The Gort Mill was built in 1806 as a small tuck mill by a journeyman miller called Butler for the Lahiffes. He erected a humble wooden thatched building on the east side of the Gort River bank. In Pigot’s directory of Ireland 1824, under Gort Directory, Daniel Lahiff was named as a miller, however it had already been sold in 1823 to John Mangan. John was born in 1791 and was a member of an Ennis milling family. He was noted in the 1846 Slater’s Directory as a Miller and Baker in Gort.
Mangan enlarged the mill, converting it into a grain mill. He also reconstructed, enlarged and redesigned the nearby miller’s cottage which he then called it Flower Vale.
The mill was 4 storeys high and remained unchanged for over a century and a half. Alongside at right angles is a similar structure which houses a kiln of perforated brick. It had large windows with real glass and arched entrances to allow access for carts and wagons to the mill for unloading and loading. For many decades the annual output was up to a massive 7,000 barrels of flour. White flour manufactured there from wheat grown by local farmers was first kiln dried, prior to grinding and silk screening. The mill wheel was an undershot model fed from an artificial pond (Mill Pond); wooden sluices were used to control the flow of water to the mill race and a tail race took the water back to the river. The water wheel drove the cast steel pit wheel inside the building. This latter drove a spur wheel which, in turn, drove four smaller wheels.
John Mangan was supposed to be a very religious man. He was the donor of the crucifix at St. Colman’s Church and they had a private oratory in the house. He was one of the main people involved in bringing the Sisters of Mercy to Gort in the mid-19th Century. There was a spring behind the mill there was this was upgraded to a holy well dedicated to St Manchan’s. According to ‘Gort Inse Guaire- A passage through time’, the well had been rediscovered but it was re-lost in the past decade.
There is also a St Manchan’s well in Leamaonagham which alludes to curing ‘any disease’ as long as you go there on 3 successive Fridays and be there for 3pm sharp. There seems to be a connection between St Manchan and the Mangans here. In Gort, it was supposed to have a cure for eye ailments but holy or not, this well was where many of the locals in Gort used to get their drinking water.
Eventually the mill was passed over to his John’s son Lancelot who was born in 1820. John Mangan died in 1864 and is buried in Shangalish.
The Slater’s directory of Ireland in 1881, names Lancelot Mangan as a Miller in Bridge St
The mill was facing a new challenge however, the advent of the Railway, which opened in 1869, and subsequent industries it enabled, it made it possible to procure cheaper white flour from outside (e.g. Limerick). It was around this time that the Mangan’s sold Flowervale Mills to Martin Hynes.
The Hynes family were also from a milling tradition and had mills in Oranmore and Cloon. According to John Hynes (Martin’s Grandson), Flowervale was one of the finest examples of a grain mill in the whole country. “It had all a mill required, including a large kiln where the grain could be dried. The operation of the mill itself involved a complex system of gears, pulleys, locks and hoists. The two most important pieces of equipment were the outside wooden water wheel and the dressed grinding stones (called querns) inside. There were four querns on the first floor each driven by a shaft from the ground floor. The stones were of French burr, quarried in the Paris basin. Each grinding stone had 4 sections bound together by an iron band. The carefully cut grooves in the stones required skill and maintenance to keep them in condition. The grain was hoisted to the top floor and fed into the center of the stones to be ground. It could be ‘roughed’ of ‘fined’ as required. In my father’s words, the mill made the finest of brown flour and I can still remember the taste of the bread”
When production got slack and there was no corn to grind , wood became the mills raw material. Sometimes saws or lathes could be attached to the machinery and the mill would turn to wood-craft. Even the planks could be dried and cured in the upper floors. Often during the summer months, when production as slow and the water was low, maintenance was done on the mill wheel and grinding stones.
At one point the mill was used generate electricity and supply it to parts of the town, including lights, some house and a Cinema. According to a report in the Connacht Tribune in February 1928, when recent heavy rains caused much flooding in Gort the town and because of ‘the rush of backwater at the mills, the turbines were idle, and the town was without electric light for a few nights‘. In 1942, Robert Coen remembers seeing such epics as “The Black Swan” with Errol Flynn, with power supplied by Hynes’ Mill. Pat Hynes (Martin’s son) was the one who had little mill project going on and electricity was one of his key ones. As one stage, he was also an undertaker and key an old hearse in the mill.
However, the provision of ready-milled flour brought a sharp decline in the mills value demand gradually reduced to the point where, in the early 1960s, the only customers were people who couldn’t do without the taste of ‘real’ flour, bringing small ‘casicin’s of grain to be milled, on the back of their bikes.
