The Millstone Era in Waterford Harbour

Introduction

Over the centuries people have harnessed the power of water via ponds, streams and rivers to drive wheels which created the power to grind wheat, corn and other grains.  The fertile valley and hinterland along the Three Sister Rivers had many advantages to this practice, an industry that had its peak between the mid 17th and 19th Century. 

These advantages included fertile land, the flourishing of religious abbeys and the manorial estate system post-Norman conquest, and a long and navigable river network with bustling ports connected to England and the European mainland. But another advantage, and perhaps less well known, was a ready supply of accessible Old Red Sandstone, that provided perfect material for the creation of millstones.  

The Quarries

Quarrying operations took place in areas with suitable stone and also, crucially, proximity to waterways for transportation.  The main locations in this area included Creaden Bay, Templetown and Great Graigue on the Hook Peninsula, Ballyhack Hill, Minaun and Drumdowney close to Ballinlaw in Kilkenny.  I wonder are there other areas that they tried to quarry that we have yet to discover? I’m guessing there are.

Millstones at the New Quay, Templetown, Hook Peninsula, note Creaden Head in the distance. Photo courtesy of Liam Ryan.
New Quay at Templetown at low water. Photo courtesy of Liam Ryan.

I described previously our childhood visits to the Minaun above Cheekpoint.  One of our picnic spots was a rounded rock, and our mother said the Knights of the Round table gathered there. It turned out later that it was an attempt to quarry a millstone from out the bedrock on the hill, but that still doesn’t spoil the memory for me.  I have no recollection of seeing others, or locations where they were harvested on the Minaun.  I’m also gutted to say I have no images. I think the stone may have been bulldozed when the round tower was built there in the late 1980s.    

Ballyhack was another location, and although the area is now overgrown and not a very obvious commercial millstone quarry.  However, it was once a hive of activity and was written about as early as 1684.  Rober Leigh gave the following description: 

“About two miles from Dunbrody to the sewarde upon the river of Waterford there is a creeke and an old Key at the bottom of a steepe rocke, called Ballihack: it is a sad place to looke upon, and has not above halfe a dozen houses and an old pile of a castle besides a fue cabins, but is is a place much frequented by passengers that ferry over there into Munster to a place on that syde called Passagem as alsoe by seamen and the like, for ships often lye thereabouts in the River.

There are two considerable fairs kept at Ballihak, (for black cattle and hogs) in the yeare, the one at Michaelmas, the other upon St James’ day.

In summer and out of the rock that hangs above ye village and Key is wrought a number of very good Milstones, which with noe small skill nor less danger are rowled downe a very high precipice to the aforesaid Key and soe carried by water as the occasion requires”

Source: Hore.P.H History of the Town & County of Wexford. Dunbrody Abbey, The Great Island, Ballyhack etc. 1901
Ava exploring part of the millstone quarry (and frogspawn) on Ballyhack Hill about 15 years ago. Photo Courtesy of Maria Doyle
A discarded millstone at Ballyhack…imagine the hours of work it took only to find that it was no use perhaps because of a flaw? Photo Courtesy of Maria Doyle

Dates of the process 

Although the quarrying of millstones in ancient, the need for millstones was driven by the process of local milling which was popular between 1550 & 1850.  Niall Colfer speculates that the local quarrying seems to have been at its height between the mid 17th to mid 19th Century.  He also speculates that the Creaden quarry could in fact have started sometime in the medieval era, because of some of the extraction methods employed.   

The traditional lighter in the foreground here in Waterford. They were used in navigating from the quarries to the mills on many of the local Pills including Ballycanvan, St John’s and the Blackwater (Kilmacow Pill etc). Image courtesy of the Andy Kelly Collection.

Extraction Methods

Various methods were employed depending on the location of the stone being cut. But in all cases the use of hand tools seems to have been the preferred method in the harbour. 

Jim Walsh describes the work as perhaps taking a week to cut out one stone of 5 to 6 feet in diameter,  a foot thick and weighing a ton.  Quoting from William Tighe (1800-1801), he states that the stones from Drumdowney Hill were sent as far as England, and after tariffs were placed on the imports, the local stones were sent coastwards to Cork and Dublin and elsewhere around Ireland.  The workmen received 6 guineas for a pair of stone, but they can sell for up to 12 guineas.  The work is arduous and sometimes the quarrymen only discover a flaw in a stone after extracting it from the rock

At Creaden Colfer has calculated that perhaps 300 millstones were extracted from the site over the years.  Such coastal sites had a number of advantages, including transport and extraction

Part of the expansive remains of the quarrying at Creaden Bay. Photo – Andrew Doherty

The extraction method employed using the tides was as follows:  A circular trench was hewn from the rock, chiselled down to twice the width of the required millstone.  Triangular wedge shapes were then carved and into these timber wedges were inserted.  Once completed, the tide washed into the hole, and as the wedges absorbed the water, the swelling wedges expanded, the force of which naturally cracked the millstone from the bedrock.

Transportation

Once extracted, the millstones had to be transported to their final destinations. I was raised on stories of the millstones being rolled down the hill of Ballyhack to be transhipped.  The method was as follows, the stone was lifted vertically, a beam was placed through the central core, ropes were secured to the ends of the beam (but were free to turn) and then the stone was rolled carefully, the ropes being employed as a break in case the stone took off down the hill. 

