Fernhill, County Dublin, the Darley family, and the building of Australia.

Excavating an enigmatic granite structure on the west and windy slopes of Fernhill estate, County Dublin brought an unexpected series of coincidences to mind. Interpreted as a cereal kiln of the medieval era, the structure was composed of boulders and roughly cut stone derived from the granite outcrops surrounding it. In short it was a modification of the traditional method of constructing kilns dug into the soil, commonplace in the medieval landscape. The excavation of the kiln took place in advance of the laying out of public gardens by the Rathdown County Council after it acquired the estate recently. A spread of burnt, blackened clays led to early speculation that under the clays lay a fulacht fiadh, or cooking place, a familiar monument found in large numbers all over in Ireland, built during the Bronze Age. Removing the clays uncovered a different object, comprising a granite built ‘box’ like rectangle, with a double row of granite boulders stretching out from it. The serrated edge of one of the more conspicuous outcrops attested to the splitting and quarrying on the spot[1].

The availability of granite drew the Darley family to the area in the eighteenth century, firstly as producers of granite blocks for use in the large developments in Dublin City, then as owners of lands in this part of the Dublin Mountains, culminating in the outline of Fernhill estate in 1812[2]. The Darley’s, Anglican by persuasion, appear to have been new arrivals in the country. Family legend suggests that they arrived in England along with William the Conqueror in 1066 from the town of D’Arles, in the south of France, before moving to County Down, Ireland in late seventeenth century,

At some stage in the early eighteenth century, a Henry Darley, owner of several quarries in County Down, arrived in Dublin with two sons, Moses and Hugh, described a stonecutters. There arrival began a long tradition of involvement in some of the more prominent buildings and developments in Dublin. The need for suitable stone led to their interest in the townland of Newton Little, which had a granite quarry in Kilgobbin, and it is in this townland that Fernhill estate developed. Moses son, Henry, oversaw the reclamation of the Liffey banks in advance of the Custom House, under the supervision of the architect James Gandon. This required the laying down of a bed of rough ‘mountain’ granite, complete with enormous iron chains embedded into them, followed by cut granite blocks laid in regular courses up to ground level. At the same time, a George Darley was contracted to wall the Liffey banks with the granite blocks visible today.[3]

The Darleys were as prodigious as they were successful. The builder Henry had 13 children, 8 of them sons, and a plethora of other family members combined to advance their fortunes. Maurice Craig noted that six Darley’s, Frederick, George, Arthur, John, William, and Robert cooperated in both the construction and development of the north flank of Mountjoy Square in the 1780’s.[4] Henry had earlier been prominent in the construction of Cavendish Street, the precursor of the east side of Rutland, now Parnell Square.[5] His son, Frederick Darley went on to design the magnetic observatory  in Trinity College, now situated in the grounds of University College Dublin, as well as the library of the Kings Inns. His most spectacular achievement was the cast iron and glass conservatories of the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin.[6]

Throughout the early part of the nineteenth century, Henry advanced the consolidation of lands within Newtown Little that were to become Fernhill, by acquiring parcels from both the Guinness and the Verner families, whom the Darley’s appear to have close connections, including marriage in the case of the Guinness’s. The Verners were of Scottish descent, with military traditions, beneficiaries of the redistribution of catholic owned lands in the 17th century in Ireland, who later acquired a large property portfolio in the Dublin area. A William Verner married Harriet Wingfield, of the Powerscourt family, and it was in an estate known as Wingfield that Cecil West Darley was born in 1841. In the 1860’s he joined his older brother Frederick Matthew, in migrating to Australia.[7]  The subsequent career of Cecil suggest that the skills of stonecutting were near to hand. (Frederick Matthew worked in the legal profession and rose to become the Chief Justice and attorney general of New South Wales). Cecil had some limited experience of engineering in Ireland, and shortly after his arrival in Australia, he joined the Harbour and Rivers Department of New South Wales and rose through the ranks thereafter. His chief legacy was that of designing numerous small dams for the various towns emerging in the new colony. Inspired by the Bear Valley Dam in the USA he made use of local rubble stone to cross narrow gorges with curving arched dams. Their steep arch and narrow profile gave them a fragile appearance, or a ‘blood curdling sensation’ as the engineer Alexander Binnie described it. The dams have stood the test of time and were critical in the early colonisation of the interior.[8]  

