Timepiece Antique Clocks

Irish Clocks and Their Makers

In this article are some of the thoughts, notions and technical observations made and accumulated by myself since my entry into the world of Irish horology in 1978.

As an elementary introduction into the subject, I have structured four main categories, which mark the main changes in period and style of the longcase clock. A brief survey of bracket and wall clocks and a look into the background of their makers.

I hope you will find my observations of benefit and interest to you in a subject so poorly documented.


Pre 1740 Walnut Period

John Crampton, Meekings and Blundell, Parker, Cobham, these are names that we shall find on early 18 century pieces. These will all be found in cases made of walnut, mulberry, yew wood and fruitwoods of sorts and most often these veneers and finishing timbers would be found on a carcass of pine while across the water, oak was the most favoured carcass material. It is undoubted that the early examples of clock and case work were heavily influenced by the London trends and this is not altogether surprising as the longcase clock as we know it was barely thirty years old at the turn of the 17th century. However, I believe with the establishment of the new wealthy ascendancy class that the style of the Irish clock took off on a separate orbit to its mainland counterpart. This of course, was aided by our island status. The shape and style of dials, which at the time were engraved brass with cast and gilded mounts, appeared to have differed almost immediately from those in Great Britain. Ten, 11 and 12-inch dials made in London were countered by a much larger Irish version of 13.5” approximately, although a few examples of 11 and 12 inches have been found.

As to why the Irish found it necessary to produce a larger dial is not documented, although the adage, ‘bigger is better’ may be as good a reason as any. The large dial of course, necessitated a proportionately larger case, which may have allowed the craftsman to experiment somewhat with style and design. Very few examples of the pre 1740 era have survived to advise us fully as to the fashions of the day. The principle features of the early 18th century clockcase are, the flat-topped hood with blind fret frieze, which may reflect the shape of swans, for example, in the centre. Doric and Corinthian capitals at the upper end of plain pilasters intrinsic to the hood door, a crossbanded masque behind the hood door, inset panels of burr walnut or yew wood positioned appropriately when a lenticle (glass bulls eye in trunk door) was employed. These panels are followed through into the base. Crossbanding is employed as is herringbone string inlay and most characteristically, a pair of harlequin type figures at the top of the trunk, one left and one right, facing each other from either side of the hood. Each one appears to be gesturing to the other with a single finger of one hand, the significance of which we may only surmise! The dials for such cases are most usually decorated with exquisite engraving of chevron and herringbone. No space is spared on such dial plates.

Many early movements and dials may be found recased in later mahogany cases. I believe the main reasons for this to be threefold:

  1. Proportionally fewer clocks were constructed on this island than in Great Britain, vis-à-vis our population differences and so fewer survived intact compared to our English counterparts.
  2. The materials chosen by local craftsmen were not of a durable type and so deteriorated through rot and pestilence.
  3. The arrival of mahogany, a new and exotic material from the Spanish islands of San Domingo and later Cuba, may have attracted patrons to replace less desirable indigenous cabinets with the novel exotic timber.

Chippendale Period - Post 1730

Mahogany first brought to these islands as ballast heralded a new era of cabinet making. The Irish craftsmen brought to the new medium, a convergence of a Celtic mood and a classical style, influenced by European immigres and those patrons and architects who had been on the grand tour of classical sites of Rome and Athens.

From a clocks point of view, 1730 would appear to draw a line in the sand and all similarities to their English cousins were swept away. The new style, which has become known as Irish Chippendale, employed the finest quality San Domingo mahogany in a tall elegant and well-proportioned case. The main features were a swan-necked pediment over a cushion mould, carved with acanthus foliage and centred by a shell or ‘green man’. Fluted pilasters with concave and convex reeding, terminating in carved Corinthian capitals flanking the hood. The trunk door was very long, break arch in design and with a wide fielding. The base was short, with a raised and fielded panel, typically backed by rails and stiles. All the while the brass dial size remained faithful to 13 ½ inches approximately, although it became plainer than earlier examples and lost much of the heavy engraving and chasing which was seen before. This trend persisted through the rest of the 18th century in a progressive manner. The earlier examples of the Chippendale clock may be recognised by certain features in the cabinet. Hood mouldings are convexed, trunk mouldings are concave and sweeping, trunk doors have a very wide fielding and are usually backed by thick and rough pine. Dials were fitted with four spandrels; the earlier dial is transitional from walnut to mahogany and depicting a pair of cherubs supporting the crown. No doubt claiming its divine lineage. The chapter ring (which is where numbers 1-12 are engraved) while perhaps plainer was usually as wide as before the arrival of mahogany and was some ½ inch larger than post 1750. Irish clockmakers as a rule remained faithful to the square brass dial of 13 ½ inches while in London; 12-inch arch dials of one piece became the fashion.