A broken millstone at Ballinlaw, Co Kilkenny. Can you imagine after hand chiselling a stone for at least a week if not longer, how crushed you would be to see it broken just at the point it was to board a lighter or a ship? Photo Courtesy of Paul Grant.

Waterways, like the Waterford Harbour and the Three Sister Rivers were a natural highway for the movement of such stone.  They could be loaded onto boats (I’d imagine Lighters were the craft of choice for accessibility both to the coastal site and as far up areas such as the Ballycanvan Pill, Johns Pill or the Blackwater).  Of course they could also be loaded onto ships for transport around the coast. It is certainly possible that the proliferation of quarrying at Waterford harbour indicates a thriving trade to England, and perhaps even the continent.

A nasty spot for the paintwork even on a calm day! Despite the danger, I fancied this as a very natural working point for the lightermen in Creaden Bay. They could have only got in her on specific tides and in favourable weather. Photo – Andrew Doherty

The site at Creaden has a naturally occurring landing site and must have been useful in the rolling of Millstones onto the lighters.  Colfer states that water transport was common practice in Ireland.  At Templetown on the Hook there is a natural landing area for boats which is called the “oul Key”. See Liam Ryans photo above.

Belfast Commercial Chronicle – Monday 25 November 1805; Page 3 Niall Colfer speculated that the use of the phrase Ballyhack Millstones could have been employed as a type of branding for all the local millstones.

Decline

The 19th century saw significant changes in milling technology. Better stones were imported from France which saw the older local stones being used to a lesser extent. The advent of steel roller mills in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a decline too. Roller mills offered more efficiency and consistency in grain milling.

Today, the remnants of old millstone quarries offer us a glimpse of these historical landmarks of a once-thriving industry. I’d imagine there may be other sites out there too. Hard work, hard lives but again the harbour and rivers played their part.

Watermills

Just to conclude, here’s a quick overview of the water milling operations that I am aware of. I’m bundling together here mills fed by streams, by the tides etc and some of these did not grind corn, but it gives a sense of the extent of them. I’m also not including windmills.

  • Kilmokea horizontal mill at Great Island– 5th Century
  • Two tidal water mills at Dunbrody Abbey
  • Five mills utilising streams in Slieverue – Ballyrouragh, Ballinlaw, Rathpatrick and 2 in Gorteens. (ref Jim Walsh p215-219)
  • Foley’s Mill at Gyles Quay (ref Jim Walsh p215)
  • Historically one is mentioned on the Faithlegg/Woodlands Pill.
  • 2 on the Ballycanvan Pill that I have written about previously
  • 3 on St Johns Pill, the last of which operated to the 1950s
  • 9 mills on the Maudlin Stream near New Ross (ref Jim Walsh p212)
  • Kathleen Laffen listed 14 water mills on the River Blackwater in South Kilkenny (not all for milling grain however, and there may have been older mills there too)
  • And of course the mills of Carrick & Clonmel

Thank you for extra information to Olivia Murray, David Carroll and Pat Bracken and to photo archives of Andy Kelly, Maria Doyle, Paul Grant and Liam Ryan.

Update: Keen eyes may have noticed that the site has a new name. Tides and Tales Maritime Community Project. Other changes may be coming, and I wanted to give a quick explanation. For the last year I have been working to try offset the cost of running this blog, which I have self financed from the outset. Before Christmas I had a health scare, and I am not yet back to work. Some long term supporters gathered around me, and together we decided that it was time for a complete change of approach; the notion of leading walks or providing talks that would cover the costs is just not feasible. We have set up a working committee to develop a plan to make the project of Tides and Tales sustainable. The project will take time and a lot of commitment but unless the work starts now, the long-term sustainability of Tides and Tales can not be guaranteed. This is just intended as an update, and a brief explanation, not a call for any action. Other changes may occur in the coming months. But I will maintain the work if at all possible. I already have the schedule of blog posts for 2024 laid out to Christmas and plans for Heritage Week are in train. I also have some terrific guest blogs to come. May will be our ten year anniversary of the blog! Many thanks for all your continued support, whether it’s by supporting comments, offers of information, sources of photos etc, it all plays a role in keeping the show on the road. It is very much appreciated. Andrew

Sources used:

Niall Colfer (2019) Turning Stone into Bread: The Millstone Quarries
of Medieval and Post-medieval Ireland, Industrial Archaeology Review, 41:1, 65-72, DOI:
10.1080/03090728.2019.1594063

Laffan. Kathleen. The History of Kilmacow – A South Kilkenny Parish. 2nd Ed.2005. GK Print, Grannagh, Kilkenny

Walsh. Jim.  Sliabh Rua, A History of its People and Places.  2001.  Slieverue Parish Pastoral Council.

8 Replies to “The Millstone Era in Waterford Harbour”

  1. Very interesting piece.So sorry to hear you have been ill Andrew this old age is no fun . Hope you manage to get back to full health .
    Maura

  2. A great story of bygone times once again Andrew. Thanks
    .
    On another note, I am sorry to hear of your health being poorly.
    wishing you well

    Kev

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