Photographs by James Fennell.
Eoin O’Toole is a man of considerable energy. He owns and runs what is rightly called The Old Mill, a five story ancient mill situated on the banks of the Liffey near Rathangan, County Kildare. The Old Mill has enjoyed a busy life since it was first erected by Norman settlers in the 13th century. Bad times befell it during the 1640s when Cromwell’s forces attacked it with their canons but there were good times too, such as when its owners in the early 19th century fitted state of the art industrial machinery to the premises. By 1987 the Mill must have thought seriously about collapsing into rubble. It had been abandoned for decades, the floors were rotten, the walls cracked, the rafters sodden, the machinery in tatters. And then Eoin O’Toole came along and bought the whole lot.
His subsequent achievement has been nothing short of immense. It is, as always, a joy to see a piece of living history restored. O’Toole understands the past. He is an avid follower of all things Celtic, particularly music, art and the ritual celebrations of the solar cycle. The Old Mill now operates a venue for like-minded souls. They come to compose and perform, to paint and write, to relax and be merry. Seamus Heaney wrote and recorded some poems here. Finnish artist Tuija Vajaranta paints from within, Tommy Hayes, Tony McMahon and Steve Cooney unite for trad seisiuns regularly, Glen Hansard played Easter Saturday, Maria Doyle Kennedy is on for the 9th May. There’s a benefit gig for Mongolian children on the 3rd May. And they’ll all be lighting a massive bonfire on May Day to kick start the Bealtana Festival. This is a venue to keep an eye on.
O’Toole deserves considerable credit for his efforts. The restoration required a massive effort. “It was in extremely bad condition when I got it”, he admits. “The building had been run into the ground and we were left with a very delicate structure. We had to take all the weight off the wall and transfer it to the foundation stones. This was achieved by installing a mass concrete support in the ground floor, which was then attached to the walls. Another major job was fixing the wooden floors which had to be gutted throughout and replaced with pine because they were completely rotten”.
He was also determined to keep all the original machines and, in time, to restore them too. “Where there was existing machinery, we worked around it. The millrace was quite difficult to restore because it was completely blocked. In all, we removed 22 truckloads of silt which allowed the water to come in”.
The millrace, millwheel and other milling equipment are now working so well the O’Toole’s are occasionally wont to make their own bread. His ambition is to tackle the last remaining industrial relic in the summer – a winnowing machine on the 5th floor. In total there are 18 rooms spread over 5 floors of a structure with two wings. The structure is as open and uncluttered as the regulars; a productive fun-loving ambience wafts upon the study rafters. An artist in his own right, O’Toole concedes that he hasn’t had much time for painting on canvass. “I have been so busy. I guess this building is my art!”
This article appeared in The Irish Times Magazine in April 2004.