Turtle Bunbury

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Memories of ‘The Chief’

When Éamon de Valera completed his second term as President of Ireland in 1973, one of the first places he visited was Boland’s Bakery by the Grand Canal Docks. Fifty-seven years earlier, the venerable Irish statesman had commanded the 100-strong 3rd Battalion of the Irish Volunteers who occupied the building throughout the Easter Rising of 1916. The young mathematician was the last of the rebel Commandants to surrender to the British. As with all battalion commandants, he was tried by court martial and sentenced to death. The executions of the ringleaders earlier in the week had a marked effect on public opinion and de Valera's death sentence was consequently commuted to penal servitude for life. Although his garrison did not see anything like as much action as those in the city centre, de Valera's men racked up a high tally of enemy casualties. Indeed, by dint of their defense of Mount Street Bridge, they inflicted the heaviest casualties on the British Army of all the Irish garrisons that fought that week.

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Just over two centuries ago, the area around Boland’s was a boggy marshland of limited use to anyone but a duck. All that changed in 1796 with the opening of the Grand Canal Docks, the largest, most cutting edge docks the world had yet seen. Although the docks did not fulfil the grand ambitions of their designer, its quaysides have almost always been commercially desirable.

In the 1830s, the eastern quays provided a perfect location for Thomas Pim, an enterprising Quaker, to establish a substantial flour mills with a direct connection to the Grand Canal and, by extension, the Irish countryside. He built the two austere, cut-stone mini-skyscrapers that most Dubliners would today recognise as ‘Boland’s.’ An indication of the immense size of Pim’s mill is that it had 250 wooden windows, with excellent views over MacMahon Bridge and the Grand Canal Dock. The mill was powered by a condensing steam engine, installed in 1846 by the eminent Scottish engineer Sir William Fairbairn. Some of the old wooden hoppers and milling machines are still present within the building.

In 1873 Pim sold the flour mills to Patrick Boland, owner of one of Dublin’s oldest and best-known bakeries on Capel Street. The family bakery was started in 1823 by Patrick’s father, another Patrick Boland, who was an intimate friend of Daniel O’Connell and lived at Watermill, Raheny. The older Patrick amassed a considerable fortune by the time of his death aged 80 in 1871 and was renowned for his generosity and patriotism. ‘As an employer he had few superiors - as an Irishman, none,’ remarked the Freeman’s Journal. On the day that he was laid to rest in a family vault next to O’Connell’s tomb in Glasnevin, every business in Dollymount, Clontarf and Capel Street closed in his honour.

When his only son Patrick took over Pim's Mills in 1873, there were 23 pairs of milling stones. He quickly added another 18 pairs, to make it the one of the largest mills in Ireland.

The Bakery

In 1874, Patrick Boland erected the City of Dublin Bakery just south of the mills, where the principal bread ovens were kept for bread baking and biscuit production. The Boland's Bakery was located on Grand Canal Street by Maquay Bridge, where Treasury Building stands today. It was one of the city's oldest and best known bakeries.It rapidly became ‘a hive of industry’, employing an ‘an army of workpeople’ to distribute the popular Boland's loaf.


Tragically, Patrick died of acute rheumatism aged 36 in 1877, leaving a widow, Mary, and seven children. When Mary also died young in 1882, management of the Boland’s enterprise passed to her brother PJ Donnelly while another brother, Dr. Nicholas Donnelly, Catholic Bishop of Canea, took on the orphaned children. One of these orphans grew up to become the tennis legend John Pius Boland, who won two Olympic medals in 1896 and later became an MP for South Kerry.

In 1880 Boland’s became the first flour mill in the world to use the new automatic roller system devised by the milling engineer J. H. Carter. Soaring profits were further boosted in 1888 when a siding connected the bakery to the nearby Dublin-Kingstown railway line which, owing to the new Loopline Bridge across the Liffey, enabled them to dispatch bread across Ireland via the Great Southern and Western, Midland, and Great Northern Railway lines. That same year, Boland’s was incorporated as a limited liability company, with a share capital of £205,000.

By 1911 they were grounding 202,779 barrels of flour annually at the mill, primarily for the home-baking trade.

