Industrial heritage, that is, the towpaths, railway bridges, mills, factories, quarries, dams, and so on, that bear testimony to the transport, manufacturing and communication advances made by past generations, is the Cinderella of architectural conservation, often neglected in favour more glamorous domestic and civic buildings. Ireland's industrial heritage dates back centuries, predating the Industrial Revolution, but many of its gems derive from the first half of the last century, such as the Rank Silo, a remnant of Limerick’s once-thriving milling industry.

The Rank Silo overlooking the docks in Limerick is one of the last surviving structures of Shannon Mills, at one time one of the largest flour milling complexes in Great Britain and Ireland. Joseph Rank Limited, today Rank Hovis McDougall (RHM which produces brands such as Hovis bread, Bisto and Mr Kipling cakes), was founded by Joseph Rank (1854-1943) in Hull in 1875 and expanded to Scotland and Ireland in the late 1920s. After a visit to Limerick, Rank decided that the city would make an ideal headquarters for the newly established Irish subsidiary, Rank (Ireland) Limited, and bought out the Goodbody Group in 1930.

As part of their takeover Rank acquired the City Mill, the Mallow Street Mill, the Mount Kennett Provender Mill and the Newtown Pery Mill in addition to numerous grain silos. The name Rank may not be familiar to some, but Joseph’s son Joseph Arthur Rank (1888- 1972) would catapult the name into popular culture. The Rank family were devout Methodists and used religious films in the 1930s to promote Christian principles to their church members and mill employees.

With his milling fortune Joseph Arthur Rank founded Pinewood Film Studios, near Slough, England, in 1938. Remember the strong man striking a gong that preceded the opening credits to their films? In Limerick, Joseph Arthur Rank also financed the re-fronting of the local Methodist church on O’Connell Street in 1938 to the designs of Clifford Smith & Newenham giving the city one of its few Art Deco façades.

Despite Rank’s numerous mill acquisitions in the city, it was decided that a new, modern mill on the docks was required to cut transportation costs.

Work on the construction of a suite of new grain silos began in earnest in early 1932, with the contractor using local labourers to carry out the work. The new silos would see steam power give way to electricity supplied by the new hydroelectric generating station at Ardnacrusha.

Pic © The Haselbeck Collection.
Reproduced by permission of Patricia Haselbeck Flynn

So, too, the bricks and stone of traditional mill buildings were replaced by innovative materials and construction techniques. The first silo swiftly grew from the ground using a system of reinforced concrete being poured around the clock, rising at a rate of four feet per day. However, the steel used to reinforce the concrete was in short supply and had to be sourced from across Europe.

The Silo we see today was completed in 1935 to meet the requirements of the government’s wheat-growing scheme and was 'fitted with up-to-date grain-handling machinery and plant for the drying of Irish wheat’ [1]. The design of the silo has been attributed to Beckett and Harrington (formed 1918) of Cork and Dublin with the attribution supported by a similar silo at the Marina Mills in Cork. An early and rare example of a ferro-cement or ferro-concrete building, the structure comprises concrete – cement, sand, and water – poured and set over a layer of metal mesh and closely-spaced thin steel rods.

The largely unadorned tower exemplifies early twentieth-century modernism, the celebration of function over form. The function of the interior space is clearly expressed on the exterior with a series of square openings at street level lighting the offices; vast expanses overhead devoid of openings but showing the rib-like concrete piers of the construction; and a series of paired oculi at the uppermost level.

Despite this, reference is still made (but only just) to Classicism, with the vertical divisions of base (plinth), centre (shaft) and top (capital) recalling the components of a fluted column. There is also a concession to ornamentation in the form of slightly elongated low relief raised lettering below the parapet, which unexpectedly shows the name not of Rank (Ireland) Limited but J. BANNATYNE & SONS LIMITED.

The full complement of silos was complete in 1937 with the resulting austere silhouette making a distinctive, if not always appreciated impression on the dockland skyline.

Ranks Mills were an important source of employment in Limerick throughout the 1940s and 1950s with five hundred permanent employees increased by a seasonal workforce of 1,000 during harvest. To the mid-twentieth century jobseeker in Limerick, the best jobs were in ‘Ranks or the banks’. In addition to contributing to the livelihood of the citizens, the Mills had a positive impact on the economy of the hinterlands, especially the wheat farmers.

Crucially, the Mills helped to keep the city and the country alive during the Second World War when food supplies could not be imported. However, profits began to fall in the 1960s and Ireland’s entry into the EEC in the 1970s saw the market for home produce dwindle in the face of cheaper imports. Rank (Ireland) Limited was forced to close in 1983.

The first silo was lost in the summer of 1989, although its demolition was not straightforward. The reinforced concrete proved remarkably resilient. The first attempt at demolition used 750lbs of Frangex explosives but caused the silo only to ‘quake’ (2). On the second attempt, using 850lbs of explosives, the structure ‘just jumped ten feet in the air and sat down’ (3).

The attempted demolition in 1989

Its jaunty 75-degree angle quickly earned it the soubriquet The Leaning Tower of Limerick. Adopting a less-is-more approach, the third attempt used 450lbs of Frangex ‘but did not appear to have the slightest effect on the stubborn silo’ (4). The silo eventually succumbed to the wrecker’s ball in July 1989, witnessed by a huge crowd.

Although finding a new purpose for the silo continues to challenge, it stands resolutely overlooking the docks as a monument to Limerick’s proud legacy as an important industrial centre of Ireland. Despite being built for a specific purpose, restored these industrial sites make great tourist and educational attractions. No longer should they not remain silent and bereft of life in our cities and towns.

(1) "Limerick’s New Silo" in The Irish Times (9th August 1935)

(2) "Blast it! A damp squib" in Limerick Leader (20th May 1989)

(3) "Now It’s The Leaning Tower Of Limerick" in Limerick Leader (3rd June 1989)

(4) "Big Bang fails to finish Ranks" in Limerick Leader (June 1989)