"The merry shuttle's song is replaced by the bough of the wind through tenantless streets"(Power 1910: pg 61) Portlaw as a village came to be effected by the ebb and flow of industrial life, this was true in the nineteenth century and still is true today. The demise of the cotton factory in Portlaw inevitably brought about the demise of Portlaw itself. In 1871 the population for the town itself was 3,774,and by 1881,this had fallen to 1,891 and by 1891 it had dropped to 1,394. The village had lost in the space of twenty years over half it's population. This demise alone is exemplified by the number of houses uninhabited in 1891- 144 in total, with only 308 inhabited. By 1901 from a numistic point of view, it was more depressing with some streets like George Street for example, had out of a total of 55 houses, 11 inhabited. Just as many writers were to refer in their works to the success of Portlaw, they were also to paint graphic and detailed pictures of the village as it reclined and died. The Malcolmsons in setting up their cotton factory had injected vitality into the small village, and now more than, fifty to eighty years later, it was reverting to its old position - destitute and deserted. One newspaper in 1904 referred to it as "one of the severest industrial vicissitudes befell a community".
What caused this downfall? Many interrelated factors contributed to the failure of the cotton factory and subsequently to the demise of the village. The severest blow to the industry was the American Civil War. President Lincoln enforced a naval blockade but the Malcolmsons ran the blockade and supplied large amounts of cotton goods to the south. However, it was the losing side that they backed and when the war came to an end around 1874, the bills due to the Malcolmsons became valueless, and as a result they owed large amounts of money to the banks. The Portlaw factory was not the only one to suffer. W.O. Henderson, when speaking of the cotton famine on the Continent, mentions how Napoleon alarmed at the shortage of cotton urged his country to abolish the blockade and recognise the south.
This, however, was only one blow which befell the industry in the 1870's. Joseph Malcolmson died in 1858. This became a double tragedy as his wife withdrew her share. Subsequently Joseph's son David died at an early age, leaving only one child, and his wife began court proceedings to have her sons' share withdrawn. Also one of the banks that the Malcolmsons did business with crashed in 1866. As mentioned already water transport was an essential ingredient in the success of the Malcolmsons project and consequently the factory. With the advent of the twentieth century, the development of railway transport destroyed the profitability of the river as speed became significant. Also subsequent improved transport facilities opened up the Suir valley to competition from Britain, coinciding with this, Britain at that time, was benefiting from up to date mills and new technology. All these factors combined together led to the inevitable failure of the cotton industry in Portlaw.
The Malcolmsons did not, however, depart Portlaw as soon as their business interests failed. Just as they had built homes for their employees, they also had built many large mansions for themselves in Portlaw and they were not in a position to just leave their homes. Also they did not desert their workers. They found alternative employment for many in mills in England and Scotland and some even went to America. The factory was then reorganised into the Portlaw Spinning Company. This offered limited employment to a number of persons. However, disaster was also to strike this industry. In 1897 it failed due to the introduction of the McKinley Tariff. This tariff raised the import duty on cotton goods into America from 35% to 55%. Weaving as a result was abandoned and then nine years later in 1904 spinning was abandoned. "The last bobbin ceased to revolve in 1904" (Power 1910: pg 64)
After this, a large portion of the factory was converted into Mayfield Dairy Company. The houses on Green Island, which at this point in time were deserted, were converted into piggeries. As one writer put it
"Alas! it's sun has set, it's glory in decay gone down! It's rows of fine houses are turned to piggeries for the hogs, a thousand odd that are being fattened in the Hayfield Dairy Company" (Power 1910: pg 62). With the start of World War in 1914, this was also to close. It was the end, depression struck Portlaw, as one newspaper said in 1937, it was avoided like the very devil. Portlaw became known to many as "the lost city". Then in 1932, life came back to Portlaw; it was decided to utilise the disused factory as a tan yard. A factory was the cause of Portlaw's notoriety, it's despair and destitution and now over fifty years later a factory was to bring back prosperity in the form of Irish Tanners Limited. Once again Portlaw was to be reborn and once again it's association and landmark was industry. Just as the cotton factory failed, so did the Tannery. Today Portlaw's population is falling once more. The factory still affords limited employment to a small number by means of the international Hide and Skin group.
Portlaw's glory has certainly gone and all that remains is a shadow of what once was a vibrant living place. Today it serves more as a commuter town to nearby Waterford city, than anything else. Portlaw is in essence an industrial village; it was built to serve the needs of an industrial populace. Settlement in the village is not centred around a church or a landlord's domain. It is orientated towards the square, which in turn leads to the gates of a disused dead factory.
How ironic and desperate Portlaw's situation is today, is evinced by the above caption alone. It was obtained from the Cork Examiner, October 22nd, 1987. It reads "Portlaw Paradise for the Elderly". The solution of Portlaw's depravity an upmarket leisure complex for wealthy retired people, situated on the forty-acre derelict site of the factory and Mayfield House: What an epithat to a once highly industrial society. Where once, the merry shuttle was heard and thousands of fingers went nimbly about their work.
Portlaw's partial fame and wealth lie buried in the nineteenth century. Today all that remains is the imposing edifice of a disused factory and a unique web of streets. A living memory to what once upon a time was a famous model industrial village in its own right, and which for too long has gone unnoticed as an important industrial village of the nineteenth century.
Author: Tina Foran