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This article was originally published in Waterford news and Star, Friday, January 14, 2000.
The lodge of the former Portlaw Tannery as it stands today. Located at the entrance to the factory, the lodge, which was once the security base of the factory, now stands in a derelict and destitute condition as time has taken its inevitable toll.
The Marian Year Grotto which was erected in 1954 by the workers of Irish Tanners Ltd., as it stands today. The statues of our Lady and St. Bernadette are of Carrara marble and were imported from Italy. The grotto was blessed by Most Rev. Dr. Coholan, Bishop of Waterford on December 8 1954 with the Artane Boys Band coming down from Dublin to lead a parade through the streets.
Portlaw refuses To " Decay And Die" Despite The Odds
To look at the place now, you'd never guess that it was once the site of one of the finest and most efficient finishing plants in Europe. However, while the view from the front gates of the former Portlaw Tannery today tells the tale of dereliction and desolation, it's not hard to imagine that it was once something much more.
Less than forty years ago, in fact, the area was synonymous with tanning and boasted of a thriving leather industry. That was before the collapse of the last shoe tannery group in Ireland, which sounded the death knell for 'the once-prosperous Portlaw operation and created a wave of depression in this small working-class Co. Waterford town.
Today, however, having suffered the stagnation, the unemployment, and the social gloom, Portlaw is re-establishing itself as a town of high potential. A number of successful small businesses and community groups as well greatly determined residents, have been fighting back having refused to allow their town bury its head in the sand.
Derelict and idle since the closure of the Portlaw factory in 1985, what is left standing of both the old leather plant and the Cotton Factory - its equally historical predecessor - serves only as a sad reminder today of what could have been.
In existence for over 53 years, the Portlaw Tannery - one of three in Portlaw, Dungarvan and Carrick-on-Suir under the direction of Irish feathers Ltd. - was opened officially on September 26, 1932 by the then Minister for Industry and Commerce, Mr. Sean Lemass. The opening of the operation at the time came as a godsend to a town that had been plunged into a period of desperation and unemployment when the Portlaw Spinning Company, which had taken over the famous Cotton factory initiated by the Malcolmson family, ceased production.
The vacant site and premises at the Cotton Factory went on to form the basis of the new and much welcomed leather plant and during the following five years, extensive building and extensions were to become the norm as output increased in response to a high demand for its leather products.
The construction of a new four-floor factory, covering an area of 45,000 square foot, was undertaken at the plant in 1945 and added with the advances of the factory - it became one of the first to generate its own power with coal-fired steam boilers - the future prosperity that seemed certain in 1932, probably should have been realised.
On the contrary, however, things began to take a nose-dive for the Portlaw Tannery and for the town that had been so proud of its indigenous industry. What resulted was a scenario that would leave a lasting impression, not only on the physical element of the town, but on its inhabitants, whom had depended so much on the factory for their livelihoods.
The closure of the Portlaw plant, however, to an extent, had been imminent. As early as the 1950's even, it seemed that problems were soon going to blemish the horizon, starting with the growing popularity of synthetic soles and competition from cheap South American suppliers, and culminating in attempts to procreate other lines of production in a bid to save the troubled factory. These included the initiation of the 'Leather Board' section in 1956, vulcanising soles, 'Waterford Rubber and Plastics' in 1958 and 'Waterford Leathers', in the 1970's.
By the early eighties, however, the problems brought on by reverses in the leather industry, had all but disappeared. Having suffered financial losses for a number of years, the Irish Leathers Group tried to alleviate their problems with massive redundancies in its three plants, dealing a huge blow to Portlaw in particular, whose very economic survival depended on it, as the 500-strong workforce came crashing down to a low of 110.
A rescue attempt by the State Rescue Agency, 'Foir Teoranta' followed as they pumped over £2 million pounds into the company in an effort to sustain its operations and the 380 jobs that had survived. From then to 1985, Irish Leathers stumbled and staggered from one crisis to another and although the work-force had been decimated from an all-time of 1,000 to 380 through rationalisation drives, the .Industry somehow managed to remain in existence until 1985, saved on more than one occasion by the rescue agency.
By this time a total of £9 million had been pumped into the company in a bid to make it viable, mainly because the indications always seemed to point to a return of profitability.
