Brownscastle Woollen Mills


Hilary Murphy

Only the ivy-lad skeletal walls remain to remind us of the once thriving Brownscastle Woollen Mills which were owned by the Fortune family and located beside the Aughnagroagh river in the townland of Mulmintra.

This indigenous rural industry operated successfully throughout the last century and for the first decade or so of the 1900s until economic circumstances forced its closure. Its product of durable clothing material gained international recognition and the award of a silver medal at the prestigious Dublin Textile Exhibition in 1897, as well as the highest certificate of merit for excellence in tweeds, home spuns and flannels at the New Ross Industrial Exhibition in 1905 testifies to its renown.

The water-powered mills were idyllically situated midst the sylvan splendour of the long river valley - a place that is still largely undiscovered and unspoilt, rich in history and tradition. It has a special association with St. Munn, the sixth century Irish saint after whom Taghmon is named.

Here are St. Munn's holy well and rock bed where the saint is reputed to have slept when taking a respite from his famous monastery and academy in Taghmon. It is said that if a person with an aching back lies on St. Munn's bed on three visits the pain will go away.

There are a number of other remarkable features about this beautiful place which was a hive of activity in the days of the woollen mills: it is the connecting point between five hills, five streams and five townlands while it also marks the boundary of two baronies.

The Fortune family acquired the property through the marriage of Edmund, a native of Carne, to the daughter and heiress of the previous owner, Mr. Howlett, who belonged to a prominent merchant family of New Ross. Edmund Fortune's two sons, Edmund Jr. and Thomas, who succeeded him in running the industry, earned a reputation for their hospitality and interest in the welfare of Taghmon parish.

They were also ardent businessmen, as was symbolised by the following notice, which they displayed in large white letters at the entrance to the woollen mills:

BUSINESS IS BUSINESS
NO ADMISSION EXCEPT ON BUSINESS
WHEN YOU DO YOUR BUSINESS,
GO ABOUT YOUR RUSINESS,
AND GIVE US TIME TO
DO OUR BUSINESS

So important were the Brownscastle Woollen Mills that The People Newspaper sent out a special representative to report on the operation in 1908 and the paper published his detailed description of the various processes of transforming the wool into clothing material.

'The mill itself,' he wrote, 'is an imposing old structure, built in the substantial style known to our early forefathers, whose faith was in fortresses and in strong, impregnable walls.' He observed that there was no slab to mark the date of the building, but learned that it had been in the Fortune family for more than a hundred years.

He noted that... 'the machinery, all of which is driven by water power, though not of the most modern type, is of very serviceable character, and some very fine tweeds, flannels, etc. pass through the looms'. He explained that Messrs Fortune... 'buy all their wool from the farmers in the surrounding country, thus circulating the money in the district in which they live.'

The reporter pointed out that the Fortunes insisted on getting the very best, with the result that their Brownscastle tweeds and serges were known not only all over Ireland, but in foreign counties as well... 'They send large quantities of it to private customers in Germany, Australia and England. It is worn even 'neath the burning suns of India, and where the broad Missouri flows. In every clime where a Wexford man has found a home the name of Brownscastle is known.'

It was not all a rosy story, however, with the writer noting that notwithstanding the high reputation enjoyed elsewhere by Brownscastle products...'at home in Wexford it does not get the measure of support that a local industry like it deserves.'

The attitude of the shopkeepers towards it was, he reported, 'peculiar, illogical and unreasonable', adding that they 'prevent tailors with whom they deal from contracting for the making of suits and other things direct with Fortunes.'

He complained further that... 'the flooding of the country with cheap English shoddy - for which the shopkeepers are also to a great extent to blame - militates greatly against a small home industry.'

Referring to the employees of the factory, the writer stated that he came up against...'some very quaint and interesting figures. They are weavers and wool-workers of the type I remember in my boyhood in the West of Ireland. These venerable old weavers I met at Brownscastle are a relic of that good old type, with their course frieze jackets and their soft hats tied over their heads with a piece of their own strong thread.'

'Generation after generation of them have been at the same work in the same firm, and one of them, a kindly visaged old man with venerable grey head, told me with tears in his dim old eyes, that his family had been connected with the place from his great-grandfather down, but that with his death the long connection would cease. He had brought in his son to teach him the trade, but the strapping young fellow preferred the free life in the open fields and went to work on the farms.'

Important outlets for the Brownscastle products were the Wexford Workhouse, the County Infirmary and the Shillelagh Union.

One local man who remembers the woollen mills in operation is 95-years-old Mike Waters. He told me how he used to go down to the mill as a young lad. Despite his venerable age he can still give a vivid description of what went on at the mills. He has a particular recollection of the 'tenters' used to stretch the blankets in the open, and of the tuckmill at the Fortune residence at Brownscastle, to where the material was brought from the mill to be finished off.

Mike remembers going up steps to a store where goods such as a pair of trousers and blankets could be bought. He also knew the last of the Fortune family and recalls that one of them was a bit irresponsible. The last of the family was Margaret Fortune who died in 1935. Another member of the family was Canon Martin Fortune who was parish priest of Killaveney when he died.

It is a long time now since the great mill wheel stopped turning and the once busy scene at the mill lapsed into a serene silence, except for the gurgling of the river and singing of the birds in springtime.

The Fortune residence at Brownscastle

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

John and Stella Cullen, Brownscastle, Taghmon.
The People Newspapers
Mike Waters