Transporting Wicklow granite to Dublin

Granite in Dublin in the 1700s.

When granite first arrived in Dublin it was normally referred to as 'fire stone' as it was used to build hearths and fireplaces.  Later it came into use for steps, for staircases and for surrounds of doors and windows, such as at the Old Courts building, constructed in 1755. 


The first reference I have found to granite from the Blessington area is dated 1721, when it was used in Trinity College, and was referred to as 'Blessington Stone'.


As its use in building construction increased, it was used for building plain external walls which did not require elaborate carving.  If carving was required in those early years, the stonemasons normally used Portland stone, which was much softer, but more expensive.  So granite was often used in the side and rear walls for reasons of economy. 

For example:-

  • the Parliament building, now Bank of Ireland in College Green, commenced in 1729, used granite in the walls, but Portland stone in the columns, porticoes, etc. 
  • Waterford House, built around 1740, had a facade built entirely of granite, which was only possible because it had no portico or columns, so no carving was required.
  • The Provost's House at Trinity College, commenced in 1759, used Ardbraccan Stone in the front facade, with Golden Hill granite in the side and rear walls, the front entrance gate, the offices and the stables.

As late as 1772, John Rutty writing about building stone in Dublin, referred to granite as  'fire-stone'.


Blockwheel cart at Royal Exchange in 1790s - James Malton print
Blockwheel cart at Royal Exchange in 1790s - James Malton print

The granite blocks used in facing wall construction were referred to as 'wallers'.  Each granite block weighed about 150 to 200 kg.  This compared to a typical section of a column which weighed about 5000 kg.  If columns were required in those early years, the preferred material for them was Portland Stone, which could be shipped to Dublin and brought upriver to within a few hundred meters of any of the 1700s buildings. 


In 1794 the contract for the granite for the aborted new King's Inns building at Constitution Hill refers to the 'wallers' as being of 'mountain granite' which suggests that there was a very hazy knowledge of where they came from.


The contract stipulates that 'wallers' must be delivered in full cart loads of 7.5 hundredweight (381 kg), which means that only two blocks of granite made up a full load.   This indicates that as late as 1795 carts were being used to transport the granite 'wallers' from the mountains to the site.  These 2-wheeled 'block-wheel' carts were the normal transport vehicle of the time and they appear in many of James Malton's prints executed in the 1790s.



Transport changes around 1800.

In the first two decades of the 1800s the spoked-wheel cart superseded the block-wheeled cart as the common transport vehicle and farm vehicle as it could transport twice the load at twice the speed of the block-wheeled cart


The granite cart, sometimes called the 'Quarry Cart', normally carried loads of about 1.5 ton (1500 kg) loads of granite.  They were adapted from the standard spoked-wheel car and Peter Osborne gave me the following description in the 1970s, but the design had not changed from the early 1800s.


1.  The stone rested directly above the wheels and its weight transferred directly

downwards to them.  Consequently there was no tendency either to tip
backwards or to cause a down-weight on the horse.
2.  The platform was very short reflecting the density of the load and the need for it
to be  centered directly over and as close as possible to the axle.
3.  There was no springing or suspension.
4.  There were extra spokes in the wheels compared to a farm cart.
5.  The wheel diameter was larger giving improved ability to ride over surface
irregularities with the heavy load.
6.  There were no side-boards, reflecting the density of the load and its tendency to
stay put.

7.  The shafts were extra long, making it easier for the horse to retain the load in
balance on hills and facilitating more controlled tipping of the load.
8.  There were extended back-shafts to prevent the cart going back so far
when it was tipped that the granite might slide off.


Nameplate from Patrick Olligan's granite cart or wagon
Nameplate from Patrick Olligan's granite cart or wagon

Halligans of Oldcourt found this portion of a nameplate of a granite cart or wagon in 2008 while renovating a house used by Patrick Olligan's workmen from 1844 until his death in 1853.  'PATRICK O' is still clearly legible on it.



'Stone Cutters', carters and 'Stonemasons' 

The carters transported the stone from the Stonecutters in the Wicklow quarries to the Stonemasons who used it on the building sites in Dublin.  In the early days 'Stonecutters' and 'Stonemasons' were seperate trades and represented distinct elements of the supply chain, as evidenced by the lack of common names of those involved, and the caters were employed by either the Stonemasons in Dublin or the Stonecutters in the Wicklow quarries, as needs arose.


