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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Nationalist December 2 1983 &