Article by Ger Lynch

24 Apr 2020
Admin Manager By Admin Manager

o all of our Mountmellick Embroidery Museum Friends.

We hope that this finds you, your family and friends safe and well .. We are all in this together.

Continuing our series of articles with links to our Museum and our rich historical past - in last weeks article local historian Bridie Dunne gave a brief summary of Joseph Beale (A Quaker Family) who had such a positive influence on the fortunes and development of Mountmellick prior to the tragic famine of 1845 to 1849. Joseph was one of many prominent individuals whose initiative and foresight brought significant prosperity to our Town which earned it the title of the "Manchester of Ireland". Local Historian and a Director of Mountmellick Development Association (where our Museum is housed) Ger Lynch has rolled back the clock to give us an insight into what was happening in Mountmellick around that time and what contributed to this success, and subsequently its demise.  Enjoy the read - more to come next week, do tune in.  

Over to you Ger.




Between the years 1821 and 1841 Mountmellick could boast full employment and a level of prosperity which was unknown to most towns in the country by the standard of the time. This was due to the heavy concentration of industries within the town and in locations close by,

When we examine the reason for this it all comes down to our location. The town is located at the lower end of the Owenass River, near where it joins the river Barrow. This location is only 6 miles from the mountain source of the river, this gives rise to a steep gradient which results in the fast flow of water required to turn mill wheels. These are used as a constant source of power in most of our industries. This and the fact that a group of people, mostly but not all Quakers, had the foresight and ability to take advantage of this fact.

Before this period, from 1750-1756, Adam Loftus set up an ironworks on the banks of the Owenass River near where it meets the Barrow, the Cinder Hills). He used the timber from the nearby O’Moore Forest to fuel the furnaces. The ironworks gave great employment at the time and resulted in a large number if crafts people who were to take part in the bit and stirrup industry, which flourished in the town for many years after.

Mills of Mountmellick

We will examine the role of the mills, the drinks industry, the foundry and other small enterprises which contributed to full employment during this era. We will look at the roles of the various mills first.

  • Iristown Maltings (malt products). This mill located at Irishtown is said to have originally been an army garrison. It became a woollen factory between the years 1800 and1839, run by William Beale and his son Joseph. During the same period a brewery was also in operation here. This would later become a maltings and Mountmellick Products Ltd refurbished the site in 1945 and began producing malt extract.
  •  Barkmills. Erected as a woollen mill by Thomas Kemmis in 1827, it was originally run as a spinning and worsted factory by M Beale. It was driven by a 40ft diameter by 5ft wide water wheel believed to be the biggest in Ireland at the time. It was converted to flour milling in 1846 by Joseph Beale, it was also used to grind Indian corn during the famine, and it was reconverted to a woollen mill by James Milner in 1862. The illustration below shows the three-storey mill and the attached two storey dwelling.
  • The New Mills. Located in the townland of Drinagh a short distance outside the town, the New Mills was comprised of a wool spinning mill, a weaving factory and a fulling mill. It was destroyed by fire in 1857 and rebuilt in 1858, when it continued as a woollen factory. It was converted to a corn mill in the late 1800’s and was in use as a mineral water bottling plant in the 1900’s. This mill was driven by two mill wheels, a 16ft by 8ft 6in wide mill wheel which drove the spinning mill and a 13ft by 5ft 6in water wheel which drove the fulling mill. Our illustration below indicates the size of this mill.
  • The sugar beet factory site located at the rear of the MDA, was first the location of a brewery which was later converted to a woollen factory, both run by Joseph Beale. In the early 1850’s it was converted to become the first sugar beet factory in Ireland. The story of the Sugar Beet factory is well documented. It was powered by two steam engines and ran for ten years, 1852-1862. It was to be part of a national sugar industry, but the rest of the factories did not materialise and the idea had to be abandoned.
  • Milners Yard was located off O’Connell Square, the entrance is beside Bella Hairdressing Salon. A cotton weaving factory was established here by John Bewley around 1790, this was converted to a woollen factory in the early 1800’s and taken over by the Milners. There were over 200 looms at this location, and it employed over 400 weavers in addition the factory workers. The woollen mill was driven by a steam engine.
  • Mill at the MDA site. This mill was built by William and Joseph Beale and they operated it as a flour mill. It was powered by a 25-horsepower steam engine which drove 6 pairs of flour stones and all the machinery. This was the first steam mill in Ireland, and it operated as such until Joseph’s departure for Australia in 1852.  A kiln drying facility was part of this mill this was situated at the end of the building where the present fire escape now exists. There were many owners over the years they included Samuel Shaen, Thomas Neale, Edward Murphy in 1861, James Shean in 1875. Eugene Codd took over in 1886. The premises passed to Rebecca Codd in 1936 and Charles Connor in 1938, it subsequently was taken over by the Odlums Group who carried out major refurbishment. Irish Grain took charge in 1956. The MDA purchased the premises in 1989. It is now the headquarters of the MDA complex.
  • Manor Mills. This was built by Robert Kenny in 1823. It was a flour or corn mill driven by a mill wheel 10ft in diameter and 10ft 6in wide. James Shaen owned it in 1851. It was used as a sawmill in 1913 and operated by John Guest until 1919. It was acquired by is present owners the Wall Family in 1931.
  • Ennis Mills. This mill was housed in a building that was part of the Conroy Distillery, it was run by a mill wheel 12ft in diameter and 4ft wide. It was built originally as a malt mill and was taken over by Humprey Smith and used to
  • scotch flax. In the 1960’s it was taken over by Ennis’s as a provender mill and powered electrically.

