A Royal Court at Killaloe
Aubrey Flegg

A Royal Court at Killaloe

Aubrey Flegg
In the eighteen sixties Queens were sold for two pounds and two shillings a ton, while Princesses, twenty four inches long and twelve wide, were reckoned in thousands at ten guineas. Duchesses, Countesses, Ladies, Doubles, Mosses, Quarters, and mere Commons, cost from ten guineas to eight shillings a thousand. And good value too as these were the titles and prices of the roofing slates being raised in the area around Killaloe during the nineteenth century, and still keeping many a house warm and dry.
If you are travelling on the road from Dublin to Limerick, take time to follow the lake drive from Nenagh to Killaloe. After a pleasant few miles skirting the northern slopes of the Arra Mountains the road rises sharply into the village of Portroe. From here your eyes will be drawn northward up the great sweep of Lough Derg with the contrasting browns of Slieve Aughty to the west and the lush greens of the limestone pastures on the eastern shore. Below you, hidden in the trees, is the tiny lake-port of Garrykennedy where, for a hundred and fifty years and more, the courtly slates of Killaloe took ship for Athlone, Dublin and anywhere else along the thriving canal ways of Ireland.
Each slate shipped out, however, represented a success story, because for every slate finished, six failed to make the grade and were cast aside to form the spectacular tips characteristic of slate workings world wide. Turn your back on the lake for a moment and you will catch glimpses of these tips spilling out about the numerous workings on the hillside above. When, as a geologist, I began to explore these quarries I suffered a tinge of guilt at the desecration of these lovely hillsides, but the slates are beautiful themselves. When W.B. Yeats restored his tower at Thoor Ballylea it was: ‘With old mill boards and sea-green slates’. The slater’s hammer is silent now, banks of heavy scented gorse bristle on the quarry rims, wild strawberries ripen on the sun-warmed stone and foxes look apprehensively over their shoulders as they clatter over the sliding slates. In the silence however one can hear the echoes of industry past.
We know that slate was being raised about here in the time of Brian Boru, because, according to the Four Masters, slate was used to roof the buildings in his fortress at Kincora just north of Killaloe. It was in the nineteenth century, however, that the working of slate reached its climax. It was a time of contrasts: of wealth and poverty. Great estates extended hungrily over the fatter lands along the lake shore, but the hills were crowded with the small-holdings of impoverished local farmers who tilled small fields to feed many mouths. The growth of the slate industry must to them have seemed like manna from heaven. Writing in 1845 George Wilkinson wrote how the quarries: ‘gave employment and food to many hundreds by converting what was the wild uncultivated mountain, on which goats and coarse cattle alone found poor subsistence, into the busy scene of labour, improving the habitations of the country, and, in endless ramifications, distributing wealth around...’
When I was working there in the early seventies there were still hale men who had worked in the quarries up to the time of their closing in the 1950s; the pit at Corbally was then three hundred and fifty feet deep. They told me about their work, speaking of red-ends, slants and soles, a remembered hammer danced in their hands again. They told stories of strikes and disasters and how the wild goats that still inhabit the bushy margins of the quarries would feel the rock slipping under their feet and warn the men in the pit of an incipient rock fall by taking themselves off, out of danger up the mountain side.
So when you see the grey tips on the mountain sides or watch the rain bouncing off a slated roof, bear a thought for the Royal slates of Killaloe and the men who gave them their titles and earned a welcome wage in return.

 

A Royal Court at Killaloe was written and recorded for RTE’s Sunday Miscellany
photo credit :
Slate Quarry, Killaloe
PRACTICAL Geology and Ancient Architecture of Ireland, George Wilkinson
John Murray, 1845
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