Brick has been known as a building material since 10,000 BCE. The bible, in the book of Exodus, tells how Pharaoh forced the Israelites to make bricks without providing any straw for their manufacture and how his oppression led to their leaving Egypt for the promised land. These ancient bricks were former of mud and straw and were dried by the heat of the sun. They were not very stable or durable. From about 3500 BC the technique of firing bricks in a kiln was discovered. The resulting brick was hard as stone and virtually indestructible. The Babylonians added the technique of glazing the face of a brick with colour and in Classical Antiquity many writers considered bricks to be a superior material to stone. Ancient brick buildings have proved to be very durable.

In Europe, in countries where good stone was not available, brick was often used as the preferred material. Much of the Gothic architecture of Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia is of brick construction. The great advantage of building with bricks is the lightness of the material and the ease with which brick walls can be assembled. In Ireland local developments in brick construction has left a rich variety of forms and patterns throughout the country. Here bricks tend to appear generally from the seventeenth century when, initially, their use was limited to particular parts of a building, notably in lining bread ovens and in decorative chimney stalks. In the Georgian and Victorian periods and in the twentieth century bricks became by far the most common Irish building material.

Developments in Brick Construction

Before the coming of the Irish canals and railways, the materials from which any building was constructed had to be procured locally. Where bricks were to be used, very often they were made by a travelling brick-maker who contracted to bake the thousands of bricks necessary for any job on the site. This must have happened at Jigginstown outside Navan in Co. Kildare. This huge house was planned by the Earl of Strafford, Charles I's Lord Deputy, in 1632. Though ruined it retains much fine brickwork in two colours.

As brick building became more common local brickworks were set up. Each had its own character, quality and size of bricks. By the 1840s bricks were being made in some 150 different locations in Ireland. In the countryside many were burn in clamps, covered with earth and baked with turf fires; the larger manufacturers used kilns and, where it was available, coal to fire the brick. Exceptions to this local provision are Dublin and Drogheda where many of the bricks that were used in the Georgian age are of English origin. These bricks were imported from Bristol and were brought to Ireland principally as ballast in ships which would otherwise have returned empty having taken corn to England for export. In the nineteenth century bricks were also imported from Liverpool, from Ruabon in North Wales and from Staffordshire.

An interesting feature about bricks is their size. Old bricks are rather shallow and required five courses to build a foot in height (32cm). As the wages for bricklayers increased so bricks were made taller. By the mid Victorian period to build one foot only required four courses. Using the larger size reduced the construction costs by 20%.

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