From the bottom of Carrickfoyle Terrace, Robert Foley looks up towards the old Kilmainham Mill.
Looking across the River Camac from this narrow laneway, he can see the mill, which was closed, its gates locked, in 2000.
“This is the last jewel in the crown for Kilmainham,” Foley says, on a recent Monday. He has a big idea for its future.
Dublin City Council bought the site in August last year, and is starting to restore it. Early next year, officials say they’ll kick off a consultation process to see what Dubliners want done with it.
Foley and his fellow members of the Save Kilmainham Mill Campaign want to see it back running as a water-powered mill, he says.
It would be great to be able to bring people into the mill and show them how the whole process works, he says. “I don’t know if that’s going into fantasy land too much.”
Making It Safe
“At the minute it is not a safe building to be in,” says Darragh Cunningham, capital projects manager for the council.
They’re doing emergency stabilisation works at the moment, Cunningham says.
“That is basically to make the building dry and safe. So it will be removing all the asbestos, fixing the roof, propping the floor so people can walk on it again.”
The building should be accessible by September or October 2020, he says.
In the meantime, Dublin City Council hopes to begin the planning process for Kilmainham Mills next month, Cunningham says.
“What that would entail is a six-month consultation process with local communities, stakeholders, Fáilte Ireland and the [Office of Public Works],” he says.
Parties could come up with two or three different ideas and business plans, which the council could then sit down and discuss, he says.
Ideas would go through a feasibility process so that the council could make an educated decision based on facts and figures, he says.
At the moment, Kilmainham Mill is crowded with overgrown brambles. The roof is caving in.
On that recent Monday, Foley slid his phone through a slit in the gate on Rowserstown Lane and snapped photos, trying to get a decent picture of the mill’s current state.
“The inside is as interesting as well because it has all sorts of nooks and crannies,” he says. “It’s as if the people, when they finished, just left and there was cloth hanging out of the machines, just packed up and said their goodbye.”
Finding the Wheel
“We hope to get the water mill back onto the building,” says Foley, standing in front of the gate to the mill’s grounds.
There’s one hiccup, though. The wheel has gone, he says. “I’m on a sort-of hunt to find the missing wheel.”
“We know it’s on a restauranty-type place somewhere in Wexford,” he says. “We’re hoping that we might be able to talk to the owner and spin him a couple of stories.”
Foley gets excited when he talks about the wheel, running his hand from one point on a wall to another, to illustrate the size – roughly 10 feet – of the giant artefact.
He imagines the kids coming in to take a look at it in action, he says. “This is why I would be so anxious, say, […] to have the mill wheel.”
If they can’t get it back, they could have a new one made to those specifications, he says. “And have that turning and show how the whole system worked.”
Back to Action
An awful lot of people living around Kilmainham Mill don’t know it’s there, says Foley. “Yet mills and millers living right up the country are aware of Kilmainham Mills.”
Millers like Marcus Sweeney. In 2006, Sweeney helped restore Fancroft Mill, a flour mill dating back to 1760 in County Offaly.
“We were looking at it and I didn’t want to see it falling down. It’s part of our heritage,” he says. “The building itself had to be completely restored – the floors, roof, windows.”
The Mills and Millers of Ireland, a national group, have been working with the Save Kilmainham Mill Campaign to share their expertise on mills, Foley says.
Sweeney invited members of the campaign and two representatives from Dublin City Council down to the Fancroft Mill. “The fact that the council have taken an interest, and to come down on a Saturday, is very good as well,” Sweeney says.
To get the mill itself whirring again, Sweeney enlisted the help of some German friends and experts, he says.
He stripped out defective parts and sent them to Germany, he says. “They found me the bits that were missing and then they came back and over a three-week stint we actually got the mill running and now we can make white flour, semolina or brown flour.”
Restoring a mill is a big task, but it’s possible, says Sweeney. “Basically it entails fairly skilled carpenter work to get it re-running,” he says.
Both Sweeney and Foley talk about the potential of these mills to produce green energy.
As well as milling flour, Sweeney uses the mill in Offaly to generate power to heat his old Quaker house, he says.
In the mid-1800s, there were thousands of mills in Ireland and every one of those sites still exist, says Sweeney. “Now they don’t necessarily have water still but it is an untapped natural resource for the country.”
All the emphasis is on wind power and alternative sources yet it’s not being tapped, says Sweeney. “It’s a tragedy, a missed opportunity.”
Back in Rowserstown Lane, Foley is still standing outside the grounds of Kilmainham Mill. A “Danger Keep Out” sign hangs on the locked gate.
“You just sort of stand there and look at all these different cogs turning,” he says.
“We talk about climate change and all that sort of business and here is a technology used before climate change was even thought about,” says Foley. “And this technology powered up buildings and created machines to move before there was any power.”