Irish Flour Milling: A History 600-2000

Andy Bielenberg (editor)

Lilliput 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
Irish Flour Milling sports a striking, colourful cover, based on an oil painting of a mill, which is more suggestive of a popular novel than a collection of essays on industrial history.

The opening chapter by Colin Rynne covers technological developments from 600 down to 1875. Ireland provides "the earliest evidence of water-powered grain mills in the post-Roman world". Windmills were an Anglo-Norman development — "the first recorded instance of such a mill occurs almost 100 years after the first recorded English windmill of 1185" — and were concentrated in the southeast, where suitable watercourses were rare. And the early modern period saw a shift towards larger-scale milling, with grain-cleaning and flour-dressing machinery in multi-storey mills, and the introduction of steam power.

L.M. Cullen covers the 18th century, Andy Bielenberg the period of Union from 1801 down to 1922, Akihiro Takei the period from 1922 to 1945, focusing on political economy, and Norman Campion events since the Second World War. On more specialised topics, Richard S. Harrison treats the role of Irish Quakers in the milling industry and Glyn Jones the spread of roller milling, replacing millstones.

There is a lot of involved detail in this — about individual companies, Quaker families, or customers for Simon complete roller plants, to list a few. That can easily be skipped over, however, and there is plenty of broader significance. Mills were among the largest early industrial enterprises in Ireland, with one mill in 1773 worth nearly £30,000. New technology was adopted from Germany, Hungary, and the United States as well as from Great Britain. The liberal free trade policy of the Cumann na nGaedheal government gave way to much greater regulation under Fianna Fáil, though industry cartels were important under both. And so forth.

The modern era has seen the rationalisation and concentration of Irish flour milling and its integration with baking and marketing, facing a reduction in per-capita flour consumption and a move away from home baking. Flour milling survives where other Irish industries such as linen and shipbuilding have failed, supplying two thirds of Ireland's flour in 2002.

Irish Flour Milling includes eight pages of colour plates, mostly of advertising posters, and a range of halftone photographs, mostly of buildings and mill equipment. There are thirty pages of notes and some appendices with reference material, but no index.

It is not going to be a bestseller — though I did pick up a remaindered copy from a shelf of books labelled "Irish Gifts" — but Irish Flour Milling offers connections beyond the narrow confines of Irish industrial history.

July 2011

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%T Irish Flour Milling
%S A History 600-2000
%E Bielenberg, Andy
%I Lilliput
%D 2003
%O paperback, halftones, colour photographs, notes
%G ISBN 1843510197
%P 215pp