Windmills in Wexford and Irish History

Windmills in Wexford and Irish  History

E.F. Schumacher

‘Perhaps we cannot raise the winds.

But each of us can put up a sail,

so that when the wind comes we can catch it.’


Windmills in Irish and European History

Oldest known forms of Water or Wind powered mills

The watermill is known to have existed in Roman times. The vertical watermill is the oldest or most primitive type and is known in Ireland from the 9th Century onwards and there is some evidence that it was used here much earlier.

Vertical Windmill

There are two forms of windmill:

• The windmill with its main shaft standing vertical and its sails rotating horizontally, parallel to the ground, this is called a Vertical Windmill.

• The windmill with its main shaft horizontal and its sails rotating in a vertical plane, at right angles to the ground, this is called a Horizontal Windmill.

Historians know that there were Vertical Windmills in the Middle East, in Persia in the seventh century. This type of windmill appears to be a very ancient one and has been in use in China and other countries for a long time.

Windmills of this type but with the grinding stones mounted below the wind rotor can still be seen in use today in Afghanistan.

It is easy to see the progression from the vertical water mill to the vertical windmill as they have fundamentally the same parts.

Old Vertical Windmills

Old Vertical Windmills require that the wind blow from the same direction for a reasonable part of the year because their walls have to be lined up for the prevailing wind. They will not work if the wind is not blowing from this direction or its opposite direction. This is not as bad as it seems as in many parts of the world there are seasonal winds, which reliably blow from one direction during parts of the year.

The original vertical windmill was very useful in these countries but not for our Northern European weather where the wind blows from any direction, although the most common wind direction is from the southwest.

In order to harness the winds successfully in Western Europe it was necessary to develop a new type of windmill.

The Horizontal Windmill

In the horizontal windmill, the sails rotate in a vertical plane at right angles to the ground. The wind around here constantly changes the direction it blows from and therefore the windmill sails must be turned so that they face the wind.

This problem was solved in two ways – the post mill and the tower/smock mill. It is not certain which is the older but most authorities think it is the post mill.

• The post mill, in this mill all the machinery is mounted in a wooden house, which is perched on top of a wooden post. From the back of the house a long tail pole leads down to the ground. The ladder for reaching the mill is also at the back. The whole mill is turned on the pivot post to face the wind.

• The tower and smock mills, in these mills the main body of the mill is fixed to the ground and only the cap or top which carries the main shaft, sails and roof is turned to face the wind. The body of the mill is made of stone or brick in the case of the tower mill or of timber framing covered with thatch or weatherboarding in the smock mill. These mills when the body was made of stone or brick were much more economical in the use of valuable timber.

• The oldest stone built tower mill is thought be have been built near Le Havre in France in 1220, it still stands and has been restored but not as it was at the beginning.

Le Moulin de Pierre

Origin of the Horizontal Windmill

The exact origin of the horizontal windmill remains unknown. It appears that this type of windmill first appeared around the country of Flanders or the Normandy coast of France sometime around 1150 AD. Old legal documents show that windmills became a normal part of life in this area from 1170 onwards. In less than 100 years, they became very common and many were built in England, France and other nearby countries. The map shows the earliest mention of windmills in documents in the various places with the first one known mentioned for Ireland being in New Ross in around 1300.

Windmills must have existed before they were in official deeds. This is interesting because the people who invaded Ireland around 1170 came from Normandy where the windmill had just been introduced. When they came here, the windmill was the very latest thing and it is very probable that they brought this technology with them. If this is the case then some of the old windmill stone towers with vertical walls still standing around Ireland could date from a very early age.

The Norman Manor and its Mill in Ireland

The Norman settlers who came to Ireland set up manors, a type of village. These settlements consisted of four main parts, which had to be present for the survival of the settlement:

• The Castle or fortified house, its use was obvious, to protect the landowner, his tenants and servants if they were attacked.

• The Church, these people were very religious and their religion was absolutely essential to their lifestyle.

• The Well, a good supply of clean water was a very essential part of the manor, all the better if the well was located within the Castle bawn.

