Mallet's Folly: the original white elephant of Phibsboro
On this day, the 18th of July,159 years ago, a tragic drowning accident on Dublin's Royal Canal recalled the popular nickname given to the imposing barracks-like mills at Cross Guns Quay which was the backdrop to the accident.
That summer's evening in 1864, four young boys between 11 and 14 years of age, fell off the stern of a lumber boat on the canal and all but one drowned. The only survivor, Patrick Beggs, was saved by a bystander. Newspaper reports of the tragedy recorded that the accident occurred close to the landmark mills that everyone knew as ’Mallet’s Folly’. (1.) But as Historyeye found out, the reason for this curious nickname was more complex than expected and was angrily disputed by its original owners.
Mallet of Ryder's Row
Construction of the mills at Cross Guns (or Westmoreland) Bridge was begun in the early 1820s by plumber, inventor and iron founder, John Mallet (1781-1868). It wasn't completed until 1848. (The year is recorded on the date stone high up on the mill's gabled roof. )
Devon-born Mallet, who shared a common ancestor with Grace Gifford's mother (2.), was the owner of the Victoria Iron Foundry at Nos. 7-9 Ryder’s Row, which connects Dublin's Parnell Street with Capel Street. Examples of Mallet’s iron works include the railings around Trinity College, the raised roof of St. George's Church on Hardwicke Place, and numerous bridges and iron works connected with the railways (with the exception of train tracks).
1822 Lease with the Royal Canal Company
John Mallet’s move to the site along the 5th Lock of the Royal Canal was likely in anticipation of a large increase in business at the Ryder's Row foundry. It would also have been an attempt to capitalize on the canal water's potential to power the foundry bellows and to transport resulting manufactured goods around the country.
Whatever John Mallet's plans were, his original 999 year lease with the Royal Canal Company was taken out in 1822. (3.) Contrary to some accounts, the new iron works was always allowed to use the canal water - the surplus or tail water that is.
As the Royal Canal supplied the water for north Dublin City, the mill along with any other works on its banks, could not be allowed to interfere with that supply. There is evidence that Mallet was in dispute with the canal committee over the definition of surplus water, suggesting that it wasn't enough for the needs of his foundry, at least during the drier months. (4).
Over twenty years in the making
When complete, the mill at Cross Guns Bridge was 11 bays long and 6 storeys high, constructed of the best limestone and built on a man-made embankment 840 feet long for mooring canal barges. Its fine materials and finish were reminiscent of a public building. Perched 130 feet above sea level, it is an imposing presence today but it would have dominated the Phibsboro skyline of the 1840s, especially when approached from the rising ground of Whitworth Avenue. Nestled under the building in a giant pit was a great water wheel, 20 feet in diameter, designed by the Scottish engineer, William Fairbairn.
Why it took John Mallet over twenty years to complete his iron factory and why it grew to be so enormous are two of the intriguing mysteries of this building. According to Mallet’s more famous son, Robert, best known for his pioneering research on earthquakes, his father plunged over £10,000 of his own money into the project.
Landed Estates Court
But John Mallet appears to have overreached himself. By the time the mill was eventually finished, the economy was depressed - reeling from the effects of Famine and competing with cheaper English and Scottish iron. Like many businesses and estates at the time, Mallet’s Iron Works was entered for sale in the Landed Estates Court in 1854. (5. )
It didn’t find a buyer until 1863, when a large family of corn merchants from the West of Ireland, the Murtagh brothers, acquired the mill's lease at the bargain price of £21 per annum. The mill was quickly renamed the North City Flour Mills.
'Haven for bats, spiders and ivy'
Immediately notices relating to the new owners of the mills appeared in the newspapers, notably the Freeman’s Journal. These articles described how the Murtaghs had transformed Mallet’s Mills from a derelict, roofless folly - a haven for bats, spiders, and ivy apparently - into a strong productive manufacturing facility. (6.)
No doubt these pieces were a case of naked self-promotion on the part of the Murtagh Brothers, but they would also have had a political edge. To say that the Murtaghs were strongly nationalist in their thinking would be a huge understatement. Not only was one of their number James Behan Murtagh president of the Home Rule League, he was also said to have actually coined the phrase ‘Home Rule’. (7.)
The Mallet's Folly nickname was likely an attempt to contrast the thriving activities of the nationalist Murtaghs with the derelict failure of unionist John Mallet, once high sheriff of Dublin, member of the guild of carpenters and of Dublin Corporation, committed to preventing the advance of catholics in city offices: in short representing everything that catholic merchants opposed.
A seismic rebuke
Robert Mallet (1810-1881) was sufficiently stung by these newspaper pieces to write a letter of rebuke to the newspapers from his London base. He insisted that his father's works at the 5th Lock had never been either derelict or a folly. He also aired his suspicions that the use of the nickname was political and likely rooted in his father's attempts to arrest Daniel O'Connell decades earlier. (8).
But his protests were in vain. The unflattering nickname stuck and the mill at Cross Guns continued to be referred to as Mallet’s Folly throughout the 19th Century and beyond. (John Mallet died in 1868 aged 88 at the home of his son in law, Benjamin Purser, of Dungarvan.)
