To coincide with Heritage week 2021 (14th to 22nd August) The Kilkenny Observer in association with Cois Céim and The Saturday Walkers Group Present a history of The Mills of Kilkenny
Photos: jbs photos Kilkenny
Kilkenny’s industrial history is a bustling tale of innovation, struggle and perseverance. Much of the city’s industrial life circled around its many mills. The ruins and remnants of many of these historic mills remain visible around the city today, making known their historic significance within the context of Kilkenny’s development as a city and centre for industry. The history of the mills of Kilkenny weaves its way through family trees, tells of political power struggles and, significantly, highlights the relevance of the mill industry to the economic growth of the city.
The Augustinian’s Arrival: The Long Mill Stream
The Flemings who came to Ireland with the Normans are reputed to have dug this long stream sometime after 1170. It is significant that the construction of the mill stream coincided with the arrival of the Augustinians in Kilkenny, for it is generally recognised that the Augustinians played a major part in the development of water powered mills in this country.
The Long Mill Stream began its course at Noremount in Friars Inch and, running more or less parallel to the Nore, re-entered the river’s main course at Maudlin St. The entire stream is about 1.1 miles long. The upper section entered the Nore below Greensbridge, while the lower section flowed along by the quay, through St John’s Priory, across John St. and through the former St John’s College where it finally entered the Nore.
These mill streams were constructed in the 12th Century alongside allocated sections of the river where there was a long stretch of water. The stream was constructed on slightly higher ground so that, when the stream eventually joined back up with the river, there would be a forceful ‘fall back’ of water into the river.
The nearest mill to Greens Bridge was owned by the Bishop. It was named Helias Mill by James Tovey, Vice Choral of St Canices Cathedral, in a 1723 lease. The entrance to this mill was through Green St. The mill was slated and partly thatched. There were two other mills on this side of the river, adjacent to each other. Entry to these mills was through Mill Lane on Vicar Street, while entrance to Helias Mill was found on Green Street. The income from these two mills paid for the upkeep of the Chancellor of the Cathedral, hence the name. The woollen mill was described in 1835 as being in good order with four lofts. Thomas Bradley and Thomas Bibby were occupiers at that time.
In 1841, a sheriff’s sale was conducted which included the sale of a tuck mill, grist mill, a spinning mill, and adjoining houses and land. In 1849, Thomas, Joseph, John, and James Bibby were charged with assaulting Michael Connors and Patrick Ryan and attempting to put them out of the mill. Thomas Bradley had been in possession since 1848. On March 5th, 1849, the Bibbys declared they were taking forcible possession of the mill.
In 1850, the woollen mill had changed to a corn mill due to economic circumstances. The Chancellor Rev Francis Sandys (1838 -1863) leased the mill to a Michael Costelloe. Richard Sullivan was now petitioner. He was a former MP and High Sheriff of Kilkenny. He was also the owner of Fennessy’s Mill.
When Richard Sullivan died in 1855, his widow Frances became lessor and, following her death, her son James stepped into the role. Her daughter married a Carlow man named Daniel O’Connell Leyne in 1881 and he became a tenant. Following his death, John Dalton of Vicar St. became tenant and occupier until he eventually purchased the property.
The mill was driven by water-power up to the late 1940’s, at which point electricity was introduced. Business continued on the site until 1961 when the first store was built on the Freshford Road. The move to the new premises was completed in 1969. The original mill was sold to Smithwicks for £60,000. Nothing remains of the mill, the grinding stones, or the mill wheel. All the archaeological remains were destroyed.
High Crosses at Shamrock Mill:
In 1890, Mrs O’Connell Leyne leased part of the mill, which was no longer in use as a woollen mill, to Edward O’Shea, a monumental sculptor. O’Shea moved his monumental works from Callan to Kilkenny. He had an international reputation for sculpting High Crosses and had been awarded many prizes for his work at Dublin, London and Boston exhibitions. During the 1890s, O’Shea leased a floor of the mill to P. Doyle who used the space as a sawmill.
In January 1899, a large fire broke out in the mill. The fire spread rapidly, given the mill’s contents, causing the roof of the building to collapse. Only the four walls were left standing. Fortunately, the fire did not spread to the nearby corn mill used by John Dalton.