Many individuals have cast aspersions as to the manufacture of Irish clockworks, stating that such movements originated in Britain rather than home grown. To hold such a view, of course, reveals only a poor grasp of the subject as fundamental and basic differences apply. Mainly, the English preferred five pillar movements; plates tended to the heavier and taller, pinion position of the third wheel tended to differ and perhaps winding arbour distances were greater in Irish clock movements due to the larger dial.

The Chippendale longcase, principally in mahogany, although oak and red walnut examples are to be found, dominated as a style for the rest of the 18th century. It saw a few stylistic changes namely; the use of the lion’s masque instead of a shell from approximately 1760, pilasters with carved Corinthian capitals gave way to separate fluted pillars with Doric capitals. The use of timber capitals prevailed in Ireland while the use of cast brass was more common in Britain.

From approximately 1770, trunk doors while maintaining their full length, made a transition from a break arch style to a scalloped feature. Strap hinges gave way to butt acorn versions. The mouldings under the hood became concave instead of convex and waist mouldings often ogee in flavour as opposed to the previous concave style. The fielding in the lower base panel also became muter.

Major changes begin to occur circa 1780 and the use of blind fret frieze or indeed open fret became popular as an alternative for carving.


Neo Classical Painted Dial Clocks

1780 also saw the arrival of what was to become the new genre of Irish longcase clock. This was a lighter built case in a neo classical style. It had very sharp clean cut lines with the main features being a broken arch pediment, a short trunk door over an inset or raised panel and the base very often had a panel inlayed with stringing. These cases made strong use of lighter colours with string and shell inlays, figured veneers mitred and crossbanded. The introduction of such clock cases goes hand in hand with the development pioneered in Birmingham, namely the painted dial. This was a new alternative to the traditional brass face. I believe that this departure in many ways was customer driven and I would subscribe to the ‘easy read’ thinking. Old brass dials, once tarnished became dark and in an age of poor lighting, a dark Georgian hallway may have been a poor place to read the time on a clock face, whereas the bright and legible painted dials provided an easy read factor.

These dials were at the time, made in Dublin although, as we progress to approximately 1810, many dials were imported from Birmingham. These in the main belonged to the family of circular dials, so characteristic of the 19th century. The practice of buying in dials was more prevalent in Ulster and Cork. As with many things the earlier of these neo classical clocks sported the most detail. Pediments had moulded returns in the broken arch and dental work was often used to supplement mouldings, a convex mould was used below the collar mouldings under the hood. The use of quarter reeded pilasters to the corners of the trunk which were found on the later Chippendale cases was carried through to the new style and indeed, the reeded pilasters followed through into the base corners. 1790-1800 heralded a plainer view of the design of case and fashion dictated a generally simpler version of this clock. Of course, if one takes history into account, the trouble that we now call ’98 may have seen finance taking a hand.

The neo classical style remained prevalent to circa 1820 and finally Roman numerals gave way to Arabic style. The names most often found in the era of 40 years were, Bainbridge, Buchanan, Gordon & Fletcher, Gaskin, Vizer and Warren to name a few.

1800 and the Act of Union see another fundamental change of direction. Taking somewhat of a lead from London and Edinburgh, the hand painted dial begins to take a hold on Dublin, Cork and Belfast. These three regions traditionally held the main spheres of influence on this island, each to its own stylistic choices. All three employed gadrooned rope edging known as Nelsoning, string inlays often preserved and a break arch hood to encompass and compliment the circular dial. These were typically 12 and 13 inch. Movement wise, not a lot had changed although, where early makers often made an effort to decorate the works that no one would see, the practice died out in favour of plainer unembellished brass and steel. Very strangely, it was not the practice to sign movements on this island although there are some exceptions, notable Edward Smith of Dublin.


19th Century Painted Dial Clocks

These round dial clocks took on a much smaller proportion height-wise than their predecessors, which perhaps coincided with a far more frequent town house style of living as opposed to the manor life so prevalent of the 18th century. These also become plainer and simpler as time passes and eventually by 1850 or so become more standard in many ways, where gables and mouldings are almost homogenous, interchangeability does not come into the equation with these clocks but it was getting close. The bespoke clocks of the past had all but given way to ‘off the peg’.