The new owners of the mills, the Murtagh Brothers, had business and family links to Mayo, Longford, Roscommon, Westmeath and now Dublin, giving them a wide business reach. They produced whiskey as well as flour. Indeed in the year they took over the mills, Roe's Distillers of Thomas Street were forced to take an action against them for supplying whiskey to the Dublin market, which they were not entitled to do. (9).
During the Murtagh Brothers' era, a number of adjoining dwellings were added at Cross Guns Mills. Several of the Murtagh family, including John Murtagh, (1824-1867) lived on the site. Apart from the above-named John Murtagh, James Murtagh, James B. Murtagh and Michael Murtagh, other directors of the firm included Hugh Michael Macken, seed merchant of Burgh Quay; Bernard Rispin, sales master of Eccles Street; and Peter Murphy, mill machinery builder and a native of Wexford.
'A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place'
A newspaper description of the mills in 1873 gave a flavour of the almost laboratory-like precision of the works under the Murtaghs. (10.)There were steam engines working 15 stone grinders, all virtually noiseless. There was an enormous chimney - thought to be the tallest in Dublin at 147 feet high until its demolition in 1947. There were 15 drums covered by the best Swiss silk sifting flour of all its impurities. There were elevators and patent separators and Archimedean screws. There was a motto written high on a beam over the entrance to the great loft : 'A place for everything and everything in its place'. North City Flour Mills was a virtual monument to automation. But no doubt much of this adulation in print had a lot to do with the decision of the firm to turn the flour mills into a publicly-quoted company in 1873.
But by 1873 too, five out of seven founding members of the Murtagh Brothers Company had died, starting in 1867 with the death of 43 year-old John Murtagh, who left an eye-watering £20,000 in his will. In 1879, a law suit to wind up the firm was heard in the Court of Chancery by surviving members of the family wishing to cash in the firm's profits.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing aspects of Mallet’s Folly during its time as the North City Flour Mills, was the large number of individuals employed by the firm who were prominent in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Land League. This long list included company secretary Patrick Egan (1841-1919), treasurer of the Land League; Thomas Brennan (1853-1912), secretary of the Land league, and his uncle James Rourke (1844-1921), best friend of Michael Davitt. Fenian activist John Cruise was also a millwright at the firm.
There was even a rumour that the mill was the hiding place of Fenian leader James Stephens after his daring escape from the Richmond Bridewell in 1865.
Death of an Informer
The connection of the mills to these individuals and movements did the business no harm. It was also perhaps no accident that a suspected Fenian informer, George Clarke, a 40 year-old bricklayer from Dorset Street, was shot and mortally wounded right outside the mills one February evening in 1866. He died from his gun shot wounds in the Mater Hospital the following day. (11.)
Court Case and the Brazen Head Hotel
In 1875, a curious court case involving several directors of the North City Flour Mills was widely reported in the newspapers. James Michael Macken, cousin of one of the mill's directors, Hugh M. Macken, sued the mill's machinery builder, Peter Murphy, for defaming his character.
James Macken, who was owner of the Brazen Head Hotel, alleged that Murphy had claimed he was a police informer during the Fenian Rising and that he had invited the police to eavesdrop on conversations of hotel guests suspected of Fenian activity. (12.)
During the court case, Macken further alleged that Peter Murphy, a frequent guest at the Brazen Head when he visited Dublin, had been making free with the female staff there and was asked to take his business elsewhere for this reason. This was the root of the slander against him, Macken suggested. James Macken won his case against Peter Murphy but he was awarded a derisory farthing by the judge. The case caused an inevitable falling out among some of the firm's directors.
Heydey over by the 1880s
In the early 1880s, the mills traded under the name Boland, Crosthwaite and Mooney. Increased tolls on the canal forced the mills' cargo off the waterways and onto road and railway. In 1884 the firm got rid of its millstones and replaced them with more modern roller plant. But the 1880s were a difficult period for the mill. Not only was the grain market depressed, but many of the original board had either died or resigned, including Pat Egan and Peter Murphy. The heydey of Mallet's Folly was already behind it.
The last occupant of the premises was Ranks Flour, but it too shut its doors abruptly in 1983.
By 1993, Cross Guns Mills had been converted into 47 apartments offering unique views of the city to its upper-floor occupants. While the old interior was rebuilt from scratch, the facade of the mills was left largely intact by the project architects, Campbell Conroy Hickey Partnership, except for a few modern additions such as the dormer windows in the gabled roof.
The address of these apartments is officially Cross Guns Mills. Nobody who lives there is likely to call their home Mallet’s Folly, but if a letter was posted to that address today, the odds are that it would still find its way to the right place.
Freeman's Journal, 19 July 1864, page 2.
Mallet Family History, https://www.mallettfamilyhistory.org/tng/getperson.php?personID=I9336&tree=M05, Accessed August 2023.
Registry of Deeds, Henrietta Street, Dublin, Royal Canal Company/Mallet, Book 774, page 202, Deed No. 524537.
Delaney, Ruth & Bath, Ian, Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789-2009, page 176, The Lilliput Press, 2010.
Advocate, 17 June 1854, page 1.
Freeman's Journal, 17 May, 1863.
Pall Mall Gazette, 9 May 1888, page 14.
Saunder's Newsletter and Daily Advertiser, 3 June, 1863.
Freeman's Journal, 21 September 1863, page 3.
Irish Times, 17 October, 1873, page 6.
The Nation, 17 February,1866, page 412.
The People, 22 May, 1875, page 4.