Brick Making

Seeing a kiln of bricks being “burned” after going through all the preparatory rituals in brick production is one of my earliest recollections. My father, grandfather and great-grandfather carried on a small, handmade brick industry in Ballydrum, Swinford from around 1825 until 1920. This was a seasonal operation, confined to the summer months as sun-drying the freshly-made bricks was one of the imperative initial steps in brick production.

The deposits of brick clay which existed in this neighbourhood were blue boulder clay, carried down by the Moy and deposited in lowland flats by backwash action. Those deposits usually varied from two to eight feet.

This clay went under several names, including “dobe” and “daab,” which was the most popular term. The clay being prepared for brick production was first lifted manually above ground. It had to be mixed, sliced and turned over several times and pressed down with heavy planks to get a pliable, even mixture, free of air pockets.

There were no excavators or manual diggers in those days.

Incidentally, the first steam-driven excavator seen in Mayo was employed in the construction of the Claremorris-Ballinrobe railway almost a century ago.

It was instrumental in cutting the Hill of Caltra to a depth of 95 feet. It was nicknamed “The American Devil” and people travelled long distances to see this wonder.

When ready for moulding, as the shaping process was called, the clay had the texture and consistency of soft putty. The spread ground had to be level and sanded over to prevent the freshly –made bricks sticking to the ground. The moulder took his stand with his pile of moulds at the moulder’s table. He had to pack the clay firmly into the wooden shapes, which usually measured nine by four by two and a half inches. He levelled off the clay in the mould with a deft sweep of a rounded stick. Three spreaders, working at top speed took the filled moulds away and emptied the raw bricks onto the smooth and sanded ground, returning with the moulds for a refill. Two good moulders working very long hours could turn out 4,500 bricks per day.

Around 1890, the pay of a moulder was three shillings a day and that of other labourers was two shillings. The extra shilling for moulders was envied and viewed as a big differential in those days.

After some time on the spread grounds, the bricks, if sufficiently sun-dried, were turned over like sods of peat and later stacked in square piles close to the kiln.

When stacked in the kiln, six fire tunnels or arches measuring three feet high by two feet high were constructed at ground level. Those arches extended the full length of the kiln. Those arches were filed with turf and set alight and continuous fire had to be maintained until the bricks were sufficiently burned or baked. This could be four and a half to five and a half days, according to wind and weather conditions, quality of turf and other factors.

It was an unwritten law that two men had to attend the burning kiln at night. An old man told me that he enjoyed being one of the night watchers while the kiln was burning. He said that one of their favourite pranks or pastimes was cooking a fat chicken or succulent young duck in one of the fire arches of the kiln.

After the fowl was killed, they merely covered it with soft “daab” and placed it in one of the arches close to the entrance. After the bird was cooked, all the feathers were reduced to a black smear ad the intestines were shrivelled up by the intense heat. As for the flesh, he said, “You’d be licking your lips after you ate it.”

In those days over 100 years ago, wealthy shopkeepers’ sons and other young “gods” from the Swinford area formed a club called, “The Cock and Hen Club,” or alternatively, “The Duck and Hen Club.”

It was so called because of the practice of going out into the countryside and raiding fowlhouses for fowl to capture and cook after taking them back to town. The feast usually ended with a good soak of spirits. This club seems in a way to be a smaller edition of the famous Dublin Hell Fire Club.

“One night,” said my informant, “we heard the fowl in a house a short distance away making a loud racket. It was a very bright night as we rushed to the fowlhouse and surprised three intruders who took to their heels. They seemed to be half drunk and the two dogs we had with us gave them such a mauling that they were not seen around again.”

Around 1895, a journeyman potter from North Leitrim or Fermanagh, whose name, as far as I can recollect, was Jim Mullen came to Ballydrum. He had his own potter’s wheel and after a deal was struck with my father; he commenced to make butter and milk crocks, flower pots and other types of household receptacles.

He built a small kiln like a beehive to bake his wares. He had a pony and a small spring cart and he visited all the small towns within a 25 mile radius to sell his products in the market place.

After two or three seasons, he left to start operations in his native place. He was known locally as “Jim the Crocks.” Glazing his crocks was a secret he guarded jealously at all times.

Brick making operations employed a staff of from 16 to 24 according to business fluctuations. This included two or three carters for delivering bricks. About 500 horse cartload of turf were burned annually in brickmaking in Ballydrum.

The most popular size kiln of bricks contained 50,000 of them.

When “well burned,” to use a local term, the bricks turned from blue to red owing to the transformation of the iron oxide in the brick clay. The age of cement was slowly gaining momentum at the beginning of the twentieth century and sounded the death knell for all the small brick works in the country.

They had mostly disappeared by the start of World War One as concrete was faster to prepare and utilise and was also a less labourious substance for building purposes.

Folktales From County Mayo

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