• The Mill, the settlements depended upon grain as their main food during the winter, spring and Early Summer. Grain is designed by Nature to survive fresh throughout the winter so that it could grow again in the spring. As long as you kept the rats away from it and you had saved enough of it you could survive. The problem with grain is that it has to be ground and cooked before humans can use it for food. Grinding grain every few days to support a sizeable number of people took a lot of work and the mill enabled this work to be done easily. This left people free to carry out other essential work. It also gave the lord of the manor a nice source of income.

If you know that a Castle exists in a place, you know also that a mill must have been built close by. Mills associated with Castles must be very old because the use of small Castles for defense became useless once cannon were in use and this happened over 400 years ago.

Lots of Windmills in Wexford and North Dublin

Two areas of Ireland were particularly noted for their high density of windmills, North County Dublin – Fingal and South County Wexford. In both cases there was from an early date a relatively high population. The topography was flat with a scarcity of good watermill sites and both were fairly windy. These factors made the use of windmills practical and necessary in those areas.

In the case of the baronies of Forth & Bargy in Wexford some 34 watermills and 66 windmills have been documented. Indeed the very last windmill to grind commercially in the Irish Republic is Gerry Mylers mill in Tachumshane, Barony of Forth, County Wexford, which remained working until 1936.

The Windmill’s Work

The mills were mostly used to grind corn but some were constructed to do other work. In the early 1800’s an attempt was made to start a linen industry in Wexford. A flax windmill was built in the Durra in Wexford by Jacob Poole, a Quaker from Taghmon. He tried to start the industry to give employment as the population was rising at that time. In fact, some of the “marl holes” around South Wexford were used as retting ponds for flax. The outer part of the flax stalk was allowed to rot in the pond to release the fine linen fibers. The attempt to establish a linen industry in South Wexford did not succeed.

In Holland the windmills were adapted to many tasks, snuff mills, powder mills, sawmills but the most important being to pump the water from the dykes. The little Dutch boy may have thought he was saving his land by putting his finger into the hole in the dyke but the windmills were pumping the water out for hundreds of years!

How a Windmill Works

The machinery in an old windmill is mostly made of wood, this is because iron was scarce and wood was plentiful in those times. Some of the nails holding the pieces of wood together were even made of wood – called treenails.

The main shaft was made of oak. On the front were mounted usually four sets of sails; these had a timber framework on which the miller stretched canvas sails. He could change the amount of canvas exposed to the wind to regulate the working of the windmill.

Right behind the sails was the front bearing which carried nearly all the weight of the shaft and sails. This was made of stone and only went about one third the way around the shaft, it was lubricated using two-year-old uncooked pig-fat. Pieces of this were kept hanging from the roof near the neck bearing.

At the back end of the shaft was the tail bearing, which was the thrust bearing which took all the pressure of the wind against the sails.

On the main shaft between the two bearings was mounted the brake wheel. This had a brake around its outside rim, which the miller used to stop the mill. It also had teeth set into the side of the rim to take the power from the wind shaft to the rest of the machinery. The cogwheel, which connected with the teeth on the brake wheel, was called the wallower and through a vertical shaft, it drove the stones around.

There were different numbers of teeth on these wheels so that the slow speed of rotation of the windmill sails could be matched to the faster speed of the grinding stones. Apple wood was often used for the teeth, as it was able to absorb the shock loads without breaking.

The grain is fed down between the grinding stones, the bottom one is fixed and the upper one rotates and has a hole in the middle through which the grain is fed. The clearance between the two stones is very small and can be adjusted by the miller to grind the grain correctly into meal.

Turning the Windmill to face the wind

The miller used an internal winch or cog mechanism to turn the cap of the mill to face the wind on the tower/smock mill. The post mill was turned using its tail pole. Later on, around 1700, wooden roller bearings were introduced into the caps of the tower and smock mills and the sides of the mills were tapered. This allowed the cap to be relatively small while allowing more room lower down for the grinding machinery. It also allowed tail poles to be used to turn the caps on the tower mills.