“White flour was all the rage, nobody wanted to eat that old fashioned stuff. Despite its marvelous taste, despite it being in tune with nature’s way, it was simply old fashioned.”, noted Robert Coen. John Hynes, who was born in 1947 and can remember the yard being full of horses and carts during the 1950s when the mill was fully operational but it declined sometime in the late 1950s.
There was also an orchard around Flowervale that man of the Gort Locals still remember.
Saving the mill
In 1978, some twelve years after operations ceased at the mill, W.M Quinn of Gort wrote an article about the mill in the very first Guaire magazine to raise awareness of its importance to Gort. He first offered a glimpse into life at the mill. “Before the intrusion of the oil engines and the E .S .B. it was a vital pivot in the lives of the farming community for miles around. Its great Big Wheel went round and round driven only by the free rushing waters of the Blackwater river — no diesel, fuel, no dependence on Saudi Arabia or impersonal electric power. This was the age of simple living, of the ass and cart. Old ‘women often trudged miles with a small caiscin of wheat on their backs, arriving at dawn for the mill was a place of animation and necessity. Long queues waited their turn to have the wheat ground into flour or the oats turned to Pin Head Oatmeal to rear the chickens that grew to hens or fat cocks — or was eaten with relish as porridge for breakfast. This before a long day’s toil in the harvest fields or at the demesne of the local gentleman.”
Willie asked for its preservation and indicated that a visit to Hynes’ mill would be a sight of wonderment and disbelief, not only to youth but to grown-up men who have never seen one in motion.
“We spend millions in restoring old town and abbeys and fairy Liosanna but future generations will bewail the obliteration of that link with an old style of farming.” said Willie. A that stage in the late 1970s, the big slates on the mill wheel had rotted away. He indicated that the custodians then, Mr. and Mrs. John Hynes, would like to see it preserved and he queried as to who would buy the old water mill and preserve this piece of history and heritage.
Mill for Sale
Within a year, in August 1979, the mill went up for sale and there was an article in the August 31st Connacht Tribune edition with a headline “Mill from 1806 is for auction“. The article indicated that the building could well be preserved for education purposes in a manner similar to Tuam’s mill museum. It describes the intricate workings of the mill and highlighted that ‘A building such as this should not be lost to the present and future generations.”
Unfortunately, within 2 months there was a fire at the mill. It was reported in Connacht Tribune on October 12th 1979. The fire started on the 3rd floor before engulfing the roof and burning timber and milling machinery but it was not known who started the fire. Eventually the mill was sold to Gort Co-Operative Livestock Mart in 1980
What happened next caused a lot of controversy and potentially some speculation. Sometime over a bank-holiday weekend, supposedly at night, bulldozers came onto the site and completely demolished the mill. This was a big shock to many people in the town and made the front page of the Connacht Tribune on March 1st 1985
Local conservationists and An Taisce (The National Trust) were up in arms at the demolition of the Gort Mill, which they claimed was done without any advance notice being given to the public. They say the building was irreplaceable and a fine example of the town’s heritage and accused the Gort Co-Operative Livestock Mart Society of ‘wanton destruction’.
Toddy Lahiffe a committee member and former chairman of Gort Co-Operative Livestock Mart Society was unrepentant about the destruction claiming health and safety reasons for their decision. He claimed that they had been doing some work on the development of a yard and car park and they thought the building was close to falling. “We had a bulldozer in to clear the ground and it was decided to demolish a particularly dangerous building adjacent to the Mill” .said Lahiffe, “We were shocked at how easily that fell and realised how lucky we were that there were no local kids in there when it would have eventually fallen in. Then we noticed a huge crack up the side of the main building, which actually split it in two. So we completed the demolition job there and then” he said.
Lahiffe said that interested parties had made approaches to the Co-Op some years ago about conserving the building and the Co-Op had agreed to help them. But they had not come back since to them and if they had done so, then they would have received full co-operation.
Local An Taisce member, Mrs. Eileen Kilroy said that many locals were upset about the way Gort Co-Op went about demolishing the Mill.
“We were given no warning and we only managed, with the help of County Council officials, to rescue the millstones,” she said Kilroy. She also stated that an eighteenth century motor hearse (owned by Pat Hynes) was supposed to be in the Mill at the time of the demolition but Lahiffe said that there was no hearse in the-building either at the time of the demolition or indeed at any time previous to that.
According to a Galway County Council, the Gort Co-Op did not break any rules of planning permission by knocking the Mill as demolition was exempt from planning permission and indicated that Hynes’ Mill was not listed as a preserved building in either any development plan. According to the article, Lahiffe said that the Co-Op could not have left the building standing unless An Taisce would go to the expense of repairing it.