Taking Control

While the rebel leaders of 1916 were planning their coup, they recognized that taking power of both the Bakery and Mill was strategically vital. From here they could defend the three bridges over the Grand Canal - at Ringsend, Grand Canal Street and Lower Mount Street - thus controlling the Canal entrance to Dublin Port. They would also have a key vantage point over the railway lines to the south from Sandymount to Westland Row railway station, and the main road from Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) to the city centre, Kingstown being the port through which British reinforcements would arrive. Furthermore, the position would allow the rebels to 'dominate' the British Military Barracks at Beggers Bush. Shortly after noon on Easter Monday 1916, de Valera and approximately one hundred members of the third Battalion stormed the Boland's premises and told all the bakers to take a half-day. A significant number of Volunteers and Officers did not show up, in part due to the confusion arising from Eoin MacNeill's cancellation of the planned military maneuvers and mobilization orders planned for Easter Sunday in preparation for the insurrection. The men were poorly armed; about half had modern single shot rifles, many would make do with shotguns and old pistols, some even brought pickaxes and pikes. De Valera quickly established his own headquarters in the dispensary beside the bakery. He ordered the removal of essential parts from the gas works and the electricity supply station in Ringsend, thus cutting off the gas supply and immobilizing the electric trams. He also arranged that horses belonging to the bakery were fed and stabled.

Having secured the buildings, de Valera sent sizeable detachments to set up an outpost in the Westland Row railway station. The Volunteers quickly ripped out the railway tracks leading to Kingstown to prevent troop trains getting too close. Other men were sent to Mount Street Bridge and other positions covering the entrance to Beggar's Bush Barracks on Haddington Road. De Valera did not realize that the Barracks were in fact nearly empty. Due to a lack of manpower de Valera’s Battalion was unable to organize scouting parties; this was to prove a great weakness in the preparations for the forthcoming battle.

The Battle of Mount Street.

On Wednesday 26th April 1916, some 2000 British troops came marching up Northumberland Road from Dun Laoghaire, two battalions of the Sherwood Foresters headed for the GPO. As they approached Mount Street Bridge, they came in for a big surprise. De Valera had studied military manuals and had surveyed the Westland Row and Grand Canal district in the weeks preceding the Rising. He had considered the military possibilities on several occasions and now his planning and dedication was to pay off. The Volunteers at Mount Street Bridge secured perfect positioning for a cross-fire ambush. Lieutenant Mick Malone and Section Commander Jimmy Grace, occupied an evacuated mansion at 25 Northumberland Road. Four Volunteers were in the Parochial Hall opposite, seven in the old Clanwilliam House and four in Roberts Yard. (Contrary to popular belief, none of them were stationed in The Schoolhouse).[2] British attempts to charge the rebels proved utterly suicidal. In a battle that ultimately lasted from noon to 8pm, 234 British officers and men were killed or wounded, marking almost half of the total British Military losses for the whole week of the Rising. Only four Volunteers were killed in the same battle. During the early part of the action, Mick Malone slipped down to the battalion HQ in the Bakery he told de Valera that they would need a fast firing weapon urgently. The bespectacled Commandant unbuckled his own Mauser, handed it over with 400 rounds of ammo and said 'Sorry I cannot do more for you'. When the superior British firepower eventually overwhelmed the Volunteers, Malone was among the four killed in the final assault, but Grace managed to escape. A Memorial to the slain Volunteers stands by the bridge today; there is no record of the unfortunate Forresters who perished.

Reluctant Surrender

The following day, the British gunboat Helga sailed up the Liffey and, fresh from its destruction of Liberty Hall, began shelling Boland's Bakery and Mill. A second naval gun was taken ashore from the Helga and set up in Percy Place close to the complex. De Valera deftly neutralized the danger by having a rebel flag flown from a nearby distillery which attracted most of the subsequent shelling. An interesting memo survives, written by de Valera to the intelligence officer urging that permission be given to provide food and water to the ninety van horses used by the Bakery. However, with the British focus now on the GPO and the Four Courts, there was no concerted assault on the Boland's Bakery area. By the Friday, the rebels at Boland's had seen little action. All week they had expected a major assault by the British but it just hadn't happened. De Valera ordered some of his men out to a nearby railway embankment where they silently watched the city burning to the west. [3] The garrison held out until Sunday when a nurse, Elizabeth O'Farrell, of Cumann na mBan, the women's auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers, brought the news of the general surrender. She handed de Valera the order of surrender signed by P.H. Pearse. At first de Valera thought it might not be genuine but might be a British ploy to end the battle. When he was finally convinced the order came from Pearse, and that he should obey it, he ordered all arms held by the Volunteers to be put out of action in case they be of use to the enemy. None of the Volunteers were willing to carry the white flag of surrender so a Red Cross worker was persuaded to hold it aloft while de Valera's vice-commandant, Joesph O'Connor, marched his men out of the Bakery. Flanked by British soldiers, they marched to Grattan Street where the order was given to ‘ground arms’. It galled de Valera to see the local people coming out from their homes to offer cups of tea to the British soldiers while ridiculing the Volunteers for their actions. When the British led de Valera out from the Mills, he murmured to the crowd outside: ‘if only you had come out though armed with hay forks only'.[4] Commandant de Valera was court martialed on Monday 8th May 1916 and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. History suggests that de Valera’s US citizenship worked in his favour but, according to his authorised biography, 'he did not make any claim on the basis of American citizenship. When questioned, he stated that he understood that he was born in New York, but he could not say whether his father was a Spanish subject or a naturalised American citizen. On one point he was firm. He said that he always regarded himself as an Irishman and not a British subject'. [5] Among the other men who fought alongside de Valera at Boland's Mill was Sean MacMahon, later Chief of Staff, for whom MacMahon Bridge was named.


