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Early medieval Irish watermills

1: Introduction
2: Design
3: Chronology
4: Context
5: Conclusions
6: Bibliography
7: About the author


The chronology of watermills can also give us some clue of the role they played in the intensification of the economy of Early Medieval Ireland.

Watermills seem to have been adopted, not developed or invented, in Ireland in the early seventh century. There is some argument as to where this technology originated but it is widely agreed that it was not developed in Ireland, owing to the total lack of partially developed, or experimental mills found (McCormick et al, 2011, p. 39). Edwards argues that this technology was brought over from either France or Spain, however Rynne argues that it was late Roman technology adopted from the Mediterranean (Edwards, 1990, p. 63; Rynne, 2000, p. 1). This is supported by McCormick et al. who point out that this Mediterranean technology spread as far as the Balkans (2011, p. 39). Whoever is correct, the inference that can be made from this is that Ireland must have had either significant long distance trading or missionary links with Europe in order for this technology to have been adopted (although the role of the church in the introduction of watermills in Ireland has been questioned; this is discussed below).

Reconstruction of a 19th century horizontal watermill
Reconstruction at Bunratty Folk Park of a 19th-century horizontal watermill, based on evidence from 19th-century excavated site at Mashanaglas. Its similarity to Early Medieval mills shows how little the horizontal mill changed over the centuries

There is some argument as to which type of mill was introduced into Ireland first. Edwards suggests that it was only the horizontal watermill that was adopted in the early seventh century (Edwards, 1990, p. 63). Nendrum Monastery’s watermill, the earliest watermill that has been found, is of the horizontal variety, as discussed above. If this is the case we could suggest that the later development of the more powerful vertical mill indicate the further intensification of the economy and the need for more efficient technology to satisfy demand. This would also illustrate the importance of watermills in this process.

This could also be supported by the replacement of Nendrum’s horizontal mill with a new vertical mill in 789AD (McCormick et al., 2011, p. 39). Although it should be pointed out that the discovery of a second phase of an Early Medieval Irish mill site is extremely rare (Rynne, 2000, p. 13).

However new evidence from the EMAP project suggests that horizontal and vertical watermills were introduced to Ireland around the same time (McCormick et al., 2011, p. 39). This is supported by the excavations and subsequent dendrochronology at Little Island, Co. Cork where both a horizontal and vertical watermill were found next to each other, both dating to 630AD (McErlean & Crothers, 2007, p. 9). This would suggest, as discussed above regarding their design, that vertical and horizontal watermills were chosen for their relative advantages over one another, rather than a transition through time from one to the other.

Therefore we can see that the chronology of watermills is also important in developing our understanding of the role watermills played in the intensification of the economy of Early Medieval Ireland.