The Mills of Blarney in Days of Yore

Under the auspices of Blarney and District Historical Society, an illustrated lecture was presented in September 1996 by Mr. Joe O’Leary in Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál Blarney.

When Donagh, the last of the McCarthy family, left Blarney to live on an island in the Wadden Sea off the North-West of the Netherlands, where he ended his days in relative comfort, Blarney Castle and lands were put up for sale. The 1401 acres consisted of arable land, a forest, a church and two mills. It was bought by Sir Richard Payne for £3,800 and the following year it was bought by Sir James Jefferyes, the Governor of Cork, who was born in Scotland but who later died in Blarney and is buried in St. Finbarr’s Cork. Sir James Jefferyes did not spend much time in Blarney and neither did his son, who was also Sir James and who inherited the property in 1722. Shortly after receiving the property, King George II made him resident diplomat in the Russian Court. The other son in the Jefferyes family was foremost in the taking of Gibraltar.

In 1721 Donagh McCarthy was pardoned but they refused to return his castle and lands to him and he died in 1734. We learn from historians that Blarney in 1750 was a decrepit little village with the unfortunate people of the village living in mud cabins. It was around this time that James St. John Jefferyes inherited Blarney and the whole situation began to change. By 1801 Blarney was a transformed place with a town square, an inn and houses made of limestone and slated roofs. There were bridges and 13 mills consisting of one for linen, bleaching and stamping mills for printing of cottons, many of which exported to England. There were mills for woollens and stockings, tucking mills, gigging mills, paper mills and forges.

From 1760 to 1810 Blarney became one of the most prosperous towns in Ireland, with some fine buildings. In 1776 Mr. Arthur Young, an agricultural economist, was commissioned by the English Government to do research in Ireland. On 15th September 1776 he quietly arrived in Blarney on his tour of Ireland. His book which was published in 1778 gives an exhaustive account of the area. He speaks of the inn, the excellent houses, the church, a market house, four bridges and another being built. The former mud cabins had been replaced by 90 houses. From 1765 to 1776 the stamping and bleaching mills were extended. Yarn was bought in and from it, linen table cloths were made as were printed cloths for export. The stocking factory employed 30 people and the linen factory employed 300 people and their work was exported. As well as the woollen, tucking and gig mill there was also a leather mill at this time.

Mr. Jefferyes was a shrewd business man and he also rented a mill and some houses to Florence O’Donoghue, who had mills at Willison’s Bridge, employing 50 people. This was a fine stamping mill employing printers, bleach men, a manager, clerks, carters, tyre boys and over 40 miles of printed cloth was produced here every year. They also produced linen and stockings here which were very fashionable at this time. There were great spin-offs from the Blarney Mills as food was in constant demand and farmers and food growers were receiving prices as high as city prices for their produce.

As a consequence of the extensive poverty of the time there was a lot of stealing but the penalty, if caught, was death. In 1782 a Bill outlawed stealing of patterns from one employer to another and this eased a difficult situation. However, the boom was declining and with English produce being dumped here the local economy suffered and the short-lived boom was now at an end. In the Census of 1821, it showed that only 333 people were employed in the local industries. It was agreed however, that this was an acceptable length of time to be successful in the business at the time. The decline continued and in the 1837 Lewis Topographical Dictionary there is no account of the mills in Blarney. It is believed that only the paper industry gave a little employment here until 1824/25.

There were also iron mills in the locality. Hughes and company set up a mill at Healy’s Bridge and this was known as Beechmount Mills. In 1795 they set up an outlet in Cork city for the produce of the mills and they gave great employment. A man named O’Sullivan who worked as an apprentice in Fermoy, later came to prominence and employed 2,000 people. The mill at Beechmount produced some fine cast metal objects and farm implements. Un-fortunately it was burnt down. The mills at Monard were founded by the Beale family in 1790 and this was a most successful iron mills which did not close down completely until 1960.

It is thought that the paper mills in Blarney, founded by Jenkins in 1779, employed 140 people whereas O’Sullivan founded five mills and was the largest paper manufacturer in the county of Cork, and the most important, as it was his mills that produced the British Bank notes in Blarney and Cork and by 1810 had approximately 2000 people employed. He brought over the foremost experts of the day and a continuous supply of paper was produced in Dripsey where 400 people were employed. The Tower Bridge mills was very sizeable and was at its peak in 1807. However, by 1812, financial difficulties started.

In the year 1813, the ploughing championships were hosted in Dripsey where an estimated crowd of 12,000 people were entertained by the owners of the mills during the three days of the event. The mill-owners used this opportunity to seek publicity for their mills and the immediate area. It was reported that Bart O’Sullivan, who owned some of the mills in the area, vanished for a short period of time but came back in 1827. By 1829 he had left again, this time for London, and was destined never to return; as a result of a drinking spree, he fell into the Thames and drowned.

The paper industry in this area reached its peak by 1831-1833 and once decline set in there was little done to stop it. For example, throughout the county in 1837 there was approximately 57 mills in operation, by the year 1852 this was reduced to 28 and only 3 mills remained after 1852. These three remaining mills included, Dripsey and Tower Bridge. The Gort Paper Mill, the last of the mills to be built, was revived in the 1870’s and finally ceasing operations in 1910. The last roll of paper produced here is reputed to be buried beneath the remains of the mill.

Contact: Mr. Brian Gabriel Email: Tel: 087-2153216