The cone shaped tower/smock mill was a stronger shape than the older mills with vertical walls and could be built higher allowing longer and bigger sails and more powerful machinery.

By the mid 1700’s quite large windmills were being built with tower heights of up to 90ft and sail diameters of 75 feet. This is not far from the size of modern wind turbines being built over 200 years later!

It was at this time that the traditional windmill reached the very pinnacle of its development. The only real improvement after this was the introduction of cast iron main shafts in the early 1800’s.

Ship of the Land

A windmill is like a ship of the land; it stands there between earth and sky with its arms outstretched capturing the wind. Standing in an old mill while it is working, the mill seems to be alive. It creaks and groans and demands constant attention from the miller. In Schiedam in Rotterdam five of the original eighteen windmills built around 1780 still survive and still work at their original task. Few other machines made by man could have such a long working life. Schiedam’s Mills also Picture Tour

Windmills were providing mankind with much needed power over 1000 years ago and of all the technologies available today it can be predicted that they will be doing the same in 1000 years time.

Modern Wind Turbines

The modern wind turbine uses exactly the same components as the post mill. The steel tower takes the place of the wooden post.

The nacelle containing all the machinery takes the place of the body of the post mill.

The fibreglass blades take the place of the wood and canvas sails.

The gearbox takes the place of the wooden gears.

The electrical generator absorbs the power instead of the mill stones.

An electric motor turns the top to face the wind instead of a tail pole.

An electronic computer regulates the mill and applies the brakes instead of the miller.

An eight hundred and fifty year old invention still being used today!

It is interesting to note the evolution of wind turbines from the noisy, whirring youngsters of just fifteen years ago to the slowly turning stately giants of today.

They are becoming like their grandparents of two hundred years ago, history is repeating itself.

Places to Visit in Ireland to see Windmills

A working example of a horizontal watermill can be seen at the Irish National Heritage Centre near Wexford.

There are many restored and preserved watermills to be seen throughout Ireland.

A working example of an early windmill can be seen at the Yola Farmstead Folkpark near Rosslare. See Yola Farm (now closed)

Two finely restored later style windmills can be seen at Blennerville in Kerry – See Blennerville Windmill and in Elphin Co. Roscommon. See Elphin Windmill

The Skerries Mills complex in Skerries, Co Dublin contains a restored working example of a 19th Century vertical water wheel. A restored example of a rare 19th Century five–sailed windmill and a restored early windmill complete with oak main shaft and stone bearings. The complex also includes a bakery. See Skerries Mills

Gerry Meylers windmill in Tacumshane Co. Wexford is the last of them all!

All the above mills are well worth a visit.

Modern Developments in Wind Energy

The windmill, which was introduced into Wexford at the start of the 14th Century, has once again started to make a comeback.  It is now into its eighth century of producing power from the wind flowing over Ireland except for a few years of madness from 1936 until about the year 2000.

In its modern incarnation the windmill is known as a Wind Turbine or even a WEC (Wind Energy Converter). Whereas the traditional windmill produced mechanical power and was used to drive millstones, saws, water pumps and other machinery, the wind turbine is used to produce electricity, which is predominately fed into the electricity network.

The traditional windmill reached the peak of its technical development around the start of the 19th century. It went into a decline due to the more convenient and cheap fossil-fueled power sources then being developed. These power plants burnt coal in a boiler to produce steam for running steam engines.

The steam engines could be located practically anywhere once the canal and railway networks were set up to transport the fuel. These power sources were used to power the factories that allowed mass production of goods and brought about the industrial revolution on which our modern prosperity is founded. This happy state of affairs continued and by the end of the 19th century an even cheaper and convenient fossil fuel was harnessed – oil.

The use of oil fueled engines allowed many machines to be invented and developed which would not have been possible before its introduction. Motorcars, transport lorries, tractors and aeroplanes were introduced which transformed many aspects of life. Many lovers of old machinery still treasure the old coal fired steam powered machines as witnessed by the popularity of the vintage rallies.

