Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in Aug/Sept 2015 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
Prior to the construction of the new motorway, a discovery of immense significance was made by archaeologists in April 2007 in the townland of Kilbegly in the parish of Moore, two and a half miles east of Ballinasloe.
What they unearthed were the exceptionally wellpreserved remains of the lower structure of a horizontal mill, dating from between the mid-seventh and the late eighth centuries. The site was about 300 yards southwest of Kilbegly churchyard which contains the ruins of a medical church and is surrounded by a large, circular earth and stone bank, probably contemporaneous with the mill.
This type of corn mill was a Roman invention introduced into Ireland some 1,400 years ago, most likely from France or Spain. Nancy Edwards in The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland writes: “The horizontal mill mechanism was housed in a two-storey wheelhouse which was usually constructed of wood. In the lower wheelhouse was the horizontal millwheel with its slightly dished wooden paddles. The water supply, which was usually diverted from a nearby stream, was conducted along a millrace which could be closed off with sluice gates when the mill was not in use. The water was then channelled along a wooden flume or chute and was directed onto the millwheel paddles with sufficient force to allow the wheel to turn.’’
‘’The turning of the wheel also turned the shaft attached to it which projected through the ceiling into the upper storey where the millstones were housed. The top of the shaft was attached to the upper millstone, which therefore turned when the millwheel turned, while the lower millstone remained stationary. The grain was ground by dropping it into a central hole in the upper millstone, possibly from a hopper, and the flour collected on the floor round the millstones.”
Jerry O’ Sullivan, archaeologist with the National Roads Authority, has been quoted as saying that Kilbegly is one of only a handful of excavated mill sites in Ireland at present and is thought to be one of the best kept in Europe. He believes it to be virtually unique because the parts were in such an excellent state of preservation.
After the mill was abandoned it quickly became immersed in peat. This prevented the timber from being colonised by insects and fungi, thus arresting the normal decay process that would otherwise have destroyed the mill timbers within a few years. Post-and-wattle millraces, a millpond, the near complete remains of the lower floor, a flume and a large tailrace have all survived.
Mr O’ Sullivan is convinced that the people who built and operated the mill were very sophisticated i their approach to generating water power. They had an excellent understanding of basic engineering that is reflected in their use of the terrain, the natural hydrology, and their skill with timber-built structures.
For example, the mill was certainly built by professional millwrights who could cut, shape and join large timbers to create a robust structure capable of withstanding all the pressures of a dynamic mechanical and hydraulic environment.
The main surviving element of the mill is the under croft or basement level. This had to support the mill house overhead (this did not survive) and also withstand the pressure of water passing through it and the rotation of a heavy millwheel on its axle.
Historically, Kilbegly was on a very ancient route into Connacht and was part of the dispersed estate of Clonmacnoise. The mill, mainly used to process barley, was very likely worked by employees of the monastery.
In 2008 the mill timbers, which required constant watering during excavation once exposed to the air, were sent to York Archaeological Trust where they were scientifically conserved. They were returned to Ireland in 2012 and are currently in storage at the National Museum where they will be curated by the State until they can be put on display in a suitable public venue.