Posted on

Early medieval Irish watermills

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


Traditionally watermills have been studied in isolation without much investigation into their place in the landscape (McCormick et al., 2011, p. 39). The focus of these excavations was the technology these mill sites used and their design and as such, comparatively little is known even about their mill streams; this however is changing.

Weir for the reconstructed horizontal mill at Ferrycarrig
Weir for the reconstructed horizontal mill at Ferrycarig

We are now beginning to see that not only did millwrights carefully choose their materials (as discussed above regarding their design), they also carefully chose their locations, taking into account seasonality of the site and the river (Rynne, 1998, p. 90). This was investigated at Killoteran, where the mill race was carefully fed from the neighbouring stream and returned to it further downstream (Murphy & Rathbone, 2006, p. 21).

Furthermore watermills were only one part of the flour production process. Mills are often found in association with grain drying kilns, although interestingly this did not mean that their chronologies went hand in hand; a number of sites show us that whilst the building of mills was on the rise in the seventh century, the construction of corn drying kilns was becoming less common, perhaps suggesting a change in climactic conditions (Kerr et al., 2013, p. 17).

It has been suggested that monasteries were the first and perhaps the only communities to adopt watermill technology, supported by the evidence from the earliest watermill site found in Ireland: Nendrum Monastery (Kerr et al., 2013, p. 17). This is further backed up from the suggestion that the vertical mill at Killoteran was related to a monastery under a mile away, although the only suggestion for this link is their proximity to one another (Murphy & Rathbone, 2006, p. 26).

However documentary evidence of mills in a monastic setting only appears after the eighth century, suggesting that they were not only unlikely to have introduced this technology but were also slow to adopt it (Lucas, 2006, p. 79). We could also argue, with reference to the regional variation mentioned above, that watermills were far too widespread to have been used exclusively by monastic communities. Furthermore we do also see evidence from communities unrelated to monasteries, for example at Deer Park Farms. This stance also supports the documentary evidence, in which numerous examples are given of poor farmers joint owning their mills, whilst their richer neighbours owned their own, with no reference to religious houses (Ó Cróinin, 1995, p. 98).

Therefore it could be suggested that the extent of watermills throughout the social classes illustrates the important role they played in the economic intensification of Early Medieval Ireland; not only are watermills found in both a monastic and secular context, but also that where farmers were too poor to exclusively own a watermill they shared with neighbours of similar means. This suggests they were a necessity, not a luxury. However we should not forget that watermills were not the only technology that were used in the grain processing system. Watermills are often found in conjunction with grain drying kilns which were also involved in improving the efficiency of the agricultural economy. Therefore whilst watermills were extremely important, context is vital in understanding their role in the economic intensification of Ireland.