Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
The Natural History of Ireland (Author: Gerard Boate)

chapter 17

Of the Iron-works; their Fashion, Charges of erecting and maintaining them, and Profit coming of them. With an exact Description of the Manner of melting the Iron in them

The Fashion of the Iron-works.

THE fashion of the Iron-works, of whose erection we have spoke in the end of the foregoing chapter, is such as followeth. At the end of a great barn standeth a huge furnace, being of the height of a pike and a half, or more, and four-square in figure, but after the manner of a malt-kiln


that is narrow below, and by degrees growing wider towards the top, so as the compass of the mouth or the top is of many fathoms. This mouth is not covered, but open all over; so that the flame, when the furnace is kindled, rising through the same without any hindrance, may be seen a great way off in the night, and in the midst of the darkness maketh a terrible shew to travellers, who do not know what it is.

These ovens are not kindled with wood, nor with sea-coal, but merely with charcoal, whereof therefore they consume a huge quantity, for the furnace being once kindled, is never suffered to go out, but is continually kept a burning from the one end of the year to the other, and the proportion of the coals to the oar is very great, for the mine would not melt without an exceeding hot fire; the which that it may be the more quick and violent, it is continually blown day and night without ceasing by two vast pair of bellows, the which resting upon main pieces of timber, and with their pipes placed into one of the sides of the furnace, are perpetually kept in action by the means of a great wheel, which being driven about by a little brook or water-course, maketh them rise and fall by turns, so that whilst the one pair of bellows doth swell and fill it self with wind, the other doth blow the same forth into the furnace.

Of the lesser Iron-works, called Bloomeries; Of the Hammer-works, And of the Casting-works.

THERE is another and lesser sort of iron-works, much different from the former, for instead of a furnace they use a hearth therein, altogether of the fashion of a smith's hearth, whereon the oar being laid in a great heap, it is covered over with abundance of charcoal, the which being kindled, is continually blown by bellows that are moved by wheels and water-courses, in the same manner as in the other works.

These works, commonly called bloomeries, are in use, or were so before this rebellion in sundry places of the north parts of Ulster.

Besides these two sorts of works, where the iron-mine is melted, there is a third sort, where the iron after the first melting is hammer'd out into bars, of which we shall have occasion to speak more in the latter end of this present chapter.

There were also in some parts os Ireland yet another kind of iron-works differing from all the former, where the iron was cast into ordnance, pots, small round furnaces, and other things of which works Mr. Christopher Wandsworth, master of the rolls of Ireland, and in his latter days lord deputy of the same kingdom under the earl of Strafford, then lord lieutenant thereof, had one upon his lands by Idough in the county of Carlow; whereof we cannot give the reader any particulars, because we have not yet been informed thereof.

Conveniences requisite to the erecting of an Iron-work.

IN the erecting of these works men seek to make them as near to the mine as may be, to get the more profit by them, for the greater the distance is, the


greater are the charges in having the oar brought from the mine to the furnace, especially where all must be carried by land, the which doth fall out so in far the most places.

But many times one is necessitated to make the works a good way further from the mine, than otherwise one would, because of the water courses, the which being of very great consequence in the well settling of a work, and absolutely necessary (the wheels being all moved by water) those places must be made choice of, where one may have the conveniency of water-courses. And besides all this, regard must be had to the nearness of the woods, partly by reason of the timber, a great deal whereof is necessary for the erecting of one of these works, and chiefly for the char-coals sake, of which a vast quantity continually is requisite, as before we have shewed.

The charges of erecting and maintaining an Iron-work.

