Salt Water Tidal Mill at Halfway House


While last week we explored the origins of the placename, geographic location and the pub at Halfway House, this week I wanted to highlight two water mills that are on the site; the later Brook Lodge Mill, visable from the road, and a much earlier salt mill near the mouth of Ballycanvan Pill. And before we get started can I just point out that both sites are on private property.

Ballycanavan Tidal Mill site

Near the mouth of the Pill, far beyond where the eye can see is an intriguing mill site. It worked by harnessing the power of the river, but in an intriguing way. It literally held the tidal stream back, by using a lock gate, similar to a canal. When the tide was rising the gate was opened, and at High Water the gate was closed, impounding the river water in a mill pond or reservoir. When the tide had ebbed away below the gate, the water was released back under the vertical mill wheel, which turned the wheels to grind the corn. The water passed under the wheel (undershot wheel) and would disappear down a “tailrace” to return to the stream downriver of the site.

The location highlighted with a red dot on the National Monuments Site
A sketch of the main elements of the site. Andrew Doherty
This might give a better sense of the scale of the site. This is the mill pond or resovoir which impounded the water to run the mill wheel. Its taken at about high water on a spring tide. Andrew Doherty

According to Wikipedia “Tide mills are usually situated in river estuaries, away from the effects of waves but close enough to the sea to have a reasonable tidal range. Cultures that built such mills have existed since the Middle Ages”. Another name associated with it is a Salt Mill – hence the placename of which I know of two locally. The nearest is at Dunbrody Abbey where it is known that the Cistercians ran two such mills, the other close to Tintern.

Now visiting the mill is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, its in an extremely bad state of repair, with a lot of fallen stone. Secondly it’s currently overgrown and on private property, the site being owned by Dr Robin Kane. I was lucky enough to see it from the river, and subsequently get a tour from the owner.

The buildings

The mill itself is a fabulous old building, whatever it’s state of decline. Some sections are actually built on bedrock which rises to over 6 feet overground in parts. In the main mill building there are three floors and perhaps a loft space makes it four. These floors were traditionally called from the ground up; Meal floor, Stone floor, Bin floor & Loft. The windows are falling in so counting the floors requires looking at the spaces for rafters in the walls. Getting the corn into the mill was probably helped by the roadway that ran to the rear of the building, which is effectively two floors at least above the ground floor.

The buildings, the old mill is on the right. Taken from Ballycanvan Pill. Andrew Doherty.
Three distinctive building phases.
Photo: Andrew Doherty

There were several other parts to the mill site, the two sections beside the mill were obviously built at different stages as the stone work is different and none are keyed into the other. Beside the mill is what looks like a kiln area for drying corn and beside that was another large building perhaps a store and/or office space. Another two storey two roomed building was built less than 50 yards from the mill further up the stream on the roadway that used in the past stretch to Half Way House. Another structure apparently hewn from rock was to the rear, now overgrown and which was possibly another storage area. It may have stored coal as fuel in the kiln.

An internal shot looking from the third building back towards the kiln and mill. Andrew Doherty

According to the Civil Survey of Ireland 1654-56 the mill was then in operation, described as a ‘water-grist mill’. A grist mill “grinds cereal grain into flour and middlings. The term can refer to either the grinding mechanism or the building that holds it. Grist is grain that has been separated from its chaff in preparation for grinding”.

Our National Monuments Service states that the site dates to that era, 17th Century, and at least we can be sure that it was built during the era of the Aylward family in Faithlegg although I guess it may be possible it was built by the then owner of Ballycanvan Castle; the Power family of Curraghmore. Either way it would be hard to imagine that the Aylwards had no interest. I would think it more likely they had the controlling interest given their extensive landholdings and the fact that it would be largely their tenants who would have corn to grind in the locality. It would have later fallen into the hands of the Bolton family following the Cromwellian conquest.

