The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
In 2022, Barry Wrafter, sculptor and architectural stone carver, was interviewed about his work on Clare FM local radio. Among other things, he talked about the value of using traditional methods and skills in working with stone. Barry is the latest in a long line of Wrafters who have made their living by working with stone. The Wrafter involvement in quarrying and stonecutting in Ballyduff and Tullamore goes back almost certainly to the 18th century which means that the Wrafter name and its association with stonecutting has spanned four centuries.
I have identified three distinct branches of the Wrafter family that were involved in quarrying, stonecutting, and stone carving. In this article, I look more closely at one of these families. The other two branches will be dealt with in a separate article.
In earlier blogs for Offaly History (March 19 and April 20, 2022) I mentioned my great-great-grandfather John Wrafter (b 1794) and his role as sculptor in the building of the county gaol in Tullamore, in 1826. I mentioned his involvement in the making of the windows of the Catholic church in Birr in 1842, and the windows of St Laurance O’Toole church in the centre of Dublin in 1848. John was also contracted to build the workhouse in Tullamore in 1841. I also touched on his son John (b 1828) who, among other things, provided chiselled stone from Ballyduff qurries for a Presbyterian church in Mountmellick. Below I take a closer look at their involvement in stonecutting and the Ballyduff quarries.
John Wrafter (born c. 1794) of Ballyduff was, according to the so-called “House books” of 1842, compiled as part of the Griffith’s valuation, a stonecutter (as well as a farmer). On 4th May, 1847, John Wrafter of Ballyduff, found himself in the highly unusual position as one of the key witnesses in a court hearing authorised by the British House of Lords. Because of this rather remarkable event, a description of John Wrafter’s working life in his own words has been preserved. The court hearing concerned a peerage claim by a James Tracy.
From the cross-examination of John in 1847, we know that he had been involved in the stonecutting trade as early as the 1807 when he became an apprentice. He would have been 14 years old then, a normal age for a beginner apprentice at the time. We also learn that he had as many as forty stonecutters working for him at times, about five of which could perform carving work, such as lettering on tombstones. John himself was skilled in the inscribing of gravestones.
The purpose of the court hearing on that day was to establish the origin of fragments of a gravestone which the Counsel for the petitioner (James Tracy) claimed dated from about 1750. The Attorney General and the Solicitor General for Ireland appeared on behalf of the Crown. The proceedings of the hearing runs to 137 pages, about 8 of which record the cross-examination of John Wrafter, stonecutter. Some of the dialogue is reproduced below.
Cross-examined by Sir Fitzroy Kelly (FK), Counsel for the plaintiff.
FK: What are you by trade?
JW: A stonecutter.
FK: How long have you been engaged in that business?
JW: Since 1807. I was bound an apprentice to it.
FK: Where do you carry on your business?
JW: At Tullamore and different parts of Queens County; that is the principal place now.
Is that far from Castlebrack (outside Killeigh)?
JW: It is about six miles.
FK: Are you conversant with the sort of Gravestones that are to be found in the neighbourhood?
JW: Yes, I constantly put up tombstones.
FK: Have you any experience which enables you to judge the real age of a stone from its appearance?
JW: No, I do not think I could.
By a Lord: Have you examined these two stones?
JW: I do not think I ever saw them.
Lord: Have you been accustomed to work in quarries and to get stone which you afterwards worked?
Lord: You have quarried different stones which you afterwards covered in inscriptions?
Lord: Will you look at these? (Two of the fragments being handed to the witness). Now attend to the grain of that stone; now turn it around; is it not that what you call sandstone?
JW: Yes, Mountain grit.
Cross-examined by Mr. Solicitor General for Ireland (SG).
SG: You say that these stones are taken from a mountain in the neighbourhood?
SG: How far is the mountain you speak of from the churchyard of Castlebrack?
JW: About four miles, five miles, six miles.
(By a lord.) Is there any other stonecutter in the neighbourhood besides yourself?
JW: Yes, plenty.
Lord: How many more?
JW: I suppose I have forty working for me.
Lord: Any Master Stonecutters?
SG: How far do you live from Castlebrack?
JW: About six miles.
Lord: You have forty stonecutters working for you?
JW: Yes, frequently.