Becoming head of the Public Works department in the 1890’s Darley oversaw the introduction of new technologies of concrete and reinforced concrete for large scale infrastructural projects before his retirement in 1901. His influence continued beyond this when he was consulted by his old colleagues on the construction of the Cataract Dam, the first large scale dam to be constructed for Sydney, while on a visit to the USA. The chief issue was the fabric of the dam, to be built with a mass of concrete with small rubble stone, or with large two-ton stone blocks, or ‘plums’, immersed in concrete. Darley recommended the latter and set the precedent for what was known as ‘cyclopean’ masonry in Australian dams. Sandstone was preferred in the Cataract Dam, and granite in the case of the Burrinjuck Dam that came after.[9]

Cecil West Darley retired to Surrey, England, where he died in 1928. His brother Frederick Matthew brother regarded himself as an ‘old Irish gentleman’. It is not known if Cecil had the same opinion, and the long history of the family’s association with the Orange Order, being one of its earliest supporters, suggest a certain detachment from the mass of local opinion. The detachment was notable in the case of Fernhill which lay isolated behind wire fences and high walls, ill at ease with its neighbours. The Darley’s link to Fernhill came to an end in 1934 when Mable, wife of the deceased Edmund (great great great grandson of the first Henry above), sold the estate to Joseph Walker.[10]

The forlorn kiln on the windswept slopes of Fernhill may have come to their attention as in stood in the way of two parallel stone lined drains which crossed through the box and the flue as part of land improvements there. It remained intact otherwise until the modern era, visible perhaps as a small mound.  A similar structure was excavated in 2018 in Druids Glen, County Wicklow.[11] The phenomenon of using local outcrops was also witnessed in the construction of a granite revetment of the Pale banks in Jamestown, where they were split to provide rectangular blocks to prevent the subsidence of soils.[12] The various coincidences brought to mind by the lone granite kiln and flue raises many questions on the repeated historical patterns of land acquisition, large scale construction and colonisation. From the invasion of England in 1066, the takeover of native lands in Ireland, on to the construction of the imperial city of Dublin to the conquest of Australia, with one family providing a seamless connection to them all.

© Neil O’Flanagan 2021


[1] Neil O’Flanagan, Preliminary excavations report, Fernhill Park & Gardens, Licence No: 19E0583, 2020. IAC Ltd

[2] Nicholas Ryan, Fernhill, Co Dublin, a history, 2014, p.15

[3] Maurice Craig, Dublin 1660-1860, p. 240-1

[4] M. Craig, ibid, p.265

[5] M. Craig ibid, p.141

[6] M. Craig ibid, p.298

[7] Australian Dictionary of Biography, Frederick Matthew Darley.

[8] C.J. Lloyd, Either drought or plenty, Parramatta, 1988, p 196-7

[9] Neil O’Flanagan, The Improvement of Sydney 1900-20, Unpublished Phd thesis, ANU, 1990. P.151.

[10] Ryan, Nicholas, Fernhill, Co Dublin, a history, 2014, p15

[11] Paul Duffy and Mark Andrews, Preliminary report of excavations at Druids Glen, Licence 16E0468, 2020.

[12] Neil O’Flanagan, Pale Banks, Carrickmines, unpublished report Licence No: 09E0300, 2014.     

Published by Neil O'Flanagan

An archaeologist and historian with nearly 40 years experience working on archaeological and cultural heritage sites from prehistory to the modern era. He takes a general interest in all aspects of archaeology from prehistory to the post-medieval era, particularly in urban settings. He continues to carry out licensed archaeological excavations in all parts of Ireland

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