Dripsey Paper Mills

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Dripsey's Famous Paper Mills
This article was written by Tim Sheehan, and published in The Holly Bough in 1979
The article has been reproduced here in its original form so that the author's personal relationship with the subject will not be compromised in any way.
There is abundant evidence, both from the ruins of once flourishing factories and from documentary facts that the Dripsey-Blarney district was one of the most industrialised in the South of Ireland during the latter part of the 1700s and the early 1800s.
In the late 1700s, England, in competition with France and Spain, was using every artifice and trick-of-the-trade in the fight for the top place in the world of trade, and perhaps quietly, a blind eye was turned to the upswing in Ireland. At any rate, there is factual evidence to show that the principal character in this article, J.B O’Sullivan of Dripsey, was a well-established, esteemed manufacturer by 1798.
Luke Gardiner’s second Catholic Relief Act of 1782 which permitted Catholics to purchase and inherit land and property, and the subsequent success of Grattan’s Parliament, not only relaxed religious and economic impositions opf the penal laws, but also led to an enduring period of prosperity. In this upsurge, Dripsey Paper Mills came into existence and developed into one of the most famous industries in the south, involving some illustrious persons of world fame.
James B O’Sullivan, known as Jimmy Bat, a name still spoken of in legend in the Dripsey countryside, must have been a genius in his own right even though he was reported to be a dull eccentric boy when at school, both at the hedge school of the day and at Fr Reddington’s Academy near Cove. We find him in the closing years of the 1700s in manufacturing association with James St John Jeffries, son of the man who owned Blarney Castle and estate before the Colthursts. The industries in which O’Sullivan was connected in the area included a cotton mill, flax and hemp spinning mill, linen mill, mill that turned out sheeting, camp equippage, sail cloth and bagging and, finally, paper mills, both hand and machine operated, including one at Healy’s Bridge run by his father, Bartholomew.
Up-to-date machinery
O’Sullivan opened Dripsey Mills in the early 1800s and installed the most modern machinery of the day, the invention of a Frenchman named Didot, which was perfected by Fourdininers of London at a cost of £60,000. Didot’s machine made paper in continuous sheets, constituting a big change from the process up to then of sheets only three feet long, 18 inches wide. The new machinery made Dripsey famous, as it was the first in the south to make such paper and much of it went to England. Perhaps it was through Fourdininers that O’Sullivan made contact with a French expert who made another breakthrough in Dripsey, namely producing ruled paper. France, up to the time of the Revolution, was the most advanced country in paper-making in Western Europe, which explains the ingenuity of this Frenchman during his stay in Dripsey. The sap of the red willow, a tree that grew in abundance on both banks of the Dripsey River, formed the main colour constituent of the formula he used for lining paper. He also devised a colouring process for the Bank of England notes made at Dripsey for the Treasury in London. This third breakthrough attracted the curiosity of some of the leading political and civil figures including the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Christopher Magnay. The Magnays had property interests in Ireland and at the time had an office in Winthrop Street, Cork.
The Mill Complex
Dripsey Paper Mills complex involved about six acres. In addition to the mill building there were stone-built passages, store houses, dams and water conduits, fed from a large pond to the west of the mill. The pond was a back-up from the dam on the Dripsey River close to the paper mill and, to this day, the pond field, directly in front of the present Dripsey National School, is often referred to as Blackpool Field. There were two entrances, one for the many carters who brought rags daily to the mill, the other being (in modern parlance) the entrance to the executive block. The carters, on entering the eastern entrance, travelled along a passage on which there were several gate pillars and store houses before they reached the boiler house. At the western end the three-acre pond in Blackpool Field fed a big millwheel at the mouth of the long millrace.
Blackpool Village
“Blackpool” was the nickname given to the village of mainly mudwall houses that cropped up in the townland of Agharinagh immediately west of the paper mills and housed many of the workers. There were some stone-built houses, too, in the three-quarter of a mile stretch of “Blackpool”, along the main road, and a hedge school. There were also some scattered houses on the other side of the road. Closer to the paper mills there was one authorised public house, and two sheebeens.
Unconfirmed traditional accounts of the workforce at the paper mills give the workforce as 400; but the wages book from which we copied some years ago, give only the following names of workers:
Con Sullivan, Pat Sullivan, Michael Brennan, Jerry Murphy, Tade Carty, Jerry Leary, Tom Twomey, Owen Keeffe, Michael Casey, Pat Brennan, John Barry, Morgan Twomey, John Murphy, Con Brennan, John Brennan, Paddy Murphy, Con Brennan, Jerry Crowley, Joe Sullivan, Joe Sweeney, Ned Sweeney, John Brennan, Richard Beasley, Jerry Murphy, Richard Nagle, William Barrett, John Hall, Peter McCarthy, Frank Brennan, John Haly, James Roche, William Mahony, Jerry Carthy, Dan Long, Con Haly, John Ring, Paddy Brien, Pat Hallasy, Tom Hall, John Carthy, William Murphy, Frank Blake, Denis Murphy, Ned Coleman, Jerry Cronin, John Twomey, James Roche, Andy Blake, Mary Brennan, Tom Drummy, Con Corcoran, William Blake, Jack Keeffe, Denis Cronin, Jerry Reilly, Dan Reilly, Dan Brien, Con Hegarty, Frank Roche, John Long,Thade Sullivan, W Castlewood, John Magee, Mary Haly, Timothy Sullivan, Jerry Dilworth, Mary Long and J Haslewood (68).