IT is to be observed, that although there be wood enough upon ones land, and that not very far from the mine, together with the conveniences of water-courses, so as the water needeth not to be brought from very far off, nevertheless the charge is very great, both of erecting and stocking one of the iron-works, and of maintaining it and keeping it afoot, and that by reason of the great number of workmen and labourers of several sorts, which thereunto is requisite; a list of whose names and offices here followeth. Wood-cutters, who fell the timber; sawyers, to saw the timber, carpenters, smiths, masons, and bellow-makers, to erect the iron-works, with all the appurtenances thereof, and to repair them from time to time; water-leaders, or water-course-keepers, to steer the water-courses, and to look to them constantly; basket-makers, to make baskets for to carry the oar and other materials, boat-men, and boat-wrights to make the boats, and to go in them, diggers, who work in the mine, and dig the same; carriers, who carry the oar from the mine; colliers, who make the char-coal, corders, who bring the char-coal to the work, fillers, whose work it is from time to time to put the mine and the coals into the furnace; keepers of the furnace, who look to the main work, rake out the ashes and cinders, and let out the molten metal at convenient times; finers, who look to the works where the iron is hammered, hammerers, whose work is to see the iron hammered out besides several other labourers, who having no particular task, must help to put their hand to every thing, of all which sorts of men sir Charles Coot the elder, that zealous and famous warriour in this present war against the Irish rebels (wherein having done many memorable exploits, he lost his life in the first year thereof) did continually keep at work some five and twenty or six and twenty hundred, at his iron-works, being three in number. Whereby may easily be gathered the greatness of the expences in erecting and maintaining of iron-works, and for all this the owners thereof did greatly gain thereby, ordinarily no less than forty in the hundred per annum.


Of the profit of the Iron-works instanced in those of Sir Charles Coot by Mountrath.

To speak somewhat more particularly both of the charges and profits of these iron-works, we shall instance the matter in one of the works of the said sir Charles Coot, namely that which he had in the lordship of Mountrath, in Queens-county. At that work the tun (that is twenty hundred weight) of rock-mine at the furnace head came in all to stand in five shillings six pence sterling, and the tun of white-mine, which he had brought him from a place two miles further off in seven shillings. These two were mixed in that proportion, that to one part of rock-mine were taken two parts of white-mine: for if more of the rock-mine had been taken, the iron would not have been so good, and too brittle; and being thus mixed, they yielded one third part of iron, that is to say, of two tuns of white-mine, and one of rock-mine, being mingled and melted together, they had one tun of good iron, such as is called merchants-iron, being not of the first, but second melting, and hammered out into bars, and consequently fit for all kinds of use.

This iron he sent down the river Oure (by others called the Nure) to Rosse and Waterford in that kind of Irish boats which are called cots in that country, being made of one piece of timber, which kind of ill favoured boats (mentioned also by us above) are very common throughout all Ireland, both for to pass rivers in, and to carry goods from one place to another; and not only upon shallow waters, such as the aforenamed river is in the greatest part of its course, but even upon the great rivers and loughs.

At Waterford the iron was put aboard of ships goring for London, where it was sold for sixteen, otherwhiles for seventeen pounds sterling, and sometimes for seventeen and a half; whereas it did not stand sir Charles Coot in more than betwixt ten and eleven pounds sterling, all charges reckoned, as well of digging, melting, fining, as of carrying, boat-hire, and freight, even the custom also comprehended in it.

Some other particulars about the same subject, of the profit of the Iron-works.

IN most of the other places did a tun of the iron-mine or oar come to stand in five, five and a half, and six shillings sterling at the furnace head, and it was an ordinary thing, as well where they used white-mine, as where they mixed rock-mine with it, to have a tun of good iron out of three tuns of oar in some places, where the mine was richer, they would have a tun of iron out of only two tuns and a half of oar. Nevertheless few of them gained more or as much as sir Charles Coot, because they had not the same convenience of transportation. And he himself did not gain so much by his iron-works in Connaught, as by that near Mountrath, although the mines there afforded a richer oar, and that the tun thereof did cost him but three shillings at the furnace,


because that Lough-Allen, whereunto the same mines and works are contiguous, gave him the opportunity of carrying the oar by water from the mine unto the work, and that in boats of forty tuns.

