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.

4 Replies to “Salt Water Tidal Mill at Halfway House”

  1. Great blog Andrew, very informative and gives a great insight into what was involved in the milling at different times.

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