But around 1810 the Tassie family who operated the granite quarry at Threecastles, established a Dublin stone-yard at Wellington Street (later at Dorset Street) and commenced trading as 'Stone Cutters'.  This represents the first integration of elements of the supply chain.  However, it is not clear whether Tassies were bringing the granite from Threecastles or Golden Hill quarry at that time. 


Road improvements 

In the early 1820s the Blessington to Dublin road was being upgraded to a Toll Road and by 1828 it was sufficiently improved to be designated as a Mail-Coach road. 


Golden Hill was 25km from Dublin, but in the early 1820s the combination of improvements in transport vehicles and roads made it economical to open up quarries farther into the mountains, at Ballyknockan, which was 40km from Dublin.



The route to Dublin

From the mid-1820s when Ballyknockan became the source of Dublin's granite, the route the quarry carts took to Dublin was via Valleymount, then through Baltyboys and along Featherbed Lane, to join the Blessington to Baltinglass road opposite Russborough House.  Here the route turned north and went via Burgage to Blessington, where it passed through the tollgate in the village and continued northwards through Hempstown to Crooksling, where it commenced the long and steep descent towards the Embankment, then continued through Jobstown and went via Tallaght village towards Terenure Cross, where it turned towards the city centre. 

The last remaining horse trough
The last remaining horse trough

There were a surprising number of inns, pubs and shebeens on this road, which provided sustenance for the carters and where horses were watered, fed, changed and stabled. 


There were also horse troughs at strategic points along the route, seven in all, placed there by the quarry owners, but only one now remains.


Patrick Olligan had opened his own base at Hempstown to facilitate the increased length of the transport route from Ballyknockan to Dublin - 15 km farther than Golden Hill.  In 1853 Olligan's transport base at Hempstown was described as a ‘house for a carter, offices and a car house’, as well as 8 hectares of land for grazing horses. 


Olligan family records show that it was John Olligan, Patrick’s brother, who ran the transport operation of the business.


Granite Wagons

Wagons were 4-wheeled vehicles pulled by four horses.  They were used for transporting the largest and heaviest pieces of granite, such as lintels and sections of columns, which could not be transported on 2-wheeled carts.


The first granite columns used in Dublin appear to be those in the facade of  the Rotunda hospital.  These date from the 1750s, and although we cannot say which quarry supplied them, they indicate that some sort of vehicle existed at the time with a much higher load capacity than the block-wheeled cart.


The blocks of granite needed for columns were very much larger than those for 'wallers'.  Individual granite work-faces in the quarry were more suited to providing blocks for columns.  In some cases individual quarries were only used for blocks for making columns and I think the quarry behind Craul's shop at Kilbride village fell into this category until it closed circa 1838.


In 1832, Patrick Olligan brought the first 4-wheeled 'granite-wagon’ to Ballyknockan.  Olligan used this first granite wagon to transport the sections of the columns for the Jesuit church at Gardiner Street, Dublin, where each section of column weighed about 5000 kg (5 tons). We know from the church’s account book that this first wagon was equipped with a triangular crane, a windlass and tackle, which would have been essential to lift blocks of this weight on and off the wagon.


Local lore in Ballyknockan says that this granite wagon was a present from the Jesuits of Gardiner Street to Olligan and that it was named the 'Francis Xavier', but the Jesuit's account book shows that while they paid for it, the cost was offset against money due to Olligan for the construction of the church! 


In 1866, John Brady was advertising in the Dublin Builder, offering granite blocks of ‘up to 8 ton (8000 kg), in lengths up to 16 feet’ (5 meters).



Blessington Steam Tram - extension proposal

In 1896 there was a proposal to establish the 'Central Wicklow and Glendalough Light Railway Company and Tramways Co' to extend the Dublin to Blessington/Poulaphouca steam tram across the Wicklow gap, via Valleymount, to terminate at Laragh/Rathdrum.  From Valleymount there was to be a trackway operated by gravity from Brady's House (Laurel Lodge) to take the granite down from Ballyknockan quarries to the steam tram. 



Motor lorries

In 1924 the first motor lorry came into use in Ballyknockan.  It was a Leyland by some accounts, a Thornycroft by others, and it proudly displayed the name of 'Osborne and Brady' on the front and was always driven by John Mahon. 


But lorries did not immediately displace the old granite carts and wagons, which had a revival during World War II, and some of them remained in use until the 1950s.




This page updated 14 April 2012.  Revised October 2015