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Man has long sought to harness the power of flowing or falling water, the first wheel built were designed for irrigation in the near east and were simply wheels with buckets or pitchers attached, which were forced around by the flowing water, when the buckets reached a certain height the water was poured into a channel and taken to the fields.

No doubt man soon realized that by attaching paddles the wheel could be used to generate power for other uses.

The Romans understood the principles of hydraulics but appear to only have used it for frivolous purposes at least until the adoption of Christianity by The Emperor Constantine in 325 AD, previously using flowing water to alleviate labour may have been seen as impinging in some way in the realms of the gods.

However after 325 they began to make extensive use of water power, diverting rivers considerable distances to supply their cities and often using the flowing water to power mills along the way. The first reference to water power in Ireland is attributed to King Cormac MacArt, in the third century the annals record that Cormac sent for a skilled man from 'Over the wide sea' to build him a mill. His purpose to save a favourite maid servant the drudgery of grinding at the quern. Cormac's mill was constructed on the stream of Nith, which flowed from the well of Neamhuach at Tara. This is generally accepted to be the first mill built in Ireland, it is thought the millwright was supplied by the king of Scotland.

Before the introduction of powered mills all the grain used was ground using the mortar and pestle principle, later a saddle quern was used this was a saddle shaped stone on which the grain was placed another stone was rolled and dragged across the grain crushing it. The next development was the rotary quern, this was essentially two circular stones the bottom one had an trunion of sorts in the center of it, the top had a hole larger than the trunion pin, the top stone was pushed too and fro by means of a handle set to the side, the grain was placed in the hole and emerged at the sides as flour. This is exactly how powered mills operate except that the top mill stone rotates continuously.

The gentleman operating the saw is Mr Bert Robinson former clerk of works for the National Trust in County Fermanagh.

Read about Corn Mills and Querns from 'A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland' by P. W. Joyce

It is thought that the horizontal water wheel came to England from China around 1 AD, it was then brought to Ireland by the monks, who often incorporated water mills in or near their monasteries. Monks at Nendrum County Down built a tide powered mill the remains of which were excavated in 1999 and were subsequently dated to AD 619, it is thought this was the earliest tide mill in Europe. In the twelfth century monks at Assore Abbey in Donegal also installed a water wheel, a mill built by St Fechin. near Fore Abbey in County Westmeath sometime in the 7th century is still in operation.

Prior to the introduction of the potato in the mid 16th century grain and meat were the mainstay of the diet, it seems likely that the number of mills in operation then was significantly more than existed even in the mid 1800's. In William E Hogg's book 'The Millers & The Mills of Ireland of About 1850' he lists some 3,500 mills from that period, and states that many more probably existed, which had been missed by the valuers. Mr Hogg must be congratulated on compiling and preserving in one volume, information that had been previously stored in many historical archives across the country, this labour of love must have consumed many thousands of hours.

The advent of the linen industry resulted in the building of probably hundreds of water powered mills, there was hardly a river in the north east of the country where linen production was densest, that did not have a wheel or turbine installed at every suitable location The mid 1800's is probably when this development was at its height, at around 1850 a wheel 21.4 Meters (70 ft) in diameter was installed at Darkley mill in County Armagh, it is thought this was the largest mill wheel to have existed in Ireland. It is estimated that in 1796 Ireland exported 46,000,000 yards 26,136 Miles (42,073,170 Meters) of linen

Water power was utilized for many purposes in the linen process there were scutch mills, these had rotating blades similar to fans which beat the fiber's from the wretted (rotted) flax stalks. Next the fibers were spun into threads which were woven into cloth and finally the cloth was beetled, see Wellbrook Beetling Mill

The grinding of grain for both animal and human consumption was the main use to which water power was put. There were many of these mills dotted around the country, the vast majority of which no longer exist, although some remain abandoned and forlorn, such as the image above from County Monaghan. The Doomsday Book compiled shortly after the invasion of England in 1066 by William of Normandy "William the Conquer" lists 7,000 water mills in England, we can only assume that Ireland proportionately had as many.

The grain was ground between to cylindrical stones about four ft in diameter and perhaps six to eight inches deep, the top stone rotated while the bottom remained stationery, the grain was fed into a hole in the center of the top stone and exited around the outside, the gap between the two could be adjusted with the tentering gear, which narrowed the gap resulted in finer flour. This was simply adapting the quern stone principle that had been used for centuries before the Christian's era. On the Orkney Island north of Scotland an example of an early horizontal mill survives, this is on Harray Island (I think) the technology was probably brought to Orkney by the Vikings. The horizontal mill consisted of a vertical shaft to which blades were attached a stream of water was directed onto the blades causing the shaft to rotate driving the top stone, the mill at Nendrum in County Down would have been this type.