An application for compensation was made, asking for a total of £776 to account for the loss of machinery and stock. An engineer estimated that the cost of replacing the machinery would be £700/£800 while repairs to the building would amount to £700. The Judge awarded £219 for stock destroyed and awarded £700 for machinery. He also allowed £250 for building costs to be levied on the County Council.
Discoveries at Peace Park: Green’s Bridge Street Mills
During the drainage scheme of the Nore, excavations were carried out downstream of Greens Bridge at Mill Island in the present-day Peace Park. An industrial milling complex was uncovered. The earliest structure appears to date from before 1620. A fine collection of mill stones and mill related machinery parts were discovered.
The mills at Green’s Bridge Street were first leased in 1749, when the Church of Ireland Bishop leased the three mills to Thomas Goddard of Back Lane. The Goddards were a prominent Kilkenny family in the 18th Century.
The mills passed through several hands throughout the years. From 1891 to 1911, John Bibby leased the mill, but production ceased after 1911. The building was in poor repair and was amalgamated with the adjoining corn mill. In 1913, Nicholas Walsh from Wexford, known to everyone as ‘Walsh the Miller’, became sole occupier. He was an electrical engineer and was responsible for generating electricity using the water wheel.
There was a fire in June 1914. The buildings were not damaged, but some of the contents were lost. The business continued to operate until 1960. Frank Nolan was the final proprietor and the last person to run a commercial corn mill in Kilkenny. The mill closed in the mid 1960’s
This was the end of woollen production and corn milling in the area. Though the historic buildings were worthy of preservation, they were demolished some years after the closure.
The Fast-Flowing Bregagh: Jenkins Mill
A document dated January 18th 1561 makes reference to the granting of a mill in Kilkenny called ‘Genkines Mill’ to Robert Shee. It is fair to assume this ‘Genkins’ was Jenkins Rothe of Jenkinstown. The lane which leads to Smithwick’s Brewery from Parliament Street is called ‘Jenkins Lane’ and commemorates the same man who lived in the area. This mill was in the vicinity of the fast-flowing river Bregagh. The Brewery used the Bregagh as a power source into the 1930’s and especially during World War II.
Suppression of the Monasteries: The Black Mill
About two hundred YARDS upstream from the Black Abbey stood the Black Mill. The name suggests that, at one time, the mill was owned by the Black Abbey. In 1274, Gilbert le Clare, Earl of Gloucester granted the Dominicans an exemption from paying toll for grinding their corn at this mill. He also granted them the privilege of having their corn ground before anyone else had the opportunity to do so.
In 1540, the mill was confiscated with the suppression of monasteries. There was a mill in operation at this site throughout the 19th Century and it is documented that in 1850, Thomas Bradley had a kiln and a corn mill here.
Medieval Mills: Lacken Mill
The medieval origins of Lacken Mill, which stands across the River Nore, opposite Ormode Mill, remain visible today. Discoveries made in the 1980s revealed a medieval stone arch as well as a stone slab bearing an incised carving of a man in 16th century costume, part of the Archer’s coat of arms. The mill’s brick façade is also built on a 15th/16th century structure. In the 19th century, the Sullivan family, who lived in Lacken Hall and owned the Brewery on James’ Street, renovated the mill, bringing it up to 19th century standards.
St. Francis’ Abbey and St John’s Abbey:
In 1231, Richard the third Earl Marshall founded the Abbey of St Francis a few hundred yards downstream of the Bregagh, near the river’s confluence with the Nore. In 1540, a list of Abbey properties was compiled to coincide with the suppression of the monasteries. There was a similar list prepared referencing other properties within the Abbey’s precincts. The mills mentioned are possibly those in Friar’s Inch, Bleach Road, and Dunmore, referred to in the 17th century as “Abbey Land”.
Local Conversion Project: Fennessy’s Mill
Below Ossory Bridge on the west bank of the Nore stands the ruins of Fennessy’s mill. The owner was Richard Sullivan during the mid-1850’s. The Kilkenny Moderator in 1891 described this mill as disused but about to be converted to a bone crushing plant. Business continued until the 1930’s when production ceased.