The earl of Cork whose iron-works being seated in Munster, afforded unto him very good opportunity of sending his iron out of the land by shipping, did in this particular surpass all others, so as he hath gained great treasures thereby and knowing persons, who have had a particular insight into his affairs, do assure me, that he hath profited above one hundred thousand pounds clear gain by his said iron-works.

The manner of melting the Iron-oar

THE manner of melting the iron, usual in Ireland, is thus. The furnace is not filled to the top, but some space is left empty, and to put new stuff into it they do not stay until the former be quite consumed, but only until it be some what descended, and then they cast into it some charges or basketfuls of coals, and at the top of them the same quantity of mine: and thus they do from time to time, so as the furnace is in a manner always in one and the same estate; where is to be observed, that in most furnaces they add unto the oar and coals some quantity of iron-cinders, and in others of lime-stone, whereby the melting of the iron is greatly furthered, and the furnace made to work more mildly.

Within the barn, at the bottom of the furnace, stand constantly two men, one of each side, the which with long iron hooks, through holes left for the purpose, do every quarter of an hour draw out the unburnt coals, ashes, and cinders, which cinders are great lumps of a firm substance, but brittle, of a blackish colour, shining, but not transparent, being nothing else but the remainder of the iron-oar, after that the iron which was contained in it, is melted out on't.

The iron it self descendeth to the lowest part of the furnace, called the hearth, the which being filled, (so that, if one stayed longer, the iron would begin to swim over through the aforesaid holes) they unstop the hearth, and open the mouth thereof (or the timpas the arts-men call it) taking away a little door, of fashion like unto that of a baker's oven, wherewith the same was shut up very close. The floor of the barn hath a mold of sand upon it, wherein, before they open the furnace, a furrow is made, of sufficient breadth and depth, thro' the whole length of the barn, from the bottom of the furnace until the barn's door, into which furrow, as soon as the furnace is opened, the molten iron runneth very suddenly and forcibly, being to look on like unto a stream or current of fire. It remaineth a long time hot, but doth presently loose its liquidness and redness, turning into a hard and stiff mass, which masses are called sowes by the workmen.


Of the different Bigness of the Iron Sowes.

THE masses or sowes of iron are not always of one and the same weight and bigness, but there is them of all sizes, from one hundred weight until thirty hundred which difference doth chiefly depend on the different bigness of the furnace and hearth, and partly on the will and discretion of the workmaster or founder, and according as he either stayeth until the hearth be full, or letteth out the iron sooner, but ordinarily they do not use to cast, or to open the hearth, under less than twelve hours, nor to stay much longer than four and twenty.

And here is to be observed, that even in furnaces of the same bigness, yea in the self same furnaces, the same quantity of iron is not always cast in the same space of time, but that varieth both according to the nature of the oar, and according to the different seasons of the year. For within the same compass of time you shall cast a greater quantity of iron out of a rich mine or oar, than out of a lean one; and in the summer time, when the coals come in dry and fresh, than in the winter.

Of the refining of the Sow-Iron, and the hammering it into Bars.

THE sowes are with teams of oxen drawn to the hammer-works, where being put into the fire again, they melt them into the finery, the finer turning the melted stuff to and fro, till it come to be a solid body, then he carrieth it under the hammer, where it is hammered out into such flat narrow and thin bars, as are to be seen every where: the hammers being huge big ones, and never ceasing from knocking day nor night, as being kept at work by the means of certain wheels, turned about by water-courses in the same manner as the wheels of the bellows.

By means of this second melting, and of that mighty hammering, the iron is freed from a mighty deal of dross and dregs which it kept sticking to it, thorough its whole substance, in the first melting, and so of impure called sow-iron, becometh to be useful, such as is accustomed to be delivered unto merchants, being therefore called merchants-iron; one tun whereof is usually had out of a tun and a half of sow-iron, but if that be of the best sort, and cast of the best oar, two hundred pounds less of it will yield the aforesaid quantity of a tun of merchants-iron.