A short video of us passing the mill on our way to Jack Meades for a feed

Closure of the Mill

Previously, Robin Kean told me that he understood that the mill was abandoned due to river mud or silt clogging up the wheel. I did find a mention of the mill operating in the 1850’s used to grind not corn, but clothes; these were shredded by the mill wheel action and the threads re-spun into balls of wool to be reused again. A later article in 1864 stated that a man named Browne was operating the mill, which had burned down in a case of suspected arson. The mill was being used at that point to grind animal bones to make fertiliser and recycle clothing for export to England. I daresay, this might mark the end date of the buildings commercial use.

A screenshot of the article. In another article the fire was reported by locals and the constabulary from both Passage East and Callaghane were called out to fight the blaze. Browne seems to have been a bit of a bucko. The case of assault seems to be connected to an altercation when locals who used the closed sluice gates to cross the Pill were prevented from doing so and it descended into a fracas.

The site is a remarkable testament to the power of water, if of a very old and straightforward design. However, the other mill in the area, is anything but straightforward. And I will look at this in a follow-up story next week.

I have set up a dedicated page for Water Heritage Day this year. I will gather all the elements of the Halfway House story there and any links etc to the day. I also have a link to this event on the Heritage Week website.

This year’s event is again supported by the Local Authorities Waters Programme.

Submission to the Marine Protected Areas Network consultation

In an effort to have my say into the recent consultation on the expansion of Marine Protected Areas I drew on my own bitter experience of how the political system can treat those communities that lack political power. My fear about the expansion (although I welcome and would largely embrace the concept) is that fishermen and fishing communities will be swept aside with little more than a passing concern for a token payment for the inconvenience. So in a brief submission, I tried to argue that fishermen and fishing communities deserve to be respected and acknowledged in any process. Financial packages will not replace a way of life, the skills of fishermen are not easily transferable into shore work and whole communities are impacted. Here is what I submitted:

I wanted to write to offer my personal support to the notion of expanding Marine Protected Areas.  I don’t think anyone with an interest in our environment, our rivers and waterways or our fisheries would not embrace a sustainable and more environmentally secure future.  However, I would also like to offer some thoughts from my own personal experience as a traditional small-scale fisherman and some fears that come to mind.

My own experience is based on what happened to the salmon driftnet fishery in Cheekpoint, Co Waterford.  No one, myself included, could not say that there was an issue with commercial salmon fishing that needed to be addressed.  I grew up in an era of large scale driftnetting on the coast where miles of illegal nets were employed and the wholesale capture of salmon was in evidence.  However, in my view, the authorities at the time chose to clamp down on small scale, traditional fishermen as we were an easier target.  It gave the sense of doing something but didn’t really address the issue.  Worse, both the print and digital media excoriated all driftnet fishermen and campaigned that we would be banned.

The ban eventually came in 2006 and with the stroke of a pen, we had no fishery…and little by way of an option.  Fishermen in Cheekpoint who employed a traditional 18ft wooden punt were faced with a choice.  Stop fishing, or either use the punt that was not suitable for fishing at Dunmore East, or buy a bigger boat. 

This experience hit many in my village very hard.  In 2008 I word a dissertation on the impact of the closure which I am linking here.  But specifically what I found was a village torn asunder by the removal of a way of life.  Trying to highlight this has been an uphill battle.  I guess from the perspective of an economic or even environmental viewpoint, a village is a small price to pay, but Cheekpoint was typical of so many other villages, coastlines and islands around the country.

An example of the loss – placenames associated with the salmon fishery have no use if we are not fishing – except for historical purposes. The fishing keeps these names alive.

In brief, what I found to be the issues for my village in 2008 was as follows:

The community has been impacted by the loss of commercial activity and the coming and going of boats and crews.  Money was earned and predominantly spent in the community in the past.  There was vibrancy about.  As one man said “a trip to the post office could have taken from a half hour to a half day in the past.  You’d be stopped chatting to people, now it takes five minutes”. 

 This lack of people is blamed on factory shift work and people being employed in Waterford. As one man pointed out they are either working or in bed.  Shift work patterns really impact on people and the area.  Although fishermen often worked through the night, it wasn’t like the factory shifts.  “You were working for yourself and could stop when you wanted.  In factories there is no such freedom.  It gets you into a rut” 

 The men I interviewed believe that the lack of people about has a negative effect on the community.  It impacts on how people feel about their security.   Previously, if you were sick
or incapacitated there were people to call. They might drop you in a dinner or a feed of fish.  Messages would be run, There was someone to talk to.  Fishermen in the past were
around because the village was their place of work, landing fish, mending nets, repairing boats. 

