just two and a half per cent per anum. The price of coal in brick production made it cheaper to import bricks from Glasgow to Dublin. Costs were 150% higher in Dublin, labour was 155% higher than in the pre-war years and Glasgow producers had taken over existing brick works thereby lowering their expenditure. Their bricks were made using waste coal slag. A cheaper option than those used in Ireland. All of these factors combined to keep the Rathnew site closed. The works then lay derelict until the mid 1930s. Machinery was removed and the 100ft high chimney stack, which had become a local landmark, was then demolished with the buildings. Accumulated stocks of bricks were then sold off in the years following.
From Brickworks to Fishing Ponds
There had always been a lingering hope in Rathnew that the brickworks would open again at some point. These hopes were dashed in 1936 when the freehold of the site was offered for sale by the Secretary of the owners, the Dublin Brickwork Company Ltd, Dolphin’s Barn, Dublin. In 1924 James Everett TD had commented on the fact that house prices had increased in Co. Wicklow as a result of the closure and that if the demand was there, the owners would go back into production in Rathnew. Twelve years later, on October 26th 1936, the Wicklow People newspaper announced that ‘ the owners of the Rathnew Brickworks were offering the lease and all it meant for sale.’ Rathnew locals paid very close attention to the matter, keenly aware of the brickwork’s reputation and employment record. They had never lost hope that it would go into production again. These hopes were dashed. The Wicklow people went on to point out ‘not all the well known employees of the firm have passed out from the life of Rathnew. Some who had been with the firm since its infancy are still alive, as deeply interested as ever in its possibilities and full of hope for the future, such men as Mr. James Merrigan, the caretaker since it closed down, who saw it begin in 1895 and from 1902 was ‘gaffer’ in the works. Mr. John Byrne, whose hands erected most of the houses and sheds on the premises, may it not be yet that those men and their old comrades will see their son’s re-employed where they once drew their daily bread in happy toil.’ Sadly this was not to be. The last remaining building which stood on the site now forms part of the home of Mr. Kevin Jameson of Milltown Lane. The ponds filled with water over the year and having had trout introduced to them, were used for fishing. A boat was frequently seen on the water, as Mr. Frank McGoff, tried to catch the elusive fish. After a time, they were drained, filled in and levelled out. At Burke’s Hardware Store, site of the original works, an original sign proudly displays the name of the Rathnew Brick Company, it is made up of bricks produced at the site. Several trees nearby, can still be recognised from old photographs of the area. At least one of the old ‘bogeys’ is lying at the bottom of one of the filled in ponds.
Mr. Mick Merrigan of Milltown, (grandson of gaffer and caretaker of the works, James Merrigan) told this author that James Merrigan was one of the men involved in the demolition of the works: ‘There were two ponds – marl holes. The marl was special for Europe as usually only yellow marl is to be found, but the marl at the brickworks site had blue marl running through it. It was top quality. Part of the reason it closed was due to a strike with workers seeking a half penny more in their wages. Upwards of 200 men worked there. There were two chimneys which worked off the kiln. James Merrigan bought land from Wallace’s who were big coal merchants in Dun Laoghaire and used it as farmland, he kept cattle on it. The tracks would have been taken out forty years ago and the white gates were there until the 1980s.
They were open cast pits in the works, dug down like a quarry. The Dublin Brick Company was a Co-op. The brickworks also made quantities of chimney flue liners which were round in the middle. When you are in the church in Rathnew and look at the loop in the middle, they are made with Rathnew bricks, my father used to show me that every Sunday morning.’
Kevin Jameson of Milltown also spoke of the brickworks, ‘my house takes in some of the original works buildings. There was a footpath which ran all the way from Rathnew to Glenealy in those days and there was a dyke which ran alongside it. When we were young we used to be down in it and kicking leaves, we would come across these tracks. They are still there to this day. I have bricks with Rathnew stamped on it and one with Thompson Brickworks stamped on it. The back pond was only fully filled in recently. I remember the slipway for the bogeys which ran down into the pond for cooling the bricks. There was a lot of machinery in the pond when they drained it, it was all filled in.’
Stan J. O’ Reilly.
Wicklow Co. Librarian, Ciara Brennan and staff at the Co. Library, Boghall Road, Bray Co. Wicklow.
Wicklow People Newspapers, Various, 1901-1980
Wicklow Newsletter and Co. Advertiser Newspapers, Various, 1875-1922.
Mr. A. Murphy, (RIP) Mt. Alto, Ashford. Author of the article titled: ‘The Old Brickworks.’
With grateful thanks to Mr. Mick Merrigan of Milltown for his valuable help and assistance in putting this article together.
With grateful thanks also to Mr. Kevin Jameson of Milltown.
Thank you also to Mr. Vincent Collard, Rathnew.