A Ms. Emer Colleran, Environmental Officer with the Galway Branch of An Taisce, said that the building was in good enough condition to be renovated in the future and deplored the action of the Gort Co-Op in demolishing the Mill. “Now that option is gone and County Galway has lost another building of significant historical value. Fortunately the millstones have been saved and will be preserved, but Hynes’ Mill is gone. The loss to Gort is irreparable. When one considers the contribution which the Mill Museum is making to the amenity; and tourist potential of Tuam, the true scale of the loss becomes evident. We had not thought at any stage that the Co-Op would knock the building without giving us good warning“.
Lahiffe said that he felt people were over-reacting to the demolition. “I really don’t think it’s worth all the controversy,” he said.
Many locals including W.M Quinn who had called for its preservation was very upset over the mill destruction and he penned the following ‘Dirge for the old water mill’
‘Dirge for the old water mill’
Too late I cried, for years I tried
To save the water mill
But farming men who’s Kith ‘n Kin
And grandads long ago
Depended on that grand old mill
Driven only be the fast wasters flow
Have bulldozed a loved tradition
That the never can replace;
The mill is gone – I bow my head
In sorrow and disgrace
How did it come to this situation? Was is on Taisce failing to protect the mill and mark it as a preserved building? Was it Gort Co-op mart just wanting rid of an derelict and devalued site? Was it an apathy in the general community? Was it a general undervalue of investment in preserving our heritage. Was it just taking things for granted and not valuing what you have? It was nobody’s fault and yet it was everybody’s fault.
Several people, like Willie Quin had a vision of preserving the mill so that ‘perhaps hear the rhythmic churl of the big wheel turn the might cogs that send the stone querns pouring out brown flour from the brittle corn. Done in its slow unhurried way that made its meal a product far superior to the fast engine-driven mechanisms of today’ (Guaire 1978)
Mill preservation was not new as Galway and Tuam were able to restore their mill and now are tourist attractions, restaurants and small commercial units. There are also wonderfully restored Finnerty’s Mills outside Loughrea. (Coincidentally, this Mill belonged to my great grandmother:)
In some ways, I think it was a general under-appreciation of something on our doorstep and while there was a vision of its value, there was no sharing of this vision across the different groups and no coordinated mission to make it so.
I suppose we do things different now and there are development impact assessments that screen for heritage considerations that would stop things in their track. It’s too late for Gort Mill and John Hynes poignantly pointed out :
Its demise is a personal loss to our family as well as a major loss to the town and the area. Its likes will never be seen again” (John Hynes, Guaire 2008)
That’s why we can’t take things for granted and in some ways this delving into the Gort Mill history is probably the result of another vision being threatened. In this South Galway Vision site, the 1st article I wrote was ( A vision for Gort – The Slurry Capital of Ireland? about a massive Biogas plant proposal in 2018 that maligned many peoples vision of Gort. It proposed pouring 100s of HVG Tankers a day into the heart of the town. It had its own gas flare and smell – it would simply have ruined many peoples vision of the town. It would have rendered the Kinincha Road dangerous for pedestrians and eliminated a beautiful potential looped walk around Gort that all in South Galway could enjoy. It was this threat that mobilized a group of people into doing something about it and a Gort River Walk Development group was formed to navigate a means of allowing the people of South Galway, easy access to the river which was there in the days of the mill. Like the Mill this project will absolutely need the support of the local community as the Biogas potential has not gone away and we need to be vigilant for any sleight-of-hand that can take this away from us.
So we’ve come full circle – with this threat to a vision we stumbled upon this history as we opened out the starting of a Gort River Walk behind Aldi and the re-rediscovery of St Manchnan’s well. Then we discovered a treasure trove of snippets and stories of lost heritage and a lesson to share.
Perhaps we should install a memento of the mill as a reminder of our lost heritage to help us but lets aim to be vigilant and raise awareness and push for the development of this river and enable South Galway and north Clare to have a wonderful amenity at our door step.
- Gort Inse Guaire, A journey through Time, Marguerite Grey
- Connacht Tribune : August 31st 1979
- Connacht Tribune Friday, October 12, 1979
- Connacht Tribune : Friday January 4 1980
- Connacht Tribune Friday, August 6th 1982
- Connacht Tribune , Friday, March 01, 1985
- Connacht Tribune , Friday, April 12, 1985;
- Guaire Magazine – 1978
- Guaire Magazine – 2008
- The to Michael Howley for allowing me to share his wonderful sketch of Hynes’ mill (if anybody wants a framed print of the picture – call into Gort Framer )
- Thanks to Richard Joyce for sharing Willie Quinn’s dirge
- Thanks to Josephine Curtin (Martin Hyne’s Granddaughter)
- Thanks to Finnerty;s Mills for working against the grain and restoring their Mill beautifully.