A village of nets and netsmen – Cheekpoint Green. L-R Ned Power RIP, Walter Whitty RIP, I’m Doherty RIP, Brian Buddy McDermott RIP, Tom Sullivan & Dick Mason

 Other concerns are that young men don’t have the same opportunities to come of age in the ways they did in the past.  Although many have jobs through local restaurants which are well paid, clean, safe and “wouldn’t tax you”, it is considered a far cry from the training, challenge and satisfaction young men had in the past through fishing. 

 Fishing was a method of schooling in itself.  Young men were taught valuable lessons, they needed to learn the capabilities of boat and themselves.  For example catching a river marker buoy and how to extract yourself, nets and boat. This required common sense skills, which have to be passed on – boat handling, fishing skills and psychologically – its not the end of the world to make a mistake.  Other skills around salmon fishing were more unique and as it was explained would never be found in a book, including the role played by wind, tide, moon, and season.  These will all be lost in the future it was felt as there will be no means of passing them on.

A traditional punt which was restored with assistance from Waterford Area Partnership. Punts like these are slowly disappearing from the communities in the river, replaced by pleasure boats, Where once children learned the skills of rowing and boat handling whilst fishing, it is now a more unnatural process – but pleasurable nonetheless

 Perhaps the greatest loss is the contact with other fishermen on a daily or hourly basis.  As a fisherman you were in contact on the quayside, as boats passed each other, or waited for particular drifts.  A key factor of this was the swapping of pieces of information vital for knowing how and where the fish were “running”.  Men also cooperated around the seasonal activities such as hauling out boats for overwintering or repair and the making and repairing of nets. These were not so many tasks as occasions.  The loss of such opportunities ultimately engenders isolation as men are more inclined to stay inside if they know there will be no one to see or talk to.

 All in all, participants felt that previously the river had a deeper significance for the community.  It derived an income, was a source of food, pleasure, challenge.  It was a place for regatta’s where communities competed against each other and was a mode of transport to and from the city, but also to dances and social occasions in other communities around the estuary.  The village, it is felt has embraced the car and the city and turned its back almost completely on the river.  Though the salmon closure came on the heels of these wider changes, it cemented them.

Although I wrote this in 2008, little has changed for the better.  The Post office is now closed, one of the two pubs in the village closed, the other opens at the weekends (or did when Covid restrictions permit).  A Men’s Shed is now up and running which is an outlet.  There is no sign of a return to salmon driftnetting although it’s still open to angling.  The scientists now seem to be looking to global warming and deep sea trawling in traditional salmon feeding grounds to explain the reduction in salmon stocks.   

The real issue for Cheekpoint fishermen, and I believe it carries over to so many other villages, is that the skills, knowledge and personal attributes associated with the fisheries do not easily translate into another job.  A factory worker might find another factory job as many of the skills are transferable, likewise a shopworker, an administrator a butcher.  But the skillset associated with fishing is unique.  The knowledge, primarily learned on the job, has little currency outside the role.  Fishing is not just a job.  It’s a way of life.

In an effort to try to capture what we lost, I wrote Before the Tide Went Out in 2017. I was supported in the printing costs of this by FLAG funding. Now out of print. An ebook is available on Amazon

While I accept that we have to cherish, protect, and more carefully manage our environment, our fish, our mammals, and sea birds that coexist in the habitats, I would argue that we also need to cherish those who have made an income from the rivers and seas.  My point in relating this in the context of the MPA’s is to underline the importance of fisheries to coastal communities.  This way of life has real value and meaning for those involved and the communities they come from.   Financial packages to set aside such work is not the answer, there is a need for such communities to be allowed to fish.  A fishing community is not a fishing community if it cannot fish.  It’s where our dignity comes from, our self-respect. Cheekpoint knows that only too well.