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26/10/2016 - A Brief Heritage of Time


A Brief Heritage of Time




As the clocks go back this weekend, why not spend some time finding out about the heritage of time?  The Heritage Council has produced a free booklet entitled ‘Horology: the heritage of clocks and other timepieces’ which provides an overview of the material heritage associated with clock-making.  Information is provided on various types of timepieces such as sundials, astronomical clocks, water clocks, medieval clocks, church clocks, farm clocks, longcase clocks and domestic clocks as well as addressing their care and conservation. 



Horology is the science of measuring time and the art of making timepieces.  The earliest measurements of time were taken from the sun.  Set prayer times were a feature of pre-Christian religions and, by the early sixth century, St. Benedict had introduced a parallel system of Christian prayer.  The daylight was apparently divided into twelve ‘hours’ with prayer times at Prime (which means first), Terce (third), Sext (sixth), Noon (ninth) and Vespers (twelfth).  The concept of dividing each hour into sixty minutes did not arrive in Europe until the late thirteenth century and coincided with the return of the crusades from the Holy Land.  Since sixty was a counting unit in ancient Babylon, it appears that the twelve-hour/sixty-minute division had its origins in the Middle East.  During the Middle Ages, public clocks spread from the religious establishments to cities and towns.



With the spread of commerce in the seventeenth century, clock-making began to expand to satisfy the growing demand for timepieces.  By the early eighteenth century, dozens of clock-makers had become established in Ireland.  Clock-making spread into the provinces until, by the late eighteenth century, there were clock-makers in every town in Ireland.  Mass production of clocks took place in the United States in the 1820s and, by the 1840s, American clocks were being imported into Europe in huge quantities.  Across Ireland, hand-made clock production effectively ceased due to the availability of cheaper imports.  After the famine of the 1840s, clock ownership became an aspiration for every household.  Until the 1890s, most imported clocks were American but, in the late nineteenth century, clock manufacturing industries developed in England, France and Germany.  As imports of factory-made clocks supplied household demand in the early twentieth century, former clockmakers became clock retailers.  Pocket watches have been around since the fifteenth century.  Irish-made watches became known for their craftsmanship but by the mid-nineteenth century, they seemed outdated.  John Donegan (1794-1862) became known as the ‘last of the Irish watchmakers’.  It was not until the early twentieth century that people began wearing wristwatches.



The ‘Horology’ booklet is available free-of-charge from the County Donegal Heritage Office, Donegal County Council at (074) 917 2576 or by e-mail at:  [email protected]





For further information, please contact:


Joseph Gallagher

Heritage Officer,

County Donegal Heritage Office,

Donegal County Council,

Station Island,



Telephone:       (074) 917 2576

E-mail: [email protected]

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