George Robinson Obituary by Marion Meek
George Robinson passed away in Portadown, 23 March, 2000, aged 77. He worked on the conservation of historic monuments and buildings for 23 years, from 1962 to 1985. His enthusiasm and inventiveness did much for our heritage, and it is very much his achievements that we admire from Carrickfergus Castle to Devenish and from Londonderry Walls to Killevy Churches.
When he started, after service in the RAF in India and a job with a private builder, there were four or five master craftsmen on the payroll of Historic Monuments, and they hired labourers and craftsmen for individual jobs. In the 1960s there were still people used to building in stone, and blacksmiths largely working with horses, but happy to repair gates, available. He and the other foremen had to travel, usually by bus, and stay in lodgings wherever the key project was. They also worked three Saturdays a month.
His first stimulus for a bigger direct labour organisation was with the acquisition of three monuments in Hillsborough, all very neglected. There was lots of elaborate wrought-iron work, and loads of stone repairs needed - we are still working on it today. So he set up a number of small work stations in the grounds of Hillsborough Fort for stone masons and a blacksmith. This grew to a bigger range of workshops in Moira Station yard which at one time included stone-masons, joiners, blacksmiths, plasterer, painters, a storeman groundsmen, scaffolders, mechanics, a sign writer and two ladies to manage the paperwork. At its height, there were 120 people, one third in Moira, the rest based in ten substations including little cells at Beaghmore Stone Circles and Navan Fort in case we should need an expert excavation team. The government was keen to provide employment, and George was happy to help.
As time moved on, in the 60s and 70s, more concrete and steel meant less people with the skill or even inclination to work with traditional materials and on old ruins rather than new work.
George encouraged apprenticeships, and dozens of craftsmen, many of them still working on historic monuments and buildings, were trained by George and his team.
Narrow Water Castle, Warrenpoint
Some of George's experiments were amazing. A small church with a bulging wall had its clay-like mortar softened with water and was squeezed back into shape (Derry Churches, Co Down). A quarry was reopened in Scrabo - there had been no quarries for building stone in Northern Ireland for two or three generations. Other stone was salvaged and recut from demolished railway buildings and bridges. Pitch pine, now highly valued, was rescued from railways, factories and the stage of the Grand Opera House, usually for little or no cost. He built lime kilns to make traditional mortar when local sources dried up. The first one melted because he had used ordinary bricks instead of kiln bricks.
George Robinson with panel at Narrow Water
Our photo shows him with a panel he had woven himself as centering for a window in Narrow Water Castle - a technique that had been common in Ireland, but not used for about 300 years. This panel is still on display today.
Ballycopeland Windmill, a nightmare of engineering and joinery, with a boat-shaped roof designed to swivel into the wind, gave him hours of fun - problems of materials, access, balance, largely done by rule of thumb rather than scientific measurement.
Those of us who were trained by George will never forget him. And it can truly be said that his monuments can be seen all over the land.
For more information about Narrow Water Castle click here.
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