By 1921, Boland’s flour output had declined by 50% from its 1911 peak. However, it was still one of Dublin’s biggest bakeries. The flour mills also continued to dominate and some may recall the three industrial Gotham-like silos of reinforced concrete, built in the 1940s, that used to tower over the mill until their demolition for redevelopment in 2016.

The fate of the original bakery is unknown. The present structure is based on a 1948 functionalist design by John Stevenson (1890-1950) of Samuel Stevenson & Sons, Belfast. (See also Wiggins Teape). He visited the building, then under construction, shortly before his death in 1950.[6] Some years ago, Stevenson's building was stripped back to its structure and converted into the Treasury Building on Lower Grand Canal Street. The Bakery was notable for the giant lettering and the drama of it wine-coloured curved wall, now replicated at the end of Macken Street.

Janey Mary

Between 1946-48 Boland's Mills, Dublin's largest flour mills went on strike. The only people who had bread were those who could make it themselves, or the various organisations of the Catholic Church who handed it out in rations to the poor. Such desperate times inspired Dublin author James Plunkett to write his short story 'Janey Mary'. The inspiration for a 2007 short film by writer/ director Paul Brady, 'Janey Mary' tells the story of a young five year old girl sent out by her mother onto the cold, wet winter streets of 1940's Dublin to beg for food. In the mad scramble for food she is crushed by a mob and left for dead, only to be saved by an Augustinian priest.

Modern Times

In 1984, the Boland Mills, then in receivership, was acquired by IAWs. It was subsequently sold to developer Sean Kelly of Benton Properties. Plans to develop the mills as a triple-tower multi-storey hotel and office complex, complete with public plaza and a Gary Rhodes restaurant, were turned down in October 2007. Boland’s subsequently passed to NAMA, who appointed Savills as receivers to the project.

The historic mill-buildings are presently being restored to original splendour. In May 2018, the entirety of the sprawling Nama-owned Boland's complex was purchased for around €300 million by the tech giant Google, which has its European headquarters on nearby Barrow Street. Designed by Dublin-based architects Burke-Kennedy Doyle, the new Boland’s Quay will embrace a series of new office and apartment blocks, as well as shops and a civic plaza opening onto the Grand Canal Dock. When complete, it will accommodate up to 2,500 workers. Included in the sale are the two landmark, six-storey towers of Boland's Flour Mill and a pair of Regency houses facing on to Barrow Street dating from before 1838, where the mills’ company directors and their families once lived., Google were also set to buy the Treasury Building on Grand Canal Street, which occupies the very spot where the celebrated Boland's Bakery once stood.

Thanks to Michael Purcell, Maria O'Brien and Ros Dee.


[1] Access to the building is by Number 1 Barrow Street (now #33), an old Georgian house currently under renovation.

[2] St. Stephens Schoolhouse, now "The Schoolhouse Hotel" on the south east side of Mount St. Bridge. Construction started in 1859 and opened in 1861. It was closed in1969 by the department of education and was idle till 1997 when it was bought by the Sweeney Hotel Group.

[3] 2nd Lieutenant Seán Costello of Athlone died of wounds received in action while on dispatch duty at Bolands Mills. Among others killed was Peadar Macken (Alderman), an ardent Gaelic revivalist, as well as a Labour leader. 'He founded the St. Patrick's Branch of the Gaelic League, and as a student of Irish he held many distinctions. He was an effective public speaker, wrote forcibly and was elected on the Labour ticket to the Dublin Corporation as Alderman for the North Dock Ward. He was accidentally shot in the fighting at Boland's Mills'. Like Mick Malone, he is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

[4] Eamon de Valera, O'Neill, Thomas P, & Longford, Earl of.

[5] Ibid. When relatives sought President Wilson's intervention to have Dev's life sentence reduced a few weeks later, the State Dept. replied: 'The fact that Mr de Valera may be an American citizen constitutes no reason for clemency in his case, or for a request by this Government for clemency on the part of the British Government'. (Frank L. Polk, Acting Secretary of State, to Senator J. W. Wadsworth July 14th 1916).

[6] Samuel Stevenson & Sons was established in 1886. Stevenson's obituary in the RIAI Yearbook records that he led an AAI site visit to Boland's, then under construction, just months before his death. It was constructed by Crampton. Stevenson, who was president of the RSUA from 1939 until 1943, was a regular visitor to Dublin, where he also designed the recently knocked Wiggins Teape Building on East Wall Road.


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