The Last Miller in Belmont

5:00 PM Posted by sara e.
53.24801 -7.89203
Back at Belmont today for two interviews set up by Tom and Sandy. First we met with David Perry, who was the last member of the Perry family to operate (and co-own) Belmont Mills. Our second meeting was with Tony Cassidy, a lifelong resident of Belmont whose great grandfather and grandfather, both named Patrick Cassidy, worked at Belmont Mills.

David Perry explained the changes in the mill operation over time and the factors that led to its closure. We asked him details about the different grains that were used – from near and far – and captured valuable information for Erin’s research on local bread, grain and food. We learned that because of the water power, Belmont Mills was on the cutting edge of technology in Offaly. Power from the mill was used to generate the first electricity in the area around 1899.

The highlight of our meeting with Tony, an amateur historian with a passion for geneological research, was learning that the younger Patrick Cassidy brought trade unions to Belmont Mills in the 1920s. Tony has a passion for local history and is quite pleased with the restoration work that Tom Dolan has done at the mill complex.
During the interview with David, I took the following notes:
00:00:00 Bread used to be made with oat meal. The bog was important to the development of the mill, it acted as a sponge for the river, providing a constant form of power
00:02:54 Flax mills (“tuck mills”) were the earliest mills in Offaly, flax was grown in mid-region of Ireland, the flax was then woven
00:03:40 The Perry family arrived in Ireland around the time of the French Revolution, they were French Huguenots and stone dressers. They developed several mills in Ireland and consolidated in Belmont because of the water power available.
00:05:10 Farmers who came to have their oat milled were within horse and cart range. They would bring the grain to the mill and have it milled. The mill would store the grain for the farmers until they needed it milled. A commission was paid to the mill. Each farmer grew enough for their own family. Any surplus was sold to the mill. Grain was used for bread, porridge, and animal feed.
00:08:00 The farms used to be “mixed” with a variety of livestock and crops, making families much closer to self-sufficiency.
00:09:30 White flour came in around the 1880s. After, Belmont became the largest flour mill in Ireland. It was possibly the only site in the Ireland with constant, consistent power.
00:11:00 The water power was reduced when Bord na Mona began draining the bogs and harvesting peat.
00:11:40 Flour produced changed over the decades. Belmont produced flour blends. There were different types of grain imported from Canada and North America. Whte bread mainly went to the cities. Most rural people lived on the land and would eat their own bread. White bread became cheaper, North American grain was still 1.4 the price of Irish.
00:13:40 Grain is still frown in Ireland in the southeastern parts of the country. It is ground at the ports. But in general Ireland can’t compete with the grain from North America and Canada.
00:15:00 At one point, each small town had several bakeries. Flour would be delivered to these shops by the mill.
00:16:20 Bakers would have bought the mill blends.
00:17:30 Brown bread is made with oat meal and soda bread is made with wheat flour and baking soda.
00:19:40 During World War II, grain from North America was not available. The mill adapted to make flour with locally grown grain. It didn’t make much flour, instead making maize meal and other meals for emergency food. The government told the mill what was needed. Grains were used more for porridge and less for baking, partially because turf was the only fuel available to bakers and ovens didn’t get hot enough.
00:22:00 After the war, animal feed became the base product for the lower mill. It stopped grinding flour and instead bought it and sold it under the Perry name. The oat mill continued operation until the 1970s or 80s. The government imposed hygiene controls on food production and the mill was no longer fit to produced meal for people.
00:24:30 If the culture of organic food had developed earlier, it cold have saved the mill.
00:25:20 David began managing the mill in 1980. He didn’t think it was prudent to invest in upgrading the mill to be fit to grind meal for human consumption.
00:26:00 Only 1-2 comparable mills have been refurbished and are currently in operation, but not by the original owners.
00:27:00 The last milling in Belmont was done in 1992-93. David says that he milled until a week before Tom Dolan moved in.
00:27:40 By the time the mill closed, very little grain was grown in the area.
00:28:00 David thinks it would have been romantic to try to keep the mill open but practically he knows that closing was the right decision.
00:28:30 David was trained as a miller in England, just like his father. Before that he studied agriculture at university.
00:35:20 The Perry family bought the mills upstream and tore them down so that they could control the water power.
00:42:00 At certain times of year, carts would queue up all the way to the village of Belmont waiting to collect their grain.
00:44:40 Local farmers stopped coming to Belmont Mills in the 1960s as farming practices changes. Their fields were too small for the new farm machinery and they switched to dairy and sheep.
00:46:20 A lot of farmers abandoned their land and went to work for Bord na Mona. Some continued to farm part-time.
00:48:40 At the end of Belmont’s milling days it produced only animal feed. There were multiple strains on the farmers, notable mad cow disease followed by an outbreak of foot in mouth disease. Eventually the mill ran out of cash and the Perrys decided to put the property up on the market.
00:50:20 Tall mill buildings are labor intensive operations. New mills are all on one level to allow for easy transportation of grain with forklifts. The turbine (installed in 1980s) was the only hydropower investment in the country at the time, other than Guiness. The turbine allowed the Perrys to sell power back to the electrical company. Its revenue propped up the milling business.
00:51:50 Allowed son to pursue other interests
00:52:40 Hydropower investment
00:54:00 David is pleased to see the property preserved. It is great for the local community. David lived in the mill owners’ cottage.The company owned a number of houses in the village, which were for the workers to live in. There were 140 works are the turn of the nineteenth century. The village of Belmont was built around the mill. Belmont was more of an agricultural meeting point rather than a town. The area was technologically advanced. Power from the mills generated early electricity (1898/99). Houses owned by the mill had electricity very early on.