Could all of those carve upon stone?
How many of them could?
JW: About five.
The above cross-examination indicates that John and his fellow stonecutters did a lot of work to the south of Tullamore in different parts of Queen’s County, and were familiar with working, not only the limestones of Tullamore, but also the sandstones of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. John Wrafter may have been responsible for building a lodge at the Ballyfin Manor in Co. Laois on the estate of Sir Charles Coote. According to Practical Geology and Ancient Architecture of Ireland (published 1845), ”a lodge more recently erected was constructed with limestone from Tullamore. The contractor for the latter, it should be remarked, was from that locality”. It is interesting to note that the owner of the land on which the Ballyduff quarries were located was a Sir Charles Coote, the same person who owned the Ballyfin manor.
I visited Birr in the autumn of 2022 and took the oppurtunity to see close up the stonework (or tracery) of the windows behind the altar of the Catholic church that John Wrafter was involved in producing in 1842. Below are photos taken inside and outside the church. The outside photo shows that the stonework is still in excellent condition after some 180 years. The church building itself was completed in 1824, the stained glass window being a later addition.
Fig. 1. View of the interior of the Catholic church in Birr.
Fig. 2. View from the outside of the main stained-glass window of the Catholic church in Birr.
As mentioned above John was awarded the contract to build a workhouse in Tullamore in or around 1840. The workhouse, completed in 1842, was built with the intention of housing and feeding the paupers of Tullamore and the surrounding area. It opened on the 9th June 1842 and ran in to problems from the outset.
The well sunk by the contractor, John Wrafter, had failed on the first day and alternative sources of water had to be found. Thomas Ryan, Clerk to the Board of Guardians of the Tullamore Union notified, by letter, the Poor Law Commissioners in Dublin of the problem. On the 11th June the Poor Law Commissioners sent a letter to John Wrafter demanding that he “take the necessary steps for having the well sunk to a depth sufficient to afford a constant supply of water to the workhouse”. In his defence John Wrafter replied that tests carried out by him and his men on two previous occasions indicated that the well could supply a steady flow of water, although he admitted, obviously not enough to meet the needs of the workhouse. He proposed sinking a second well of equal capacity in order to supply the workhouse.
The architect of the workhouse, George Wilkinson, defended John Wrafter in a written communication by asserting that Wrafter had sunk the well deeper than all nearby wells, that he did what was required of him and therefore should not be held liable for the extra costs involved in supplying the workhouse with water.
Fig 3. Photo of the Tullamore Workhouse, built 1842. After 1922 it operated as the County Home accommodating mainly aged and chronic invalids. The building was demolished in the 1970s.
John died in 1852 at the age of 58. His eldest son, also John, born 1828, would have been very familiar with the quarrying and stonecutting while growing up in Ballyduff. However, as a young adult, John, it would seem, was more interested in the business end of the quarrying industry. As a teenager he had, unusual for the time, attended a small secondary school at the top of High St run by John Fitzgerald.
The Grand Canal, connecting Tullamore with Dublin, allowed quarried stone from the Ballyduff quarries to be transported quite easily to the capital. When local demand for quarried stone declined from the 1840s onward, the Dublin market for high quality limestone became more important. The Wrafters were actively involved in the production of limestone blocks for building contractors operating in Dublin. It was almost certainly a lucrative business.
Evidence for this activity comes from a quarry logbook that has been in the possession of my family since the mid-1800s. The logbook records on a day-to-day basis the amount and dimensions of quarried stone produced by various stonecutters working in the quarries. An example of a page is shown below.
Fig 4. A page from a logbook recording piecework carried out by Joseph Bracken and other stonecutters at the Ballyduff quarries on 21-22 April 1853. Note the name Beardwood at the top of the page.
A more or less complete list of stonecutters recorded in the logbook is given below.
Table 1. List of quarry workers at Ballyduff appearing in a logbook recording amounts and dimensions of quarried stone for the period April-June 1853.
