• Tuesday , 19 November 2019

Mill Street – Tracing Mill Pond and the River Poddle

Ordinance Survey Ireland, 2nd Edition, 1847, 5’ to 1 mile, sheet 26. Ordinance Survey Ireland, 2nd Edition, 1847, 5’ to 1 mile, sheet 26.

A Mill Pond of interest

Visible as late as 1973, the Mill Pond at the historic ‘Double Mill’ of St Thomas’ Abbey is of special interest; located within hailing distance of St Patrick’s Cathedral and embedded in the urban fabric of inner city Dublin which swelled around it. Like much of the Liberties, the immediate surrounding area owes much of its existence to the booming industry of the late 17th century, which this pond would have been designed to feed. Known as ‘Busby’s’, ‘Manor’s’ and ‘Double Mill’ at different times or references, the mill produced both oil and flour. Its pond was fed by combined sources of the stream coming from another mill at Greenmount Terrace, and another open branch of the Poddle down Sweeney’s Lane. The quality of the water is questionable, with the first source even labelled ‘factory water’ on the estate map of the Earl of Meath. In November 2003 an excavation was carried out at number 10 Mill Street, a site flanking Mill Street, Sweeney’s Lane, Warrenmount Lane and convent grounds, where it was expected that portions of the retaining wall for Mill Pond would be uncovered. No structural features were evident, however, indicating that the filling in of the millpond was rapid and deliberate.

The abbey, a medieval super-power

In 1171, four years after the canonisation of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, a church dedicated to his memory was founded in the western suburb of Dublin, on behalf of the King Henry II, by William Fitz Aldelm, the King’s representative in Ireland. This church was the beginning of St Thomas’ abbey. Its prominence and influence on the city of Dublin has been subject to extensive research and writings such as Berry (1892), Gwynn (1954), Davis (1987), Elliot (1990), and Walsh (2000), many of whose work has been referenced in this study.

Being ‘the King’s special abbey’, St Thomas’ unsurprisingly enjoyed particular favour from Henry II. The status of the founder of any religious house was a decisive factor on the subsequent influence it commanded, and the King was of course the most important founder there could be. The King granted lands from his own estate to St Thomas’, which mostly lay in Meath, as much of those in Dublin had already been bestowed elsewhere, such as to St Mary’s. However, St Thomas’ remained the foremost grantee of land, tithes, churches and other property for over a decade, above those given to St Mary’s or even Christchurch.

St Thomas’ operated on an Erastian basis – not a regular concept for medieval times – meaning that it was not an independent institute, but an integrated part of its society. As such, it played an active role in the provision of welfare services to the poor. The collateral tie between state and church was seen as the ultimate way of achieving overall efficiency.

The temporal income of the abbey came from arable land; woodland, fisheries, rents and mills. St Thomas’ influenced the local pattern of land-use so as to influence its own interests economically, which can explain why the block of land surrounding the Double Mill pond remained undeveloped. As the industrial and urban topography of Dublin spread, it would have served an institution such as St Thomas’ to retain an arable piece of land within the city, and within the grounds of one of its convents.

The granting from the crown of a burgage plot to St Thomas’ in the city set a precedent and was quickly followed by the granting of a local parish from the ecclesiastical authority, consequently motivating and encouraging St Thomas’ to involve itself in the urban expansion of the western suburb. While there were no immediate incomes from the granting of land to the abbey, such as the rents incurred upon a layperson, the prosper and growth of the abbey institution brought with it many more benefits and incomes which far outweighed the loss.

The Poddle course – natural v man-made

As far back as the Bronze Age, the Poddle-Tymon flowed a course much as it does today, even without the obstacles and interventions of man. It followed its own course down from the foothills of the Dublin mountains and out to sea where the Liffey is today.

As the city of Dubh Linn grew, there came a point in the late 12th century when the Poddle was diverted away from its old course at Mount Argus and brought around the western extent of the Liberties, of Thomas Court and Donore, to facilitate the construction of mills within the monastic estate, and to formerly demarcate the Liberties’ boundaries. This fact has been assumed since M.V. Ronan’s 1927 article, ‘The Poddle River and its Branches’. There is debate, however, regarding the nature of the many tributaries and streams moving within those boundaries – whether they be on their original course, or diverted.