Some years later, locals closed the window openings, had the walls plastered and used the building as a handball court. The Archer family owned all the land in the area and their coat of arms is on the wall of the mill. A grant was made in 1426 of the Stone Mills of Kilkenny by the Earl of Ormonde to William Archer and Robert Waryn.
On the East bank of the Nore, opposite Fennessy’s Mill, another mill stood in the area now known as ‘Quarryland’. Reference to this mill is made in an inquisition that took place at the Tholsel in Kilkenny on May 6th , 1633: “Ald Nicholas Ley was seised of a moiety of one water mill, 76 acres of arable pasture and furze, one moiety of a fishery and one quarry in the tenement of Phinnel and St. Mallagge.”
‘The Still’: Warrington Mill
Further downstream on the west bank of the river is Mount Warrington distillery, locally known as ‘The Still’. There was also a flour mill here. The mill at Warrington likely dates from the 17th or early 18th Century. There is a drying kiln outside with a flue from it through the outer wall of the mill. The great depth of the mill stream suggests that it had a very large wheel. In 1830, The Kilkenny Moderator advertised the sale or letting of the distillery. By 1850, the distillery and mill were vacant and were never reopened after this point.
The Last of its Kind: Inch Mill
Patrick Brett, a wheelwright from Ballycallan, started a small mill in Maudlin Street, at the bottom of Windgap Hill. In 1866, he bought Inch mill and started a flourishing business, manufacturing egg boxes, food troughs, and coffin boards. On his death in 1916, his son William took over the business, carrying on the trade. When William died in 1961, his son Liam stepped into his father’s shoes. Inch mill is now over 150 years in the Brett family and is the sole mill now operating on the Nore in Kilkenny City.
Maudlin Street Mill:
Rocque’s map of 1782 shows that there was a mill at the top of Maudlin Street. In 1850, Louis Kinchella operated a flour mill there, which was also a kiln. Much later, in the years between 1920 and 1930, the mill wheel was still turning, operated by the Bergin family, who were wheelwrights and builders of mill wheels. They used the mill not to grind corn, but to operate lathes and saws.
A Wonder of Water-Power: Maddoxtown Mill
The mill at Maddoxtown, a massive structure with two mill wheels, in operation during the 19th century, was considered to be one of the great wonders of water-power when in its prime. At the site, the remains of a 16th century building can be seen. It was converted to a dwelling house but is now partly roofless.
Lady Desart and Kilkenny Woollen Mills
Ellen, Countess of Desart was responsible for the establishment of this mill in 1906. Here, the most advanced use of water-power was in use, a large turbine driving a D.C. generator to provide electric power for the plant. Lady Desart generated significant employment for the people of Kilkenny through the establishment of this mill, as well as through a variety of other projects and businesses. On her death in 1933, the O’Shaughnessy family of Co. Cork took over the business and produced tweeds of a very high quality. However, a fire in 1962 destroyed the premises and operations never resumed.
Where the Dinin meets the Nore: Mount Eagle Distillery
A few hundred yards downstream from where the Dinin joins the Nore, there was a distillery known as Eagle Rock on the river’s west bank. The distillery fell on hard times due to Fr. Matthew’s temperance campaign and went out of business in 1840. Twenty years later, a flour mill is known to have been in operation in the area, owned by a Thomas Little, though whether this mill was run in the same building as the distillery is unknown. Today nothing remains of the building except dried up mill streams filled with masonry from historic buildings.
Ormonde Woollen Mills:
These mills date back to the construction of Kilkenny Castle in the 12th Century. Originally called the Castle Mills, they came to be known as the Ormond Mills in 1391 when the castle was purchased from the De la Spencers. The Civil Survey for Kilkenny City of 1654 describes the mills as being three in number under one roof, ‘whereof two are corn mills, and ye other a tucking mill, ye walls being of stone’.
During the Industrial Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, there was a boom in grain exports and corn mills were flourishing. Some years later, after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, grain exports fell and the corn mill was converted to a woollen mill. Five hundred people were employed in the woollen mill during the first half of the 19th century.
A fire destroyed the mills in 1969. The mills were never to reopen.