It might be said that the 19th century was a period of lesser skill and quality, clockwise, than the 18th century. Yet the practicality is that the demand for product was higher as merchant and middle classes sought out the status symbol of the longcase clock. In Ulster, linen makers, having prospered, ordered their clocks locally and tended to specify clocks of low height to suit their homes. It was also becoming more important commercially to have an accurate knowledge of time at hand. Taking these factors into account, clocks had of course to be built faster and more economically. The sheer volume of clockmakers noted as working during this period informs us as to the scale of demand for such timepieces. My own premises on Patrick St. are placed geography in the middle of a hive of clockmaking activity. Golden Lane, the Coombe, Meath St., Thomas St., New Street, George’s Street, Crowe St. and Wellington Quay, these and many more were all traditional clockmakers outlets and workshops. I should imagine that such a large number of competing makers probably accounts for the range and variation on the painted dial theme.

Provincial market towns in Ulster provided local craftsmen in the clock trade, not least, blind Kennedy of Tanderagee. Through this period clocks were offered to the buying public in plain break arch cases or decorated with Nelsoning or reeded features. Longcase clocks with wheel barometers inserted into the trunk door and domestic regulators with deadbeat escapements and glazed trunk doors were offered at the upper end of the market. Keyhole designs with tapered bodies became quite popular, the majority of which were made by Donegan of Dame St. Donegans in particular, whose business spanned two generations, epitomized a spirit of Irish clock and watch craft. They leaned heavily on the use of Gaelic symbols such as, shamrocks engraved into watch cases, carved into timber work and painted on clock dials in green and gold shading. The harp and round tower along with wolfhounds and designs representing the Giant’s Causeway were also hallmarks of this imaginative firm. Donegans were also favoured by the Catholic clergy of the day and many oak and ash clocks were produced to satisfy the custom of a Church eager for timepieces, but who wanted to avoid the flamboyance of the figured mahogany clock cases.


Bracket and Wall Clocks

Bracket clocks in Ireland are a rare item and the vast majority fall into the bedroom variety, that is, timepiece movements combined with an independent pull repeat. The purpose of such a repeat was so as not to have a chiming clock in a bedroom, but one with a mechanism to sound the time on bells on demand. This of course gives the individual a record of time without needing daylight. The overall clock weighed quite light and was readily transportable throughout the house. Typically a verge escapement was used through the 18th century with anchor escapement later. The back cock often covered by a decorative heart and the back plate signed inside an engraved cartouche. Strangely, the dials were arched in design, brass with features akin to long cases although an aperture below 12 o’clock provided a view of a mock pendulum. Infrequently, more complex versions are found e.g. time/strike/pull repeat or time/strike/chime; this begs the question, why? It has been suggested to me that cost was possibly the main factor and this surely has merit. The longcase was probably the most expensive single item in a great house and to have another costly device might not have been as accessible here as across the water in England. For me, the main differences between these two types of clocks were power and escapement; one is weight driven with anchor escapement, while the other is spring driven with verge escapement. The question that I have is this - did we have steel available to us of a high enough standard for a mainspring or was this a guarded skill and did we have sufficient devices to enable widespread construction of verge escapements? In twenty years, the percentage of Irish bracket clocks that I have encountered, vis-à-vis, longcases might amount to as little as 1%. Examples of the ones encountered would be a John Crampton of Dublin circa 1710- the Queen Anne period. This was ebony on oak with square brass dial, very much in the overall style of Knibb, London. The movement with timepiece train and verge escapement, strike train with hour strike facility and independent pull repeat on six bells. This particular clock was featured and illustrated in Brian Loomes book ‘British Clocks’ an unfortunate misnomer, as the Act of Union did not come into being for nearly 100 years after the clock was made.

Recently, I had the pleasure of handling a bracket clock by Sinclair & Gordon of Dublin. This was an inverted bell top case made of cherry and originally ebonised the brass dial was arched with spandrels and centre boss bearing the makers signature. The dial squared off by corner spandrels around a raised chapter ring with mock pendulum aperture between 10 and 2 o’clock. The movement was timepiece with verge escapement and as was common practice, the winding aperture was complimented by an inactive dummy winding hole, to provide visual balance and give the illusion of fully striking facility. The movement also had its original pull repeat on two bells. Sinclair & Gordon signed their names on the backplate in an engraved cartouche and edged the plate with herringbone engraving. They also decorated the back cock of the verge escapement with a heart shaped plate of silvered finish. Original Irish wall clocks provide equally few examples to enlighten us. I personally would have dealt with far more Irish wall clocks of a public nature than domestic-wall regulators and gilt framed gallery clocks. Many of the later drop dials and dial clocks may be considered Irish retailed only.


Irish Makers

What of Irish clockmakers, who were they and what was their social background? William Stuart in his list of Irish watch and clockmakers, notes makers from 1611. However, at this time it may not be practical to look beyond 1700 and indeed in the light of the incendiary fires of 1922 at the Four Courts, in which the bulk of our records were destroyed, it is a wonder that any information at all is in evidence. Other sources of information might include the records of the Dublin Goldsmiths Co., surviving street directories and publications such as the Belfast Newsletter, who may have carried advertisements for practicing clockmakers and watchmakers, declaring their skills and wares or notices of lost property.