The Abbey Stream – known as the ‘Earl of Meath’s watercourse’, later ‘factory water,’ and also simply ‘The Poddle’ on certain maps – flowed down Pimlico and Ardee Street before entering the Double Mill pond and rejoining the old course of the Poddle behind New Row. The date of the diversion of the Poddle to create the Abbey Stream is crucial to understanding the nature of its course. A recent dendrochronological date acquired from the site of the Double Mill gives an estimated felling date to 1172 (accurate to 9 years either side). The question now arises as to whether the Abbey Stream was the original Poddle course, or an artificial stream deflected at Harold’s Cross, much as the City Watercourse was deflected further upstream.

'The Old Mill Race between Sweeney’s Lane and Blackpitts. Taken in the early 20th Century', Elgy Gillespie (ed.), The Liberties of Dublin (Dublin, 1977) p. 30. ‘The Old Mill Race between Sweeney’s Lane and Blackpitts. Taken in the early 20th Century’, Elgy Gillespie (ed.), The Liberties of Dublin (Dublin, 1977) p. 30.

Water – life, lust and power

Frequently the object of feud, the Poddle’s waters represented a lifeline of possibility in the early days of its new course. Direct access to flowing water was quite the commodity in the early 12th Century. With industry being its main purpose, it was also subject to much agricultural use in the outer suburbs.

As the success of the city and its industries grew, so too did the urban sprawl. The rapid growth of population was directly linked to the 1171 Royal Charter by King Henry II, who bestowed on his loyal subjects of Bristol, the port city of Duvelina. Thus Dublin, with a new crown function, suffered another invasion – the merchant trader.

Around 1555, there came a point that there was pressure on the Mayor to maintain the upkeep of the water course and make repairs where necessary. There are some ordinances which refer to the ‘Head’ of the water – the portion from the source to the tongue at Harolds’ Cross. There was established an understanding that should any damage occur beyond that point, it was the duty the Mayor and local Bailiffs to gather local citizens who dwelt in the abbeys and monasteries owning mills on the water to facilitate repairs at their own cost. Where an owner failed to do so, it was within the power of the local authority to arrest the mill horses and keep them in ward.

By the 18th century, it became quite fashionable to live on the banks of the Poddle. However, the Act of Union of 1801 brought with it economic stagnation, and the famine of the 1840’s turned parts of Dublin into slums virtually overnight. Casual labourers of industries such as the Double Mill were hardest hit, with many workers lived in massively overcrowded tenements. These led to many deaths by injury or illness. Fashionable as it may have been, open waters such as those provided by the Poddle became breeding grounds for disease and filth, making it no longer safe to live near.

As to why the area became so overcrowded, this may be attributed to the arrival of the Huguenots from various areas of the Continent. These skilled artisan workers brought with them the driving force of the industrial boom of the Liberties.

Their higher level of education and skill lead to the Huguenots forming an alliance with the Guild system (then almost 600 years old), which should have been an even more prosperous arrangement, but for the reliance still in place on British sanction. Competition with rival British industry in the area, alongside the arrival of capitalism, putting apprentice against master, led to the speedy demise of the growth of local industry.

The true injustice, however, was the old issue of religious discrimination. No Catholic could be a Guild Member. This led to a large unskilled Catholic population illicitly and illegally making and manufacturing the backstreets, directly contributing to the downfall of the area. These ‘Christian’ Guilds (so-named in Prince John’s Charter) ironically excluded all Catholics and Scandinavians, despite their religious pageantry and patronage, and destroyed the industry that made the area of the Liberties great by forcing production outside their own control and ultimately lowering standards, and therefore demand, thus creating poverty, beggary and desperation.

‘In the homes of the very poor the seeds of infective diseases are nursed as it were a hothouse’.

Sir Charles Cameron, Reminiscences, 1913

With poverty taking over Dublin City, the situation for the common man worsened. Sewers now flowed openly on the streets in many parts of the Liberties and directly into the Poddle. Not only did the water have to deal with the discharge of industry, but the danger of human waste.

And so, the Poddle was doomed, and with it, the bodies of water it formed. Mill Pond would have been no exception to the filth now polluting the city, the once blooming gardens of the convent meadows a distant memory. Portion by portion the Poddle was buried from view and mind.

A Game of Scales – the city, abbey, mill and river

In approaching the study of any particular area, the general conditions prevailing in the country at the time must also be taken into consideration. A true holistic account of the influences at work in shaping the history of any place can only be formed from the point of view obtained in this way. The prosperity or decay of one, directly affects the other. As such, when examining the morphology of the Double Mill pond, one must consider the influences of St Thomas’ Abbey, Dublin City, and Ireland. The Liberties was an area of Ireland, and of Dublin, that established for itself a booming manufacturing industry. In Dr Gerald Boate’s Natural History of Ireland, written around 1650, he says of Dublin, ‘which harbour, although none of the best of Ireland, is nevertheless frequented with more ships, and hath greater importation of all things, than any other haven in the kingdom.’ Dublin too had established for itself the reputation of being a great trading mart.