Most mills had two pair of stones, although some had three one such was Dyan Mill in County Tyrone, which was restored (unsympathetically) at very considerable cost to the tax payers with the declared intention of opening it to the public as a working mill, which would have been difficult to achieve as the water supply to the mill had been diverted many years previously. Today the taxpayers of Northern Ireland who presumably supplied the majority of the funding for this venture can indeed see the building, they can even gain access without charge, as it is now (2006) a furniture showroom.

There are several operational corn mills open to the public one such is Castleward Mill and Annalong Corn Mill in County Down both mill are run occasionally for demonstration purposes, there are many more water mills in the southern counties. By the early 1950's few corn mills survived, in Maghera near Newcastle, County Down the mill owned by Paddy Fitzpatrick, who also had a pub and grocery shop in the village, needless to say the pub still survives, the mill was in operation about 1952, sadly it was demolished and a housing development now occupies the site. When the mill came on the market representations were made to the National Trust urging them to purchase and restore it, their reply, understandably was that they had a working corn mill at Castle Ward, some fifteen miles distant.

A corn mill owned by Mr. George Holmes of Mill Farm Tollymore Co Down was in ways ahead of its time, in the early 1900's when the local town of Newcastle had not yet been connected to the mains supply, George installed a 250 volt DC dynamo which supplied electricity not only for the farm but several houses in the locality. Additionally he was able to charge the old glass cased lead acid batteries used in early radio sets for his neighbours.

George died in 1965 his generator still in operation, in the late 1960's the waterwheel badly in need of repair was removed and a turbine installed by his son William. With the advent of the third generation all lies abandoned with thousands of potential kilowatts flowing past the farm each year lost through lack of vision and endeavor.

In the year 1879 a waterwheel was installed at Birr Castle County Offaly, this wheel drove a generator which charged a bank of batteries which supplied electricity to the castle. Read about this on Birr Castle web site.

Water power was put to many other uses, spade mills which replaced the village blacksmith who from time immoral had produced spades most of which were peculiar to each area, designed to suit the the local soil conditions. Around 1850 there were 33 recorded spade mills in Ireland. The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra County Down have a rebuilt spade mill powered by a water wheel, they also have a scutch and mill and corn mill, while Patterson's Spade Mill owned by the National Trust at Templepatrick County Antrim is powered by a water turbine.

The largest wheel ever built in Ireland was at Saggart in the Tallaght area of Co. Dublin, it was used to power a paper mill and was 24.38 m (80 feet) in diameter, there was a wheel 70ft (21.34 ) in diameter erected at Darlkey Co Armagh in 1852, although we have only read this in one source, and are therefore not really sure about that one. Ireland's first hydro-electric plant, was developed in 1883 at Portrush in Ireland.

In the latter years of the 19th century water turbines came into use many of these replace the earlier water wheels, a local company Robert Craig and Sons of Belfast had installed 35 of its turbines by 1920. In the 1960's when the linen industry was declining there were 20 turbines in operation on the river Maine in County Antrim, we can only assume that other rivers such as The Six Mile Water, the Blackwater, the Callan, the Clady, the upper Bann, the Mourne and other rivers in Northern Ireland were utilized to the same extent.

All of these made use of the water in the river to power machinery and provided 1000’s of jobs and it was the same on the . For apart from steam, water power was the only source of energy and as such it was and still is of substantial value to the welfare of Northern Ireland’s economy.

In 1885 a 65 horsepower turbine was installed to power the Bessbrook to Newry narrow guage railway, this was the first hydro powered railway in the world and ran until 1947

You will find much information about waterpower in Ireland on Mills and Millers of Ireland.


Canyon Hydro
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Canyon Hydro.

Canyon Hydro produces highly efficient, reliable turbine systems for generating hydroelectricity. They manufacture a wide range of small hydro systems up to 15 megawatts, and provide custom design and machining for new or replacement turbine components.

On their site you will find useful data and formulas relating to water power. Remember a US gallon and an Imperial gallon are different.
One cubic ft = 6.25 imperial gallons
One cubic ft = 7.481 US gallons

Use the script below to calculate the power available from a stream.

Head: (metes), Flow Rate: (liters per second)
Theoretical Power. (Watts)
Assuming 65% efficiency Watts generated.