While most Dubliners are unfamiliar with their name and trade today, the Roe family have contributed significantly to the city of Dublin. They not alone funded the restoration of the magnificent Christchurch Cathedral, but their now-defunct distillery on Thomas Street was home to the largest smock windmill in Europe.
Saint Patrick watches over us from Thomas Street, though many may never have noticed him, resting on top of Saint Patrick’s Tower. The Irish Times noted in 1929 that this was then “the largest Pot Still Distillers in the world”, and Saint Patrick rests on top of a windmill that formed a part of that premises.
Writing in 1965, John McCaffery noted that “from the street the figure (of Saint Patrick) looks comparatively insignificant, but it is actually 4 feet in height. The tower itself is 135 feet high and the width of the base is 70 feet.”
The Roe family, who owned the distillery, are hugely important in the history of the city. Their contribution to Dublin was the major restoration of Christchurch in the late nineteenth century. It should be remembered that Guinness, located just across the street from the Roe’s at Saint James’ Gate, had funded the restoration works at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. In 1871 George Roe offered to fund the restoration of Christchurch and the construction of a new synod hall, with leading architect George Edmund Street employed for the task. The sheer scale of this project is evident from Archiseek, where it is noted:
The Cathedral as it exists today is mainly Victorian due to the extensive restorations and renovations carried out by the English architect George Edmund Street in the 1870s. This cost over £230,000 and like the renovations at nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral was funded by a drink manufacturer – Dublin Whiskey Distiller Henry Roe who like Benjamin Guinness generously donated the entire cost.
The Roe Distillery was a powerhouse of industry in its day, at one stage boasting an enormous output that was said to be twice that of Jameson. The Ireland Whiskey Trail notes that:
Location certainly wasn’t a problem for this distillery. Located in the “golden triangle” of distilling in Dublin – an area south of the river Liffey, which included the John Power’s and William Jameson distilleries, as well as the Guinness brewery – it was also the biggest of all the Dublin distilleries, covering an unbelievable 17 acres, extending all the way to the Quays by the river Liffey.
Like almost every great landmark in Dublin, Pat Liddy sketched the windmill for his excellent ‘Dublin Today’ feature in The Irish Times. His sketch appeared in the paper in 1988:
How old is the windmill within the Roe Distillery? John McCaffery wrote in his 1965 article that “according to the date, 1805, cut in the headpiece of the door, the windmill was built 160 years ago.” Others however have dated it much earlier, with the Ireland Whiskey Trail claiming that “This smock windmill – quite possibly the oldest of its kind in Europe – was built in 1757, the same year Peter Roe bought his original distillery”. There seems to be common agreement that it dates from that period of the eighteenth century.
It’s ironic than when the Roe Distillery ultimately closed in the 1940s, it was purchased by none other than Guinness. Today, it sits on Guinness property, and it is of course no longer functional. In eighteenth century Dublin it would have been just one of a number of windmills within the city, with another found in the grounds of the Rotunda for example.