By and large the family names of our horologist were not Gaelic, although O’Neill, O’Shaughnessy and O’Reilly are to be found alongside McCormack, McMaster and McCabe. Surnames such as Dalrymple, Hercule Troy, Samuel Lahee, Barnaby De la Hoyde, Barnaby Vizer, James Vidouze and Wm.Teulon are commonly found on clock dials and bear testament to what was a rich environment of immigrant craftworkers, together with homegrown. We appear to have been influenced in someway during the 18th century by the arrival of Huguenot watch and clockmakers. It is unclear whether or not they directed and influenced our progress in the field of horology or if they merely adapted skills learned on the continent to suit the demands and circumstances of their adopted homeland. I would personally subscribe to the latter notion.

Experience has shown the large bulk of clocks made in this country to have been of a tried and tested nature and almost exclusively domestic. Although, it can be said that while the majority of clocks produced were market driven in style, such notables as Sharp of Dublin and Lowry of Belfast produced many very fine observatory quality regulators. Notables such as James Wilson of Belfast and James Waugh of Armagh and Dublin also devised a small number of musical clocks. Indeed, John McCabe of Newry placed the following advertisement in Belfast News Letter on 14th February to 14th March 1769.

John McCabe, WATCH and CLOCK-MAKER in North St, Newry, takes this Method of informing HIS Friends and the Public that he continues to make all Sorts of Watches and Clocks equal to Goodness to any now made in London or Dublin, viz. Plain, Repeating, And Horizontal Watches; good plain Weight and Spring Clocks: He likewise makes musical Clocks to play Tunes by either bells, or Organs, so as to play a different Tune every Day in the Week at the hours of 3, 6, 9, and 12, and a Psalm Tune on Sunday, of which he has now a Clock in Hands as a Specimen, which will be finished in a few Days, and may be Then viewed by any Gentlemen who pleases. He returns his sincere Thanks to his Friends and those Gentlemen who were pleased to encourage him and honour him with their Custom.

It would appear however, that demand did not abound at that time for musical clocks as James Wilson of Belfast who claimed to have made the first model of its kind in that part of Ireland, eventually had to resort to raffling the clock in order to make its value! The number of tickets sold was twenty-five @ one guinea each which of course tells us the estimated value of such an item at the time - 25 guineas.

After many years of personal interest, I have discovered that the people who constructed our clocks were not only clockmakers. In a previous article, I noted the incredible career of one William Kennedy, born in Tanderagee, Co.Armagh, in 1768. Blind by the age of four, William went on to have an illustrious career as a clockmaker but also is credited with significant improvements to the uileann pipes and is more often known as the ‘blind piper’ than the ‘blind clockmaker’. In nearby Lurgan, the McCabe family reared many clock and watchmakers. Internationally, the most famous being James McCabe, who removed to London and founded the House of McCabe. However, his brother Thomas, moved to Belfast where he became a successful businessman in the clock, watch and jewellery trade, but more to his credit, involved himself significantly in the Volunteer movement in the late 18th century. During these troubles, Thomas hung a sign outside his shop front, declaring himself to be a slave under the crown. He was also reputed to have single-handedly prevented Belfast becoming a slaving port. This occurred during a meeting of interested business persons to discuss the possibility of the slave trade coming to Belfast. Thomas declared this to be an unholy trade and that the first man to vote for this motion would be cursed with a withered hand.

Another interesting gentleman was Mr.John Baillie of Downpatrick. The Baillie family, John, James and William, made clocks in Downpatrick, Dromore and Kircubbin. John however is noteworthy for his involvement in the ’98 movement in Ulster. He spent many months in France; some say procuring armaments and spent a period of Kilmainham Jail for his trouble. Interestingly, he was allowed to continue his clockmaking whilst incarcerated. I guess he was well connected.


Summary & Acknowledgements

In conclusion, it may be said that the island of Ireland has a very rich heritage of skilled horologist. They produced the finest quality clocks and also played a significant role in the social development of towns and cities. This has been but an elementary eye-opener into a subject so rich in material but so sparsely documented.

Perhaps in the future, someone or some group may write or sponsor further research into this fascinating subject.

Grateful thanks to the following, for their continued encouragement and knowledge.

  • Antiquarian Horological Society
  • Mr. David Boles
  • Mr.Colman Curran
  • Mr. Gerry McBrierty
  • Stuart Family for their invaluable reference source.

Copyright Kevin Chellar 2005