Wednesday 20 March 2019

Pioneering spirit in Balbriggan

Robert O'HARA, Archer Heritage Planning

THE origin of settlement within Balbriggan owes much to the pioneering spirit of the late 18th century. In 1659, Balbriggan was a tiny hamlet with a population of thirty people, centred on two holdings, the 'great farme' and ' little farme' totaling some 220 acres. These were the property of the Barnewall family, of Anglo-Norman descent and lords of Bremore, Balrothery and Balbriggan from the end of the fourteenth century. They retained extensive estates in the area until the eighteenth century. Much of the Barnehall holdings were sold by the early eighteenth century, with Balbriggan purchased in 1736 by Alexander Baron Hamilton, a solicitor and MP for Killelagh, Co Derry, who also held land around Balrothery.

Balbriggan at this time was a town in unchecked decline with a population of just a dozen or so inhabitants earning their livelihoods from fishing. Hamilton built a residence at Hampton Hall but died in 1759.

His successor and son, George, was distinguished for his promotion of trade and between 1761 and 1765 had constructed Balbriggan harbour with the assistance of parliamentary grants and his own capital, funded through personal loans and re-mortgaged properties. The harbour was a success, however, and quickly established itself as fishing and trade. A lighthouse was added in 1769 and the northern jetty was completed by 1829.

Crucially, George Hamilton enlarged and centralised a local cottage industry in cotton fabrics, constructing two large cotton mills during the 1780s, again part funded by government subsidies that were intended to decentralise the textile industry throughout the countryside.

By the time of George's death in 1793, the town thronged with smiths, weavers, tailors, butchers, brewers, and spinners, all attracted to Balbriggan by mills, and which spurred growth into the nineteenth century.

By the 1830s, the town was home to over 3,000 inhabitants in 600 houses. Three hundred people were employed in the factories, and a further 942 were employed in and around the town working hand looms. As the modern inhabitants of the town know to well, economic fortunes change, and by the end of the 1830s a decline in the revenues for the fishing and cotton industry, causing factory closures and job losses preceded the devastation of the Famine in the late 1840s.

• Robert O'Hara is an archaeologist and a director of Archer Heritage Planning Ltd, Balbriggan. Contact him at or 01-8020403.