Royal Agricultural Society
James B O’Sullivan had stables on the farm now owned by Mr Jimmy Ring, beside Dripsey School. About the year 1812 he leased a farm of 207 acres at Agharinagh, known as the Acres. On the farm today are two family owners named Murphy and Ryan. In 1813 O’Sullivan held a monster ploughing rally and invited many guests to a big party. Ostensibly his motive was what we now call a sales promotion, to induce the owners of big houses to replace linen tableclothes with his continuous sheet paper coloured and decorated for the purpose. At that time there were signs of a fall-off in London of Dripsey paper, due to competition, and O’Sullivan’s ingenious mind was at work to open alternative avenues of trade.
The farming venture led him to become a member of the Royal Agricultural Society and he was thus accepted into the best circles in England. The Duke of Bedford and others invited him to their tables.
The Stephensons
The years of depression which followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars caused O’Sullivan to lease Dripsey Paper Mills to Sir Christopher Magnay in 1820. Magnay was Lord Mayor of London in 1822 -23. The changeover, and perhaps other factors, caused resentment at the mills, resulting in industrial unrest and serious damage to the machinery.
The world-famous steam locomotive builder George Stephenson and his son, Robert, visited Dripsey Paper Mills in 1823 to inspect the damage. That was six years before Stephenson’s locomotive started to run on rails, and one may be permitted to wonder if he entertained any visions while in Dripsey of steam locomotives hauling thre Muskerry Light Railway over hill and vale in the Dripsey countryside sixty years later!
I have at hand a long list of components supplied from Stephenson’s Newcastle factory to Dripsey Paper Mills between December 1823 and August 1827, but I feel that a brief reference to Stephenson himself is more interesting than enumerating the replacement parts he supplied to Dripsey.
In the evolution of locomotives there were many improvements to the first steam engine invented by a Derby blacksmith, Thomas Newcomen; notable by James Watt and George Stephenson. As a boy, the latter received little or no schooling, having worked for neighbouring farmers up to the age of fourteen when he started to help his father as assistant fireman to a large stationery engine at a coal mine.But he attended a night school run by a poor teacher near the colliery. Later on he made a steam engine that was capable of drawing a load of thirty tons up a steep hill at a speed of four miles per hour. When it was agreed to construct a railway between Liverpool and Manchester there was a suggestion that the carriages would be pulled by horses, just like the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Finally the directors agreed to try a locomotive and offered a prize of £500 to anyone who could build an engine which would not weigh more than six tons and run at a rate of ten miles an hour. George Stephenson and his son, Robert, set to work to win the prize.
October 4th, 1829, was the date set for the trial of the three models built by three different competitors. The first, “Novelty”, broke down after running twice over the track. The second, “Sanspareil”, ran eight times over the track and also broke down; “Rocket”, the locomotive invented by the Stephensons, ran 15 times over the track at a speed of never less than 12 miles per hour and at times reaching a speed of 22 miles per hour. George Stephenson won the prize. The following year, 1830, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened and, during the next 100 years, trains everywhere were being hauled by steam engines evolved by Stephensons.
Another Change at Dripsey
Some years ago I copied from the first post office directory published for the year 1841-42, the names of the persons in the Dripsey, Inniscarra, Coachford and Donoughmore areas who were entitled to receive letters. At that time only subscribers were assured of receiving post. I failed to find the name of James B O’Sullivan. But the name of Matt Twogood was listed as manager of Dripsey Paper Mills. I am not sure where O’Sullivan was in 1841. From documentary evidence I am pretty sure that Alfred Greer, who lived at Dripsey House quite close to the paper mills, leased them from Sir William Magnay, a son, I presume, of Christopher Magnay, and was doing business there in 1850. Having failed to continue as a commercial undertaking, Dripsey paper mills died a lingering death of intermittent stoppages and finally closed in 1864.
James B O’Sullivan lived a high life for some years in London, where he died after a period in a mental hospital. His life story reminds us of the phrase “Genius is akin to madness”. He was survived by a brilliant son, William Kirby O’Sullivan, who was born in Dripsey in 1826. A specialist in chemistry, WK pioneered the development of the sugar content in beet, long before sugar factories were thought of in Ireland. He was at one time Professor of Chemistry at the Catholic University, and in 1872 he was appointed President of Queen’s University College, Cork (now UCC) in succession to the first President, Sir Robert Kane. O’Sullivan held the position until his death in 1890.
The flooding of the Lee Valley in 1957, following the completion of Inniscarra hydro electric station, submerged the ruins of the once-famous Dripsey Paper Mills.
One hundred years before that Dripsey Pond had disappeared with the closure of the mills. Subsequently, “Blackpool Village”, with its hedge school, crumbled and disappeared. The only remaining link with the famed Dripsey industry and its founder, James B O’Sullivan, are the samples of paper, carefully stacked away in some homes in Dripsey, and still in excellent condition after much more than a century.