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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.     

Brews Hill, Navan, County Meath

The road known as Brews Hill stretches out to the west from the location of Trim Gate in Navan town walls, as far as a V shaped junction. The junction separates the road to Athboy, to the north, and Trim to the south. A fever hospital stood at the fork in the roads, prior to the construction of Navan workhouse behind it. The fever hospital is now the Navan ambulance headquarters, and the workhouse now part of Navan General Hospital.

The road at present is unremarkable, comprising a mix of small shops and houses. In the nineteenth century, it formed part of the estate of the Russell family, among the largest landowners in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The eldest son of the Russell family inherited the Dukedom of Bedford, and several Dukes served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, including the sixth Duke of Bedford who died in 1839, and who bequeathed his estate to his son, Francis, the seventh Duke of Bedford.

This left other members of the family bereft of any stake in the family estate. Among them was Lord John Russell, the brother of Francis. One of the leading Whig politicians of the era, Lord John Russell is better known as the Prime Minister who oversaw the disastrous response to the Irish Famine. By resisting any change to the prevailing economic policies of Laissez Faire, his administration exacerbated the consequences of the failure of the potato crop between 1845-7. The poet Bertrand Russell was the prime minister’s grandson, and Princess Diana a more distant relative.

Francis, 7th Duke of Bedford sought to improve the Brews Hill portion of his estate. In the years prior to the famine it contained many small mud cabins of ill repute. The outline of the cabins can be seen in the survey carried out for the purposes of establishing Navan town boundaries in 1834, running out like a modern ribbon development. The road was referred to as Callamin or Brew. Callamin is presumably derived from the irish ‘cul’ or back. He ordered his agent to enquire into the situation there, with a view to clearing the tenants, and the cabins. The agents report, surviving today, contains a graphic account of the lives of some of the poorest inhabitants of Navan before the onset of the famine. The agent reported to ‘His Grace’, as he referred to him, that when the lands were leased to a Mr Barry in 1774, there were four ‘slated houses’ and seven ‘cabins’ on the road. The holding comprised 10 acres and was let for ‘three lives’ at an annual rent of £40. When the leased expired in 1839, a new one was made to a Reverend Hamilton for thirty years for an annual rent of £43. The leasing policies of these gentlemen led to the erection of 83 ‘wretched mud cabins’ by the 1840’s, and in addition six ‘back houses’, in the small allotments at the rear of the houses facing the street.

The agent found that there now 34 tenants on the property, who in turn rented to 49 sub tenants. The tenants managed to raise £76 every year in rent, much of it extracted from their sub tentants. In order to pay their rents, the sub-tenants were compelled to take in lodgers on a daily or weekly basis. The cabins became overcrowded as a result of the pattern of leasing. A police sergeant assured the agent that at least one house accommodated seven families.

The inhabitants were regular visitors to the courts. With little by way of employment, many of them resorted to ‘plunder’ for a living. The agent described the street as ‘a receptacle of all villainy and a nursery of crime and disease’, and furthermore a ‘refuge for the outcasts of the neighbouring county’. Apart from plunder, they depended in large part from rations distributed by the nearby workhouse. According the agent, some 478 persons were receiving rations from the workhouse, paid for in large part by ‘His Grace’, the Duke of Bedford. The cost of improving the street did not come cheap. The Reverend Hamilton was looking for £1100 as a once off payment for the cabins, and a further £4 a year for the lands to the rear. The agent recommended that His Grace refuse the offer, saying the price was ‘exorbitant’. There were many other rows of mud cabins stretching out from the large towns in pre-famine Ireland. The owners, or tenants, and their lodgers eked out a living by casual work, petty crime, and the relief given by the local workhouse. Most of them did not survive the famine.

Overcrowded workhouses, decreased rations, malnutrition and disease saw to their demise. The cabins of Brews Hill, evident in the map of 1835 are but a small reminder of this cataclysmic event, when the population of Ireland fell by 3 million in less than ten years. By 1881, when the town was again surveyed by the Ordnance Survey, many of the cabins had disappeared. The Duke of Bedford appears have got his way, perhaps in circumstances not to his liking.

The failure to rescue the poorest from the effects of the potato blight over several years in the 1840’s, suggests that to some extent, policies advocated by his brother helped him secure the improvement. Some of the lands occupied by the cabins were made fallow, and later used for agricultural shows. Some time later the showgrounds were taken over by the GAA, and replaced with An Pairc Tailteann, the Meath County sports grounds.

Research was carried out in advance of development works on behalf of Gibney & Partners, for Aldi Ltd, 2009-2010

© Neil O’Flanagan February 2010

Kirwans Lane, Galway.

Travellers to Dublin Airport in recent years may have noticed the large display showing a stone lined medieval street, advertised as one of the tourist attractions to be visited in Ireland. The street on display is Kirwan’s Lane, in Galway City,

Kirwans Lane, Galway.

It is one of the oldest streets in Galway, possibly dating back to the 13th century shortly after the City of Galway was established by Richard DeBurgh in 1234 AD. The lane was built to connect Cross Street, situated on higher ground, with a mill at the west end of the lane, on the banks of the River Corrib. The mill was in existence by 1365 AD when it was bequeathed to Thomas Martin, and it remained associated with his family for many generations. Among his descendants was Richard Martin, better known as ‘Humanity Dick’, responsible for introducing some of the earliest legislation in the 19th century protecting animals from cruelty.

Kirwans Lane is numbered 73 in the Pictorial Map of Galway (1651 c.)

The lane owes its name to Sir John Kirwan, who amassed a large fortune trading in the the West Indies. It is believed that he owned the first house, now known as Busker Brownes Public House. At this high point in Galway’s fortunes, he may have been the wealthiest merchant in the city. The lane had earlier been known as Perrons Lane. This may have referred to the external staircases, known as ‘perron’, used in the timber houses built prior to the existing stone houses.

Merchants House, seen on the left of the display, was probably built between 1600 and 1620 AD. It was a purpose built grain store with a central passage way to the back. The remains of the passage-way can be seen on ether side of the main doorway into the present day design concourse. Two decorated stone fireplaces can be seen there today. It also includes some of the original oak timber baseplates in the interior.

Decorated stone fireplace, Block 4 Kirwans Lane.

The house was built as a pair with the adjacent (Block 3) Kirwans Lane. Both houses shared a central entrance way to the rear yard and gardens, as well as similar semi-pointed archways and decorated fireplaces. The ground floor of Merchants House, i.e. No 4, was probably used solely for trading, possibly of flour from the nearby mill. The first floor appears to have been the main living area, and the large two-light window provided ample breadth to illuminate the room. The second floor had less impressive window opes & fireplaces.

Cromwellian forces ransacked almost the entire city of Galway after the city capitulated to them in 1652. Many of the houses were destroyed and the old mercantile families lost their residences in the city to the incoming English adventurers. Kirwans Lane declined over the next three hundred years, and by the nineteenth century most of the great stone houses were in disrepair and replaced by factories and warehouses.

Merchants House survived the test of time, and until 1993 its previous owner, Mr O’Faharta, operated a corn and grain dealing business from the premises, continuing a centuries old tradition. The house was extensively refurbished,in 1993-95 and a new roof added to it. An older tower house type structure adjacent to it had much of its its facade rebuilt, and Busker Brownes retains much of the ambience of the original house of Sir John Kirwan.

There are numerous other stone houses and buildings in Galway dating to this period, and the various refurbishments that have taken place since the 1990’s have exposed and reused much of it for the modern era.

© Neil O’Flanagan 2021

Neil O’Flanagan was a consultant archaeologist for the excavation and refurbishment of Kirwan’s Lane 1993-96.