At about the same time the use of electricity was developed for lighting and power and convenience. This was also generated using the fossil fuels laid down in the earth hundreds of millions of years before. The remaining traditional windmills slowly went out of use as the 20th Century went on and the real cost of fossil fuels was lowered. The last windmill in the Republic to work commercially was Mylers Windmill in Tachumshane Co. Tacumshane Windmill, which worked until 1936 as mentioned before.

Meanwhile, the development of the modern wind turbine continued at a snails pace. In the rural areas of Wexford wind chargers became a common sight when wet batteries for powering wireless radio receivers needed to be charged. These were expensive and low powered and not very reliable and were put out of use by the introduction of rural electrification to all areas around the late 1950′s.

One country – Denmark stands out in its improvement of the modern wind turbine. The Danish Professor P. La Cour established a windmill experimental station funded by the state in 1891 at Askov in Denmark. He successfully built and run a mill with sails of 22.8m diameter (75ft), which produced 18Kw.

Danish windmill manufacturers were producing machines of 30Kw output by the 1920′s. This pioneering trend has continued to this day with Denmark being at the forefront of wind turbine progress and manufacture. With a population not much larger than Ireland’s it employs more people in the wind industry than in fishing.

The carefree use of fossil fuels continued until the 1970′s when the oil producing countries gave the world a shock by restricting the output of oil, causing large increases in the cost of energy production. This shock gave an impetus to the wind industry to try and develop wind turbines, which could replace some of the imported oil for energy creation. Denmark again was to the fore and the Danish Government decided to pay a premium price for electricity generated from wind.

The idea was that in order to get the premium price and make a profit, the turbines would have to run and produce electricity for a number of years. This strategy was very successful and Danish manufacturers competed with each other to produce bigger, better and more reliable machines so that today Denmark produces about a half of the wind turbines in the world and a substantial proportion of its energy is produced from wind power.

A further upset for the world was the slow realisation in the 1990′s that the massive release of carbon dioxide due to the burning of billions of tonnes of fossil fuels was changing the climate. The surface temperature of the globe was rising and the effects of this could only be guessed at but included sea level rise and increased storminess. Both of these effects would be critical for South Wexford with its exposed coastline and low lands.

In the years since 1973 wind turbines have improved spectacularly and are now able to generate electricity cheaply and without pollution. The rotational speeds have dropped as the size has gone up and because of the public demands for virtually noiseless operation. Machines of over 1000 Kw power output with blades up to 30m long are now normal and relatively cheap.

Hopefully the careful and considered reintroduction of advanced windmills into our local landscapes will help to lessen the potentially ruinous costs of the excessive use of fossil fuels on our natural environment. Check out the amount of windpower being generated on Eirgrid.

Abraham Lincoln, the only US President ever awarded a patent said in a speech entitled “Discoveries and Inventions” :-

“…Take any given space on the earth’s surface – for instance Illinois: and all the power exerted by all the men, the beasts, and running water, and steam, over and upon it, shall not be equal the one hundred part of what is exerted by the blowing of the wind over and upon the same space. And yet no very successful mode of controlling, and directing the wind, has been discovered…”


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4 Responses to Windmills in Wexford and Irish History

  1. Joel House says:

    I’m an American expat living in Peru. I’ve gotten involved with a group of very poor farmers here in trying to solve their water problem. Cost of diesel pumps is prohibitive for them even though abundant ground water is only between 16 and 18 feet down. Hand dug wells are the norm but pumping sufficient water for their small truck farms is impossible for them.

    I’ve been looking for designs and instructions for building a vertical windmill out of cut 55 gallon drums and an automobile differential. I’ve found a couple of pictures and drawings of the Savornius design.

    Could you help me to find some simple layouts or line drawings that a mechanically challenged do gooder could follow? I’d appreciate any help I can get.

    Thank you.

    My email address was put on your posting form. Anything you can do will help.

  2. Pingback: AP Human Geography » Blog Archive » Windmill

  3. Joe Fallon says:

    Very very detailed and interesting. Let’s all hope our reliance on fossil fuels becomes non-existent.

  4. peter west says:

    Hi i am trying to research a watermill in gardamus mayglass and wondered if you had any tips on researching its history thanks peter.

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