Thursday, 10 August 2017

Childhood memories
of the mill that gives
its name to Millstreet

The steps beside the old mill race in Millstreet, leading up to Mill Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Although I remember few childhood visits to Millstreet, Co Cork, those memories in including playing at the steps of the mill that gives its name to Millstreet, and playing on the steps of the local branch of the Bank of Ireland, a few doors away from the shops, pub and home of my grandmother, Maria (Crowley) Murphy, who died 60 years ago on 8 July 1957 at the age of 72.

My grandmother is buried in the cemetery beside Drishane Castle, and from early times the parish was known officially as Drishane.

But a village grew up west of Drishane Castle around the mills that were operating in the early 18th century, and the village and town around these mills became become known as Millstreet at an early stage in its development.

In his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, Samuel Lewis notes that before 1736 Millstreet consisted of an inn, a mill, and five small cabins. The earliest mill in the town was the Black Gate Mill located on Station Road, using the River Finnow.

Corn milling was increasingly mechanised in the latter half of the 18th century, and the mills were given fresh impetus in 1758 when the Irish Parliament introduced a subsidy for transporting flour to Dublin. In Co Cork, large flour mills developed in towns such as Macroom, Fermoy and Castletownroche, and the county had 32 mills in the late 18th century.

Mill Lane, Millstreet, with O’Regan’s Mills at the end of the lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A large mill was built on the site of the present mill in Millstreet in the 1820s. This was much larger than the other three mills in Millstreet at the time, and had a wooden wheel on the north (station) side. This was later replaced by a steel millwheel operated by the mill race on the south (town) side of the mill.

A brewery was built in Millstreet in 1835, and two years later Lewis observes that Millstreet had one long street in 1837, with several smaller streets and lanes leading off it, and 312 houses that were small but neatly built.

In addition, Lewis notes, Millstreet had many flour mills that ‘have proved very advantageous to the farmer in encouraging the growth of wheat.’ The other mills in the Millstreet were at Mount Leader, where there were two mills side-by-side at Dromacolane Bridge, also known as the Miller’s Bridge, and the Black Gate mill, which was the first mill in Millstreet.

The Wallis family of Drishane Castle bought the mill on the north side of Millstreet in 1856, adding to their other enterprises in the town, which included the brewery, a sawmill and a tannery.

The O’Donnell family of Coole House, who were the stewards of the Wallis family on the Drishane estate, became the owners of the mill in 1864 when it was bought by Nicholas Michael O’Donnell, who married a year later. But the mill must have fallen into financial difficulties, and in 1870, describing himself as a miller, Nicholas O’Donnell filed for bankruptcy.

In 1875 Maurice Hickey of Castletownroche bought the mill. He made many improvements to the mill, changing the location of the mill wheel from the station or north side to the town or south side, and upgrading the building of the mill from timber to steel. But once again the mill fell into financial difficulties by 1912, and it was bought that year by John D Murphy of Coomlegane Street, Millstreet.

The Station Road frontage of O’Regan’s Mills (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Following rebuilding works by John D Murphy, the mill was bought by Andrew O’Regan, my great-uncle by marriage, soon after his wedding. My grandmother’s younger sister Johanna (‘Hannah’) Maria Crowley (1882-1964) married a much younger Andrew O’Regan (1895-1984), son of Jermiah O’Regan of Kilmurry, on 16 September 1919 in Cork Cathedral. The witnesses were Jeremiah O’Regan and Bridget Crowley (1887-1976), a younger sister of my grandmother and my great-aunt Hannah.

Hannah and Andy O’Regan were the parents of two sons and two daughters, and today the mill is run by a third and fourth generation of the O’Regan family.

I was probably a six or seven-year-old at the time I remember playing in the mill stream and the mill race that feeds into O’Regan’s Mills. On Sunday afternoon, as we climbed the steps beside the old mill race, my cousin recalled my precocious daring-do attitude and feigned bravado as I led younger cousins across the mill race, only to fall on my backside and to suffer a humbling soaking. I had learned at a very young age how pride can come before a fall.

Appropriately, a mural of the old mill race and mill stream as they looked around 1910 is painted on the new gable created on the side of the former home on Main Street of my grandmother’s parents, my great-grandparents, Denis Crowley (1853-1912) and Margaret (Twomey) Crowley (ca 1845-1923) when Mill Lane was widened some years ago.

The former home of Denis Crowley (1853-1912) and Margaret (Twomey) Crowley on the corner of Main Street and Mill Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

As we came back down the steps, those memories from 60 years ago started to flow back as I read ‘The Mill Stream,’ by Marie Ryan, on an interpretive noticeboard beside the mill:

‘The Mill Stream,’ by Marie Ryan

The mill turns busily on and on,
but the old mill stone has long gone.
And the old mill stream no longer flows,
on its erstwhile bed, the lilac grows.
And it would be so easy to forget
and consign the stream to its silent death.

But the old mill stream lives on in my heart.
And leaps from the past with a mighty start.
And it is if I am a child again.
And I watch the stream as I watched it then.

The water fell in a seething mass
When the sluice gate opened to let it pass.
And the water thundered and rolled and rolled
And rumbled, and grumbled, and bubbled and belled.
And to wing from the bars on the steps nearby
was a feat for a daring child to try.

The years have come, and the years have gone,
And still the children meet and play
on the sunny steps by the mill each day.
And they swing from the bars in childish glee,
And bring back the past to you and me.

Times have changed, perhaps a lot,
But the children haven’t changed a lot.
And it seems like the ghost of the stream is there.
Echoing soft on the summer air.


The mural of the mill on the corner of the former Crowley home (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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