by mohara on September 7, 2010

Grit, grime and gore – Kildare’s industrial past.

Mention the words ‘historic monument’ and the first images that come to mind are those of ruined castles and churches, round towers, high crosses, and raths and ring forts. Kildare has an abundance of such sites – from the early Christian glories of Moone and Castledermot to medieval masterpieces such as Maynooth Castle. However there is a class of monument which has been overlooked in the county and yet one which gives strong evidence of how people made a living in the locality in bygone years. However the grit, grime and gore involved in sites such as sand pits, sewage plants and knackeries does not have the same historical glamour appeal as picturesque old castles and churches. As a result it is only in recent times that a scientific effort has been made to quantify and identify the county’s rich resource of industrial history known in technical terms as ‘industrial archaeology.’

Kildare County Council’s Heritage Office commissioned a map-based survey of the county’s industrial archaeology with a view to compiling a database and basic description of sites throughout the county. The results are impressive in both quantity and variety. Virtually every townsland in the county was found to have some evidence of a site where people had worked to shape or process materials as part of the sinews of a local economy.

This outcome is a necessary correction to the image that the history of Ireland’s countryside is exclusive an agricultural one. Other types of enterprise, albeit related to agriculture, flourished in every corner over the generations. And even though Kildare’s towns were small until the expansion of the late 20th century they too were the location of a variety of industrial and ancillary operations. The survey – entitled  the Kildare Industrial Archaeological Heritage Project (KDIAH) — identified an impressive 2,463 sites related to the county’s industrial archaeology heritage. The largest single category of enterprise was in the extractive industries with more than 1,000 sites identified in relation to pits and quarries of all kinds.  Manufacturing and mill sites (mostly water mills but some wind mills) accounted for another 662 locations while transport — embracing the county’s heritage of historical road, canal and rail features — accounted for another 536 sites.

And after all that thirsty work in the quarries and peat workings of Kildare, the workers needed to have their thirst slaked and the county was not found wanting in that respect with the survey category of ‘ Breweries, distilleries and malthouses’ revealing twenty-one sites. Preparing the raw material for brewing which involved the malting of the barley prompted the building of malt-houses many of which remain distinctive features on the Kildare sky-line. The barley (invariably locally grown) was spread, heated and steeped in the maltings before conveyance to breweries and distilleries. Malt-houses at Athy (Rathstewart and Ballyroe), Rathanagan, Monasterevin and Athgarvan operated in parallel with the milling industry and the malt-houses and mill buildings remaining in these locations are impressive reminders of an earlier approach to industrialisation. The early 19th century Maltings at Athgarvan on the Liffey, upriver of Newbridge, are regarded as among the best surviving malt buildings in the country.

The roast cereals were then sent on for the distinct processes of brewing or distilling. The KDIAH map survey identified breweries in Kilcock, Maynooth, Celbridge and Athy. Of course the county’s most famous brewing son, Arthur Guinness, is said to have brewed his first beverages a century earlier in Leixlip, before moving to bigger things at James’ Gate, Dublin in 1759.

The more refined practice of distilling was also a significant enterprise in Kildare in the period covered by the KDIAH assessment. Evidence of distilleries was found in Kilcock and Leixlip. Much the biggest distilling enterprise in the county was at Monasterevin where the Cassidy distillery included the full apparatus of kilns, mash houses, workshops, offices, grain stores and warehouses.  A key factor in the establishment of distilleries, maltings and mills in the county was proximity to the canal network which began to be laid out from the late 18th century. In this respect Monasterevin, now referred to as the ‘Venice of Ireland’ given its proliferation of bridges and waterways, was in a key position on the Barrow branch of the Grand Canal and thence the flourishing of the Cassidy distillery over many generations.

Kildare County Council is to be commended for commissioning such a thorough and revealing survey of the industrial history of the county. Much credit must go to KCC Heritage Officer Brigid Loughlin, and the report’s compilers Antoine Giacometti, Siobhan Duffy and Mairín Ní Cheallagh of Archaeological Technology Ltd. for the report’s quality and range of information. They have helped restore a neglected aspect of local history – our industrial monuments – to a position where they should be taken as seriously as the more high-profile historic monuments in the county. Series no: 186.

Liam Kenny in his column ‘Nothing New Under the Sun’ from the Leinster Leader of 22nd July 2010 reflects on Kildare’s rich industrial past. Our thanks to Liam.  

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