The Drinks Industry

Conroy’s Distillery. Located on the site where St Joseph’s Church and the Convent now stand, it was owned by Edward and John Conroy and when at peak production it produced 120,000 gallons of whiskey a year. It operated from 1831 and due to a lawsuit, which resulted in the removal of a weir on the River Owenass, which affected production, it closed somewhere between 1846 and 1850.

The following breweries operated in Mountmellick during the 1800’s.

  • Gatchell’s Brewery. It was located in the site of Harrington’s betting shop, Tom and Vrons Bar and Comerford’s vegetable shop. Nathan Gatchell was also involved in woollen manufacturing and is reputed to have owned Smith’s field as well as the site of the Community School.
  • Beale’s Brewery. This was located in church Lane, the site of the sugar factory. It was run by Joseph Beale and when he came under the influence of Father Matthew the temperance priest, he closed the brewery and changed it to woollen manufacturing.
  • Kenny’s Brewery. This brewery was located on the site of Irishtown Maltings and was owned by Robert Kenny, who built Manor Mills. The brewery operated in tandem with the woollen mill that was on the same site from 1800-1839.
  • Tierney’s Brewery. This brewery was located on the site that is now the Macra na Feirme hall. It was used for mineral water production by Sean O’Higgins prior to the hall being built.
  • Conroy’s Brewery. Located in O’Connell Square at the rear of Butch’s bar, it is safe to assume that was the same Conroy’s that owned the distillery as it closed about the same time.
  • Pim’s Brewery. This was located on the left-hand side of Avonmore yard. It was founded by Anthony Pim and was continued on by his sons Thomas and Samuel after his death in 1842. Our illustration gives some idea of the size and capacity of this venture.

There was a brewery located at the rear of the Community Art’s Centre on Slaughterhouse Lane. It may have been owned either by James Calcutt or Arthur Peacock.