NameAdditional information added by authorJoseph Bracken John Bracken John Coffey James Coffey Thomas CumminsDifferent spellings are used, e.g. ComminsMichael Cummins John Dealey Patrick Higgins John (Jack) HoranDied probably 1882, aged 69.John Keegan Patrick Keegan Peter Lowry Michael (Mick) Murray Stephan Malady Thomas Pidgon Barney WrafterBernard. Died in Ballyduff 1896, aged 75.Thomas (Tommy) Wrafter
A typical day’s work for a stonecutter was about 10 pieces of rough ashlar having a total length of 15 feet. The limestone bound for Dublin in 1853 was produced either as rough blocks or as ashlars (chiselled blocks). Most ashlars were between one and two feet long. For the week 23-29 April 1853, 16-18 men produced 617 pieces of rough ashlars making a total of 852 feet for delivery.
The logbook also gives the name of the chief recipient of the quarried stone: a man by the name of James Patrick Beardwood. Although the author of the logbook is not given, I have little doubt that it was John Wrafter (b 1828), who as I establish below also had a close personal relationship with Mr. Beardwood.
James Patrick Beardwood (1816-1865) was a prominent builder in Dublin in the 1840s until the 1860s. His brother William Haughton Beardwood (born 1807), whose premises and business in Westland Row were taken over by James after William’s death in 1860, was also a builder and architect. James and William’s father was William Haughton Beardwood, born 1782 in Lancashire, England. He moved to Dublin with his family, converted to Catholicism, and became a successful building contractor.
The Beardwoods were responsible for building several notable buildings in Dublin. The University Church on St. Stephen’s Green was built (1854-56) by Messrs. Beardwood and Son of Westland Row. One of the finest examples of nineteenth century church building in Dublin, it was founded by John Henry Newman for the newly founded Catholic University of Ireland. Some of the decorative stone panelling on the side walls probably comes from the Tullamore quarries. James Beardwood won the contract to build the Royal College of Physicians building at No. 6 Kildare Street. Building commenced in 1862 and was completed in 1864. Other buildings constructed by James Beardwood’s firm were Christchurch Methodist Church in Sandymount, Dublin (1864) and the Winter Garden portion of the Dublin Exhibition Palace (1864). One reason Ballyduff limestone was used for buildings in Dublin and elsewhere is that blocks of large dimensions could be obtained from the quarries. In addition, it was considered at the time to polish “very well”.
Fig. 5. Interior of the Newman University Church on St Stephens Green, Dublin. Some of the grey wall panels are most probably from the Ballyduff quarries. Photo from the Website of the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.
For which building the limestone produced in Ballyduff for Beardwood in 1853 was intended has not been established.
John Wrafter (b. 1828) was a close friend, as well as business associate, of James Beardwood. I base this on two pieces of evidence: firstly, Beardwood is recorded as a sponsor at the baptisms of two of John’s children (in 1859 and 1862), and secondly, Beardwood appointed John as one of the executors of his will. James died suddenly in October 1865.
However, in the mid-1850s the involvement of this particular Wrafter family in the Ballyduff quarries began to decline. The older John died in 1852. In about 1855, the younger John moved from Ballyduff to Rosenallis, in Queen’s County (Co. Laois), just across the border with Co. Offaly. However, he continued to have a stake in the Ballyduff quarries for some years and was active as a building contractor for at least another 15 years. John was awarded the contracts to build Catholic churches in Mountrath (Co Laois) in the 1860’s, in Emo near Portarlington about 1862, and in Allen village in Co Kildare, completed in 1869. John Wrafter of Rosenallis died in 1886.
In an upcoming article, I will relate the story of two other Wrafter stonecutter families. Once again, the story begins in Tullamore and for one of the families it takes us all the way to Australia, where in Brisbane the Wrafter name is still synonymous with stonemasonry. I also take a look at the contribution to stonecutting made by the other Wrafter branch, from which Barry Wrafter is descended.
 The sessional papers of the House of Lords, 1847, Vol XXII. John Wrafter was cross-examined under oath before a committee in relation to a claim of peerage concerning James Tracy of Piccadilly, London.
 Practical Geology and Ancient Architecture of Ireland by George Wilkinson, 1845
 Sixth annual report of the Poor Law Commissioners, London, 1840.
 Wilkinson was appointed the Commissioners’ architect in Ireland, responsible for the design and erection of all 130 Irish workhouses
 Samuel Ossory Fitzpatrick, 1907. Dublin: a historical and topographical account of the city.