In June 1985, however, workers were once again facing the prospect of huge job losses as a receiver was appointed by the state rescue agency to sell the Irish Leathers Group as a 'going concern'.
MATTER OF SURVIVAL
The announcement came as a shock for the 110 workers in the Portlaw plant, putting their futures in jeopardy. Indeed, in a 'letter to the editor' of the Waterford News & Star, dated July 5, 1985, one Portlaw resident voiced the fears of many when she spoke of the "hardship and distress" the Tannery's problems had caused locally as well as the "adverse spin-off effect' that it had on the shops and small businesses of the town.
"Should Portlaw be left without a major industry, the town will decay and die," she added. "This calamity must not be allowed to happen. It is a matter of the very survival of a town."
Indeed local fears were confirmed only weeks later when it was reported that the entire assets of Irish Leathers Ltd., including the three tanneries had been purchased for an undisclosed sum by the Kilkenny-based 'Hide & Skin Company', founded 14 years earlier by Dungarvan native, Raymond Lannen. The sale to the company had not come as any surprise - the company had already acquired two of the group's major subsidies - 'Central Hide & Skin' and 'Irish Hide & Skin'.
Following Lannen's acquisition of the assets and the plant's premises, the factory continued operating for a short period of time with a fraction of the workforce to process the leftover leather.
While it was hoped that under new ownership that both the industry and the jobs it had created could be sustained, by and large, the Tannery as it had existed for the people of Portlaw, had finally closed its doors for good and ended an era in the town's already colourful history.
From that day on, the factory and its buildings, covering a large area of land, have for the most part, been left vacant. Mayfield House, one of the magnificent Victorian houses built by the Malcolmsons in the late 1800's and located on the premises of the Tannery, had become the National Headquarters of Irish Leathers and following the much-publicised closure, was also left unoccupied. While initially the Tannery buildings, including Mayfield House, were guarded and maintained, as time rolled on it became neglected and soon fell into a state of disrepair.
Today, the site continues to tell a tale of neglect and wasted potential. While the premises and buildings are now under the ownership of a local businessman with a number of small local business operating from there, there is a sense of local disappointment that the site, perfect for a large industry, has not been taken over by a large company with a view to restarting a local factory and putting one of the few purpose-built industrial towns in the country back on the industrial map.
Apart from anything else, the material condition of the Tannery today has hampered the overall appeal of the little town that really has a lot going for it. And while, to an extent, the town may always be tainted with the tragedy of the Tannery closure, few would have predicted in 1985 that there was light at the end of the tunnel and could have foreseen the positivity now evident with regard to both Portlaw's present and future.
INJECTION OF LIFE
From the very beginning of the town's problems, efforts were made to pull Portlaw back into the throes of abundancy, and today the results are to he seen with the town of today at its highest point since the Tannery closure and - given the circumstances of the plant's demise - possibly long before it.
Certainly a vital contributor to the town's new injection of life has been the arrival of Michell Ireland Ltd, the only overseas production facility of G.H. Mitchell and Sons, the Australian wool and leather giant. Located less than one mile outside Portlaw on the main Waterford to Carrick-on-Suir road, the leather plant was officially opened early in November 1993 following a campaign of vigorous opposition from a minority group, the Suir Valley Protection Association.
For the majority of the people of Portlaw, however, the new Tannery was seen as a welcome prospect, even culminating in the initiation of a local Project Support Group, who felt that it was essential to revive the job-starved town.
Following a Public Oral Hearing and an appeal to An Bord Pleanala, the new factory was established at a cost of £5 million pounds and, nearly six years on, has proved a hugely successful industry, exporting world-wide and employing over 100 people, both from Portlaw itself and the surrounding areas.
While the fact that Michell Ireland Ltd has provided vital local employment in the area is undisputed, perhaps the key benefit of the plant from a Portlaw point of view surrounds its mere existence in the fact that it has given the town back an industry and to an extent, something to be proud of.
For the residents of Portlaw, however, there is always more to be strived for and instead of waiting around for things to happen, there are those who have taken the initiative themselves.
In 1995 a group of concerned residents in Portlaw came together and founded the Portlaw Community Development Group in an effort to develop the social and economic life of the town and who, to date, have been a very positive influence.
