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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

The Quarries & Marble Hill


Who remembers the Quarries and Marble Hill?

By L. D. Bergin

The Nationalist December 2nd 1983

WE ARE still celebrating the 150 years of the opening of Carlow cathedral and it is appropriate that a younger generation should know something about the environs of place. This information owes little to the name above it. But it has two functions.

It describes a part of 19th century Carlow on which almost all the ecclesiastical institutions still stand, inter connected, as it were.

There are two exceptions. The old St. Joseph's School is no longer used as an infants school and the Christian Brothers Schools are no longer in College Street, but still fairly adjacent as the Bishop Foley Memorial Schools.

This article also solves for me a question I used to ask when a pupil long ago at St. Joseph's. "Why do they call the Dublin Road The Quarries?" I was never told. Nobody seemed to know.

But the late Father Larry Kehoe, a priest of this diocese, wrote copiously about what might be called the Carlow ecclesiastical and scholastic campus in the years gone. The quarries have long vanished. Marble Hill is still remembered in the name of a local football team.

Father Kehoe wrote an article for this newspaper on the area in our issue of 17th March 1934, shortly after I began my apprenticeship to the newspaper business. Salient points of that article mention that the Roman Catholic institutions of Carlow are somewhat unique since they were all interconnected. He mentioned the Presentation Convent and the then schools beside the Cathedral, St. Patrick's College and its grounds adjacent to the old Christian Brothers Schools. The Convent of the Sisters of Mercy also and St. Joseph's School where most Carlovians began to learn their three R’s. They form a fairly compact group.

Some record of their beginnings is not without interest. That is, almost wholly, a record of the work of one man. Rev. Father Staunton, done within the space of 27 or 28 years; that is, between 1786 and 1814.

Convent was Coaching Inn

In 1786 there stood on the site of the Convent of Mercy, Carlow a building known as the Mail Coach Hotel. The camera was unknown in those days, and I don't think any sketch of it, if such was ever made, has been preserved.

Convent of Mercy c.1905If it bore any likeness to some of the old Coach Inns that may still be seen in certain parts of Ireland, it was a substantial two-storey structure, and provided with excellent stables.

Behind the Hotel, and part of the Hotel property, were two fields of a total area of 7 acres. These fields were known as Marble Hill. The field outside the Convent Garden is somewhat less in area today than it was in 1786.

The other field, to the East, it would be impossible to identify today. It was taken over at a price fixed by arbitration by the G.S. and W. Railway Company in 1849, and some of the railway buildings were erected on it.

"But we must go back to the Hotel, and the year 1786. This date is important.

Let us suppose an educated Roman Catholic traveller who visited Carlow for the first time in the month of September 1786. 'Leaving Dublin by the morning coach at 6 o'clock the fifth or sixth relay of horses reins up at the Mail Coach Hotel in Carlow a little after mid-day.

Our traveller orders dinner, say at 2 o'clock, and books a room for the night. We assume that he was a gentleman of means. If he were thirsty, he would. have ordered a glass of brandy and water; or, if the day were very hot, as a September day often is, he may have ordered a large tankard of strong ale. (He may have considered whiskey too cheap, too common, and too potent).

Refreshed by one or other, or maybe both of these beverages and having an hour or so to spare before dinner, he goes for a stroll. He walks down through what is now Dublin Road, turns to the left into what is now College Street and continues his walk to what is now Tullow Street.

Retracing his steps, slowly, he accosts a shabbily dressed, but intelligent looking man, standing in the doorway of a squalid thatched cabin, and asks him if, and where, there is a Roman Catholic Chapel in Carlow. The man from the cabin leads him to a gateway nearby.

A mean looking building

They both enter and descend into a deep, extensive, but disused quarry pit. Away to the left, right under the Dublin Road from which it is separated by a few thatched houses, standing on a shelving ledge of limestone rock, is a long, low mean-looking building. This, he is told, is the Roman Catholic Chapel.

