Near Blackpitts once lay an enormous tannery, the biggest in the city. Nearby was an ancient medieval double-mill, complete with mill pond. Overall this is among the richest archaeological, most historic sites in Dublin. The key to understanding it is water.
A separate article on my blog this month explores how the river Tymon rises in Tallaght. After it’s joined by a branch of the Dodder- diverted here by medieval monks back in 1242- this Tymon becomes the famous Poddle. The Poddle continues several miles north. Ultimately it will decant into the Liffey. But first it passes through the Whitehall Road area, past the KCR, through Kimmage. From Kimage it flows mostly underground, although surfacing again at Mount Argus View estate and Mount Jerome Cemetery. Back underground it flows through Harold’s Cross, under the Grand Canal and SCR to enter the Liberties. In the heart of the Liberties is where things get really interesting.
The Poddle used to flow above ground here, along where Blackpitts now is. It meets two other rivers, one (the Tenter Water) at the corner of Blackpitts and Fumbally Lane, then another, called the Commons Water, at the top of New Row, by Patrick St and the Combe/Kevin St. All this interplay of rivers -seen just below in the map just below from Clair Sweeneys wonderful book on Dublin rivers, still occurs of course, but today it all happens beneath ground. All these rivers used to run above ground. They all used power and assist industry in this immediate area.
In this detail below, from a much older map, John Rocque’s famous 1756 survey, look at the area bounded by Mill Street to the north, Blackpitts to the east, Sweeney Lane to west. Warrenmount is now to the south but was not there in Rocque’s day. In the middle of this rectangular area was a pond, part of a mill maintained by the medieval monks of St Thomas Abbey. It was central to their power and their prosperity. That’s why the monks dug the channel from the Dodder to meet the Poddle. They did it so the river was strong enough to power their mills here. Fig 1?
In the “Armstrong map” we see two buildings marked “Double Mill” these were a flour mill and oil mill. Both had a wheel pit and stone floors. Fig 3
The pond survived up to the early 20th century. Some buildings too, although not necessarily the original medieval ones. (They were likely rebuilt again and again) But the pond survived almost eight hundred years, well into the 20th century. A photograph from the early 20th century also shows children sitting by the edges. Fig 4
Around 480 years ago, Henry VII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries meant Thomas Abbey was forcibly closed. Its lands were granted to Sir William Brabazon, whose descendants became the earls of Meath. Around 1720 the Brabazons built their grand townhouse at 10 Mill St, one of the oldest surviving houses in the Liberties and certainly the finest. The family used it for nearly a hundred years, possibly as a “dowager house” (for older female relatives of wealthy families) Around 1818 however it was bought by the Christian Brothers, becoming only the second CBS school. After that it became a “Ragged School” providing education for the children of the poor. This philanthropic tradition continued when the house was taken over by a Protestant Mission and School. Later again it provided a refuge for elderly protestant widows. It was still residential up the 1970s when it became a storage depot for rubber goods. But when the Post and Telegraph took over the building in 1981 things went downhill. The house was broken into and windows broken. By 1983 it was bricked up, to the dismay and despair of local residents. Only now is the house being restored, and will be an incredible bonus to the area.
Its construction date, around the 1720s, is just immediately before the Georgian style arrives in Dublin. Number 10 was thus one of the last great Dutch Billy style houses. These Dutch Billies were the standard building type of the 1600s in Dublin, especially in the Liberties. But this is far bigger than most Billies were. It is unique, the only such house with a double-gabled front to survive. It is a very rare, precious survivor, of huge historic significance. Restored and rescued from the brink of oblivion, it now stands resplendent again, looking proudly up Mill Lane towards Newmarket Square.
In fact the whole area is changing rapidly, with some of the largest construction works in Dublin. At the junction of Mill Street and Blackpitts is the Tenter site named after the pub here. Behind the pub facade (still standing) a huge hotel is rising from the ground. Just west of here is another huge, separate development will provide hundreds of units of student housing. This is a mostly a very modern style development but it includes and incorporates the venerable Double Billy, number 10.
The whole district was once thriving and prosperous, a powerhouse of the Irish economy, booming with tanning, textiles, wool, linen, brewing, distilling and other industries. In recent years the construction developments have acted as a spur for excavations. Behind number 10 Dr Claire Walsh of Archaeological Projects discovered a huge 18th century tannery, once operated by a Francis Hubband. The excavation revealed over 70 rectangular tanning pits used to cure leather. Each pit had a double floor, a so-called “false” upper level and a lower floor below.
Today the tannery, mill, other trades like brewing and distilling in nearby Fumbally Lane, have all but disappeared. Although interestingly distilling is making a comeback locally, with Teelings and other whiskey firms now established back in the area. The monks’ old mill has long gone. The river Poddle that fed all this- all these trades and industry- is still with us, even if it now flows unseen beneath our feet. Yet all of it was once essential parts of this historic jigsaw puzzle, making up the ancient Liberties. It all deserves to be remembered.
About the author: Arran Henderson is a local historian who writes, researches and explores the social, industrial, economic, political, artistic and architectural history of Dublin. The fruits of the research are often presented in the guise of walking tours. Public tours usually take place at weekends but sometimes early wekday evenings, typically cost from €14- €20 p/p and take place from once to 3 times per month. The best way by far, not to miss these tours is to sign up to the monthly “alerts” newsletter. The quick link to join newsletter mailing list is here.
List of Illustrations above.
Fig 1- detail of a map from Clair Sweeney’s classic Rivers of Dublin book, showing the intersection of rivers in the Liberties, (mostly underground in city centre)
Fig 2 Detail from Rocque 1756 map, showing the area discussed.
Fig 3 “Armstrong map”a close up/ detail. (Courtesy earl of Meath estate and Claire Walsh archaeologist).
Fig 4 ‘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..
Figs 5 and 6, reproduce together?.
Fig 5 = Dutch Billy Houses, photo taken from the book Dublin an Urban History, by Niall McCullagh (photo courtesy AAI, Architectural Archives of Ireland, Merrion Sq)
Fig 6 old drawing of 10 Mill Street. Uploaded onto Archiseek by Anonymous. And/OR
Fig 6 b An etching of 10 Mill Street published in The Irish Builder (1871). Credit – Clanbrassil Street 2, Sean Lynch.
Fig 6 The tanning Pits, found behind number 10 Mill St, image copyright & courtesy of Claire Walsh, of Archaeological Projects.
Fig 7: The tanning pits relative to other archeology, to Mill Street and Blackpitts, and to Rocque’s 1756 map (inset) Image copyright & courtesy Claire Walsh, Archaeological Projects.
Acknowledgements: my thanks to Dr Ruth Johnson, chief archaeological officer at DCC; to Michael Hayes and Ciarán Ferrie. Enormous thanks Dr Claire Walsh of Archaeological Projects for generously sharing her expert knowledge, as well as maps and images from her excavations in the area The Armstrong map is reproduced courtesy of Claire and earl of Meath estate, my thanks to them. Acknowledgement also to Rivers of Dublin, by Clair L Sweeney, pub. DCC 1991.
About the author: Arran Henderson is a local historian and guide who leads both public and bespoke walking tours in various historic areas of Dublin 1, 2, 4, 6 and 8, including the Blackpitts and Liberties areas. His public tours run just once or twice a month. Upcoming walks can be seen on arranqhenderson.com
Inquiries about private tours (only please) can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org If inquiring about a private or bespoke tour, it is greatly appreciated if you include information about your group and the type of tour you want, and essentially, your preferred dates (with dates if possible, in the subject header) Thank you.