Miscellaneous Industries

  • Hibernian Foundry. Thomas and David Robert’s were two brothers who came from Anglesea in Wales to Mountmellick to erect an engine in Conroy’s Distillery. While in Mountmellick they set up an iron and brass foundry. The foundry produced steam engines, locomotives and machinery. It employed up to 40 people. The opening of this foundry in 1834 coincided with the railway boom in England. The foundry was still in operation till 1909.
  • Pim’s Tannery. The tannery was located at the lower end of the Avonmore site. A water powered pump supplied water to it from the Owenass River. It was in operation until the early 1900’s.
  • Glass Bottle Factory. This was located at the rear of Danny Williams’s house, present owner Noel Ryan. Some of these bottles made clever use of a glass alley to open and seal them.
  • Sawmills. A sawmill existed in Bridge Street in the late 1800’s.
  • Starch Works. Thomas Pim operated a starch works for many years at the rear of number 3 Upper Market St, a house that is currently occupied by Sinead Boyd. Blue was also manufactured here.
  • Pim’s Tobacco Factory. This was located at the rear of Pim’s old shop (now Coss’s) and operated in the early part of the 19th century.
  • Soap. Glue, candles and blue were all manufactured in premises at the rear of Ivor Cox’s shop during the 19th century.
  • Weaving was carried out in many locations, Milner’s, New Mills, Graigue, Irishtown and other locations. The mill owners arranged training for private dwellers so many looms were set up in farmhouses and cottages. This provided a second income and, in some cases, could be operated by young girls.
  • Pottery. William Fletcher made crocks and milk pans in Graigue in the early 1800’s.
  • Salt. George R Penrose ran a salt manufacturing business in Main street in the 1840’s and 50’s.

The population in Mountmellick in 1841 was 4,755. This was greatly increased when people came in from the countryside, surrounding towns and villages to work in the town. To satisfy the needs of this population and workforce Mountmellick needed to have a good system of trade and service in place. If we look at the commercial directory of 1846, we will get some idea of the services available.

Academies and Schools. 7

Apothecaries. 2

Attorneys 2

Bakers. 9

Banks 1

Blacksmiths. 6

Book Seller and Printer. 1

Earthenware Dealers. 3

Grocers. 9

Gunsmiths. 2

Hotels. 2

Iron Founder. 1

Iron Mongers and Hardware Men. 6

Leather Sellers. 3

Linen, Drapers and Haberdashers. 17

Maltsters. 2

Millers. 3

Painters and Glaziers. 4

Pawnbrokers. 2

Boot and Shoe Makers. 11

Brewers. 1

Butchers. 4

Cabinetmakers. 3

Carpenters. 2

Chemists, Druggists and Oil and Colour Men. 2

Clothes Dealers. 3

Coopers. 3

Cotton and Linen Manufacturers. 4

Physicians and Surgeons. 3

Provision Dealers. 4

Provision Merchant. 1

Public Houses. 19

Milliners. 1

Saddlers. 2

Starch and Glue Manufacturers. 1

Straw Bonnet Makers. 2

Tailors. 3

Tallow Chandeliers and Soap Boilers. 3

Tanners. 1

Timber Merchants. 3

Watch and Clock Makers. 2

Woollen Manufacturers. 2

Wine Merchants. 1

Emigrant Agent 1

RIC Barracks

Revenue Police Station

Excise Office

Court Clerk

Stamp Office

Clerk of the Union

Commission Clerk

Flour Factor

Professor of Music

Union Workhouse

Union Workhouse Master

The advent of the steam engine meant that mills and other industries could be located close to ports, or areas of dense population or any other area deemed suitable. No longer had them to be located near to the source of waterpower. This led to the decline of industry in Mountmellick,

I think it is clear from the above the title ‘Manchester of Ireland’ was not misplaced. Our people who lived through prosperous era did not realise that the famine lay ahead of them but unlike the present pandemic there was a simple cure as there was plenty of food in the country but there was no profit to be made supplying food to the poor and hungry. It is nice to look back on the past, but life must be lived in the present. As a people we must remain united against this virus and till we can all do again things that we used to take for granted, let us wish well to all our essential workers fighting this pandemic in any way. In the meantime, stay in, stay healthy and be there at the end of it all.

Ger Lynch

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