We assume that our traveller enters, kneels down and says a prayer, that he looks around at the altar, the ceiling, the walls, the floor, the seats (if any). He leaves the Church and stands on the doorstep.

He surveys the quarry pit. In its centre is a broad, deep pool of stagnant water. The volume of the pool, he doesn't need to be told, is supplied and replenished partly from the springs below, partly from the rains above. As to the dark drip through the jagged sides of the pit, he cannot help noticing that its volume is "augmented, pigmented and scented", by the drainage discharged from the wretched, pestilential cabins that fringed the pit on two sides.

And the man from the cabin told our traveller that this Chapel in the pit was crowded on Sundays, that there wasn't even standing room.

The congregation filled all available spaces around the stagnant pool.

Young boys and girls perched on and clung to the projecting ledges of limestone rock round about the quarry.

Leaving the Quarry Pit our traveller returns to the Coach Hotel. He eats his dinner of good beef, washed down; it may have been, by a generous draft of ale or porter. There were two breweries and a distillery in Carlow at that time.

It being a warm September evening, and having no further desire for sight-seeing in the town, our traveller withdrew for a smoke to the field behind the Hotel. He accosts one of the Hotel hands. They both enter into a friendly conversation.

Our traveller appears to be interested in the fields to the right and partly in front of him, and the man with the spade gladly gives him any information he can.

The field immediately on his right, which is nameless, is now the College garden. The field, immediately below this is nameless, and the number three field, immediately in front of the Northern entrance to the College was then known as the Quarry Field.

Legal documents are full of jargon, perplex and irritate us. Hence, we seldom read them, unless when we have to defend, or contest, a legal claim and then only under the guidance of a lawyer.

Once in a while, however, it comes our way that we can read them with real pleasure. And that is when information of old boundaries and landmarks that may have long since disappeared, and have been perhaps completely forgotten. That is just what they do here.

Way back in 1786

 They tell us that between 1786 and 1800 the road we now know as Dublin Road was flanked by rows of squalid, thatched cabins. They tell the same story of the greater part of what is now College Street; and they give us the name by which they were known between 1786 and 1800, of the various fields and parcels of land which now form the grounds of the Mercy Convent, the College, the Christian Brothers Schools, the Cathedral and the Presentation Convent.

They tell us that behind the cabins, in the angle formed by Dublin Road and College Street there was a deep-disused quarry extending into the present College grounds. In the quarry was the R.C. Chapel of the Penal Days. the Quarry has long since been filled in.

 The Racquet Court and the two garages on Dublin Road are built on it. The old Chapel was situated just inside the present College ground at the rear of Shirley's Garage. Fortunately the exact position can be located in five minutes.

Portions of its walls were uncovered in the course of a deep excavation following on a drainage scheme executed by the College in the Summer of 1907. Father Gorry was then Adm. in Carlow.

With the aid of some very old people in the town, he was able to identify them beyond a shadow of doubt. He also collected from these old people some interesting particulars of the congregation of this Chapel and how they were ex­pected to behave going to, or coming from the chapel on a Sunday.

The leases do not say anything about the dimensions of this Church, of its beauty, or ugliness, of its furniture or lack of furniture, the sufficiency or the insufficiency of its accommodation, or of the number and demeanour of its worshippers. For such information, however, we have no need to consult leases.

From a hundred sources, we know what the churches of the Penal Days were like. There was little change in many of them for two generations afterwards.

Nearly fifty years later, two French visitors — Montalambert and Abbe Perrand, afterwards Bishop of Clermon-Ferrand — have described to us some of these churches, their ugliness, their lack of accommodation, seats, of furniture.

In contrast they tell in words of the warmest admiration, of the tensive piety of the crowded congregation — piety that was proof against semi-nakedness, hunger and cold. No, it is not difficult to visualise, without exaggeration, the Church, the Congregation, and the Quarry Pit of 1786. 

Source: The Nationalist December 2 1983 & Michael Purcell

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