There was no industry quite so intimately linked with the city of Dublin as the woollen trade. ‘New Market’ was established as a wide open-air woollen market in the Liberties to trade local produce, but as it expanded and export abroad continued, the British became uneasy with the competition against their own wool trade and Charles II began to encourage the Irish linen industry. This continued into the reign of William, who put in place Acts which effectively crippled the Irish woollen industry. The demand for weavers’ skills became restricted and numbers of Dublin manufacturers removed themselves from the country. This had devastating results for the Liberties’ population and standard of living. Attention had to turn to other industry.

There is no doubt that such a flourishing industrial centre had huge demands on its water supplies, and this greatly increased as time went by. Expanding industry and higher demand meant that the water provided by the Poddle became inadequate and strained. It was doomed by the very prosperity it had helped to build.

A river becomes a pond, becomes a river

The ‘Double Mill’ begins to feel like a very insignificant cog in a huge machine when one looks at the institution behind it; St Thomas’ Abbey, but to the urban block between Mill Street, Blackpitts and Sweeney’s Lane its presence was momentous, be it on a much more local level. It was not the catalyst of groundbreaking movements or changes, nor the subject of feuds and controversy, but a small portion of city which went against the odds and refused to develop at the same pace as its counterparts.

Today the site of Mill Pond is the most urban portion of the Poddle River that still enjoys daylight, be it dappled through a dense undergrowth, but it remains open to viewing like nowhere else in the city. Can it retain its status as a ‘pond’ when all that remains is a drain-like trickle at the bottom of a gully, visible only briefly as it moves from one dark chasm to another? Logistics and sense, say ‘no’, Mill Pond no longer exists, and yet it remains the last place in the inner city one can view the Poddle. Here it has managed to retain its access to light and air unlike the rest of its course, which anonymously flows under the city’s streets and buildings. The expansive open body of water remains a thing of the past, apparently never worth recording in sketch, photo or even written account, and yet, in maps such as Clarke’s 1846-47 and the Ordinance Survey of Ireland 2nd Edition 1847, it appears enchanting.

Melanie O'Brien_Poddle_Maps_Melanie O'Brien_Poddle_Maps_2Melanie O'Brien_Poddle_Maps_3Melanie O'Brien_Poddle_Maps_4Melanie O'Brien_Poddle_Maps_5


Boate, Gerald, Natural History of Ireland (1650) Edwin Mellen Press Ltd., Dublin.

Berry, Henry F., ‘The water supply of ancient Dublin’, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, 1:7, (1891), pp. 557-573.

Duddy, Cathal, ‘The role of St Thomas’s abbey in the early development of Dublin’s western suburb’, Duffy, Sean (ed.) Medieval Dublin IV: Proceedings of the friends of Medieval Dublin Symposium 2002 (2003) pp. 79-97.

Gillespie, Elgy (ed.), The Liberties of Dublin, (1977), O’Brien Press, Dublin, Ireland.

Gilbert, John T. (ed.), ‘Register of the Abbey of St Thomas, Dublin’, Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland during The Middle Ages (1889) London.

Fitzgerald, Ann D., ‘Down the old Poddle” Gillespie, Elgy (ed.), The Liberties of Dublin, (1977) O’Brien Press, Dublin. pp. 24-39.

Gwynn, Aubrey, ‘The Early History of St. Thomas’ Abbey, Dublin’, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 84:1, (1954), pp. 1-35.

Jackson, Valentine, ‘The inception of the Dodder water supply’, Clarke, Howard (ed.), Medieval Dublin: The Making of a Metropolis (1990) Irish Academic Press, Dublin. pp. 128-141.

Myles, Franc, ‘Archaeological excavations at the mill-pond of St. Thomas’ Abbey, Dublin’ Duffy, Sean (ed.) Medieval Dublin IX: Proceedings of the friends of Medieval Dublin Symposium 2007 (2009) pp. 183-212.

Myles V, Ronan, ‘The Poddle River and its Branches’, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, sixth series, 17:7, (1927), pp. 39-46.

Webb, J.J., ‘Industrial Dublin Since 1698’, Industrial Dublin since 1698 & The Silk Industry in Dublin, Hardpress Publishing, Dublin. (1913) pp. 1-115.

www.excavations.ie/Pages/Details.php?Year=&County=Dublin&id=13043, accessed 18 November 2012.

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