To the Mill

The former flour mill located on the north bank of the river Boyne at Slane, County Meath. A joint enterprise between three parties, Blayney Townley Balfour I of Townley Hall, William Burton Conyngham who lived at Slane Castle, and David Jebb, a local miller and engineer, it was constructed 1763-66 at a cost of £19,187 (including the erection of a fine miller’s house). When the English agronomist Arthur Young visited the site in 1776 he described it as ‘138ft long, the breath 54ft and the height to the cornice 42ft, being a large and handsome edifice, such as no mill I have seen in England can compare with it.’ He recorded the mill’s output as being upwards of 17,000 barrels of flour (20 stone each) per annum and the granaries capable of holding 5,000 barrels, making it one of the largest such operations in Europe at the time. The mill was operated by only 10-12 people despite then being the largest of its kind in Europe.

Seeking a Viable Future


Tomorrow the Industrial Heritage Association of Ireland is hosting a one-day conference on the operation, presentation and promotion of industrial sites (see http://ihai.ie/calendar-of-events): seemingly some 100 of these around the country are open to the public. Lacking the necessary mineral wealth, Ireland never experienced an industrial revolution similar to that of our nearest neighbour. However, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, large mills were erected harnessing the power of water (of which we have a great deal) to engage in activities such as milling. The legacy of that enterprise can still be found in sites across the entire island. Many of them are in various states of disrepair, such as this complex on the banks of the Shannon in Banagher, County Offaly.





An advantageous position on the south-eastern side of the Shannon helped Banagher to thrive from an early period: pilgrims visiting the monastic sites at Clonfert and Clonmacnoise would pass this way and it appears the first bridge across the river at this point was built around the middle of the 11th century. While there was long a military presence in the town, its economic development was initially dependent on the wool trade. Major expansion occurred from the late 1700s onwards, thanks to the development of the Grand Canal, providing this part of the country with access to the ports of Dublin and Limerick. Banagher now became a major centre for the grain trade. A boom followed and around the onset of the Great Famine in the mid-1840s the town’s population was some 3,000 (today it is a little over half that figure). Decline followed in the second half of the century, not least owing to the abolition of the Corn Laws which allowed for the importation of cheap grain from abroad, with inevitable consequences for the domestic trade. The mill by the Shannon offers evidence of the town’s rise and fall.





Now derelict, the core of the complex is a five-storey, twelve-bay grain mill and malting works. Seemingly there was a mill on the site by the late 1700s (shown with an external waterwheel on its north gable on an engraving of c.1800). This was presumably used as a flour and corn mill and parts of it remain incorporated into the present, much-enlarged block. On Ordnance Survey maps of 1838 and 1884 the building is described as being ‘Haughtons Mills.’ Initially it took advantage of water channelled through the arches of a bridge spanning the river at this point but later a steam engine was installed, making the use of water redundant. Around 1880 the buildings were taken over by F.A. Waller and thereafter used for malting. It only ceased to be operational in the 1970s when Waller amalgamated with D.E. Williams of Tullamore and the Banagher buildings were no longer needed. Since then the main block, together with ancillary offices and out-houses, has fallen into ruin. Can the site hope to have a viable future? Perhaps tomorrow’s conference might produce some answers.

Whence Came the Wealth


Following Monday’s account of Belview, County Offaly, here are some views of the building which provided the funds to build a fine house. Ballycahan Mill (located in County Westmeath, although only a few hundred yards distant) is believed to date from the late 18th century, the main structure being a three-storey block used for the bleaching and scutching of linen. On a map of 1838 the field to the southwest of the mill is described as the ‘old bleach green’ indicating that the surrounding land was also used as part of the industrial process. Like Belview, this building is now just a shell.


A Hive of Industry


It is often forgotten that the Penal Laws affected not just Roman Catholics but non-conformist sects such as Presbyterians and Quakers. Members of the Society of Friends (to give the latter their correct name) were unable to attend university, refused to join either the army or the Established Church, were excluded from any active role in politics and barred from many other areas of public life. As a result of these exclusions, many Quakers went into business, where they became known and respected for their probity. Certain industries attracted them, among these brewing, cotton manufacture and, in particular, milling. Driving across Ireland, one often sights large, now-abandoned mill buildings, many of which were developed by Quakers. Today’s pictures illustrate the interior of one such complex outside Clogheen, County Tipperary.




In his still-invaluable Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837, Samuel Lewis notes ‘An extensive flour-mill, employing from 30 to 40 persons, the erection of which is supposed to have cost £6000, has lately been built at Castle-Grace by Sam. Grubb, Esq., of Clogheen.’ There were already a number of similar ventures in the vicinity, one of which Samuel Grubb had acquired in 1798. The family, like many others, arrived in this country in the middle of the 17th century and settled in the south-east region. Samuel Grubb was originally a merchant in Clonmel before he started to buy and develop mills around Clogheen some fifteen miles away. The late 18th/early 19th century was an especially prosperous time for Ireland, especially prior to the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Grain was in great demand throughout these islands and in consequence a large number of grain mills were constructed. That erected by Samuel Grubb on this site is no less than five storeys tall and runs to twenty bays.




The Parliamentary Gazeteer of Ireland published in 1846 reports that in Clogheen ‘a large trade in agricultural produce is carried on, chiefly for exportation, and more than 80,000 barrels of wheat are annually purchased in its market and in the neighbourhood. which is made into flour of very superior quality and sent by land to Clonmel, whence it is conveyed down the [river] Suir: For this purpose there are seven flour mills in the town and neighbourhood, which are worked by fourteen water-wheels. There is also an extensive brewery.’ Slater’s Commercial Directory of Ireland, which appeared in the same year, also observes, ‘The corn-mills of Messrs. Grubb are very extensive, employing great power and a considerable number of hands.’ Nevertheless circumstances were about to change: the Corn Laws first introduced in 1815 to stimulate domestic production by imposing tariffs on grain imported into the United Kingdom were repealed in 1846, in large part due to famine in Ireland and the urgent need for more and cheaper foodstuffs. With the abolition of tariffs, the way was open for cheaper grain from the central plains of the United States to enter the market, with inevitable consequences. By 1880 all but one of the seven mills seen by Samuel Lewis less than half a century earlier had closed down and before the 19th century closed grain milling had ceased altogether in the Clogheen area.



This particular mill had a second life when in 1939 a later generation of the Grubb family used it as operation centre for the newly-established Tipperary Products Ltd. A huge variety of foodstuffs were processed and prepared in the old mill, not just diverse sorts of fowl but also rabbits (formerly widespread in the Irish countryside and much in demand especially during the years of the Second World War). A similarly wide range of fruit passed through the building, both wild (blackberries, sloes and so forth) and orchard grown, all to be used in the manufacture of jams and juices. This operation continued until only a few decades ago but eventually it too ceased and since then the building has sat empty. Today its interior contains ample evidence of former activity, successive floors heaped with bottles and jars, wooden boxes and woven baskets. Currently only occupied by pigeons, even after almost two hundred years the premises remains remarkably well-preserved and serves as testament both to Ireland’s manufacturing history and to the industry of the Quakers. Given that the mill has already enjoyed one resurrection, perhaps another could yet lie ahead?