As well as having assisted in the establishment of a number of projects in the area, including a Music Network and active participation in the Village Urban Renewal Scheme, one of the group's biggest achievements to date has been their active involvement in securing the relatively new Enterprise Centre for their home town.
On initiation in 1995, the development group compiled a Five-year Development Plan where they outlined specific avenues for progress. Included in this plan was the proposal for an Enterprise Centre, which it was hoped would support the creation of local employment. Under the Integrated Local Development Programme, the group received funding from the Leader Partnership Ltd. to enable this goal to be realised. They subsequently leased the old convent school in Portlaw on a long- term basis and the premises has been refurbished and equipped for use as the new Enterprise Centre. The main objective of this Centre has been the provision of low-rent accommodation for small business
along with facilities for business skills training, courses, which now run throughout the winter months and have been very successful to date. In 1997, the group also obtained a contract from the VFC to allow people to participate in an Enterprise Development Programme through the VTO (Vocational Training & Opportunities) scheme where total business management experience is provided free of charge to long-term unemployed. people, over 21, who want to start their own business. between 1997 and 1998 a total of 35 people were involved with the training programme, which was run by Ronan Murphy, manager of the Centre and of that number 10 - 12 have started their own businesses and 4/5 have found full-time employment. In addition, three units within the Centre have been fully converted and are occupied by two successful businesses as well as the Local Employment Service.
With this service in place and the news that the town of Portlaw has recently been selected as one of the four County Waterford towns to be given priority under the new Town Renewal Scheme, the future is certainly looking rosier for the Quaker-inspired town. Seven towns in total were deemed eligible for involvement in the scheme, which among other things, aims to enhance the commercial and social life of the towns and increase their attractiveness as a place to live. However, only four could be submitted for phase one. Following a report by CAA (Environmental Services) Ltd., Portlaw, along with, neighbouring Kilmacthomas as well as the towns of Cappoquin and Tallow, was selected as being most likely to be designated under the scheme with regard to criteria.
For the Tannery Town, this can only spell good news. A key objective of the scheme is the improvement of designated heritage towns and the regeneration of older industrial buildings which have become under-utilised or derelict. Consequently, the scheme has the potential to completely revitalise the town.
With the cotton mill now disused and other derelict buildings also dotted around the town, the opportunity is there to re-develop and utilise these buildings more beneficially for tourism and commercial purposes. There is also great potential to exploit the existing heritage of the town which could be achieved with positive planning. There is the opportunity to give both the river and canal a facelift and develop them from both a recreational and visual point of view.
As it is, however, while there undoubtedly is huge scope and need for improvement, the town of Portlaw is not exactly lacking in any sense of the word. Rather, time has proved a great healer and the result today is, for the most part, a lively and generally busy little town that has a lot to offer its inhabitants.
Equipped today with a host of groups, clubs and organisations - the PCDG (Development Group); Tidy Towns Committee; the well-known Portlaw Musical Society, whose annual pantomime's prove to be a continual success; the local branch of the-, I.C.A.; the re-established and reformed Portlaw District Pipe Band; the newly-formed committee that organised last year's hugely successful Field Day in aid of the Leukaemia / Cancer Care Unit at W.R.H.; the Foroige Club for young people and not forgetting the local soccer and G.A.A clubs who make a valuable contribution to the community, particularly as far as the young people in the town are concerned. With these organisations, as well as many others, Portlaw has progressed vastly in the last ten or so years to become the town it is today.
Apart from the groups and organisations, however, Portlaw also boasts its own library, a relatively new Health Centre, Woodlock Nursing Home and the renowned Curraghmore Estate, home of Lord and Lady Waterford, with a history as unique and deep- rooted as the town itself.
And with the steely determination of its residency and prospects such as the Town Renewal Scheme lurking in the background, the future of the town that was deemed fated in the wake of the collapse Irish Tanners Ltd, will surely be as colourful and as memorable as its past.
is the Fountain, which is also located in The Square., while in the background
is Part of the Premises of the former Portlaw Tannery, now the Clodagh Business
Park, where a number of small local businesses are located.
The Square in Portlaw today located in the heart of the town centre. Development work is soon to commence on the Square, towards which a sum of £500 has been paid. The white building pictured is the Portlaw library.