10 Tannery

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Stop 10: tannery and associated buildings

The Schoolhouse
Mayfield House
My Interview


Now you have come to the heart of our heritage story. Sadly, it is probably too dangerous for you to really go through the gates so we will tell you all about this stop. This is the Tannery. Sean Lemass opened it in 1935. There was a big effort to bring some life back to Portlaw. You see it used to be a very prosperous town in the 19th Century but it had become a very depressed town. Leather was made from hides. Notice that nowadays it is not used. It looks wrecked. Up to the 1970s, 90% of hides were bought in Ireland. In the early 1980s, the owners bought cheaper hides in South America. The Tannery closed because of cheap imports. At one stage 500 people worked there. The Irish Tanners Ltd. owned the factory. It closed in 1984. Lots of our relations still remember what the town was like when the tannery was open, especially the smell.

                 This factory brought employment and prosperity to Portlaw and not for the first time.

The older part of the factory was used by the Malcomson family, who we have mentioned already, in the early 1800s and was the beginning of a story that makes our town unique in Ireland. The Portlaw cotton industry began in 1825 when David Malcomson, a Quaker, established a cotton mill on the riverbank where there used to be a flourmill and a small iron foundry. The factory was opened in 1826 and it employed 260 workers. The factory required about 150 bales of raw cotton each week and the weekly output was about 40 tons.

Cotton Mill Front WP.jpg (217555 bytes)



A photo of the original cotton mill, Portlaw.

The Tannery

The tannery was smelly
It didn’t have a deli
It used to make leather
But couldn’t make a feather
People got their salary
With that they gained
Lots of calories
It was a good place
It takes up a lot of space
By Brian Coffey

Two million pounds worth of raw cotton was spun annually and six million yards of calico woven. Flax spinning was added about 1850. The Malcomsons always looked after their workers but they really got busy in the later years. They planned the village very carefully, knocking existing buildings so that there was room for their dream village.

            A water supply for Mayfield House, the schoolhouse/courthouse (both in the factory grounds), the factory, and the village was installed and it was serviced from a reservoir in the hills nearby. The Malcomsons also built and operated their own gasworks for lighting.

            Portlaw was the place to be to save you from starving during the famine. In the 1840s the Portlaw factory was spinning, weaving, bleaching, dying and printing. The hours were long and the wages low but locals say no one died here from hunger during the famine.

At its peak, the factory employed 2,000 people.

Unfortunately, the Malcomsons went bankrupt and the cotton mill had to close around 1875. A lot of the workers went to England for work. The Portlaw Spinning Company tried to keep the factory open, but had to close in 1904 because of the McKinley tariffs. This was a really bad time in our history. The population went way down and the houses began to look awful until the Irish Tanners came along and gave the town a new lease of life.

You can check out our website for a more detailed story about the Malcomsons.

Tannery ariel.jpg (48200 bytes)Ariel photograph of Tannery / Cotton mills. Mayfield House is in front



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The Schoolhouse

mayfield sch.jpg (80503 bytes)

The Malcomsons built a school inside the cotton mill gates. In 1837, one hundred children attended the school. An infant school was added and by the late 1800s that number was up to 800. Compare this with the 14 children who were going to school in 1821, according to the Census of that year.

 The children were taught reading, writing and arithmetic but religion was left to the churches. Half of the children went to school in the morning and worked the afternoon in the cotton factory. These were known as "half timers."

After the Malcomsons went bankrupt and a lot of workers moved away, there weren’t that many children left. The girls were moved to a school in the Square (beside the library today) where the Mercy Sisters taught them. Then they were moved up to a building beside our present school, which was built in 1909.

The boys’ school continued inside the factory gates until the present school (without the additions) was built for them in 1931. At that time there were only about 70 on the roll. The principal teacher was Mr. P. Curran—no relation to our current principal, Mr. M. Curran! Maurice Fitzgerald was another teacher. His daughter still lives in Portlaw.

There was also a courthouse in this building. Mr. William Malcomson was the local magistrate and sat over all the cases. Night classes were held for adults. The Malcomsons really believed in educating their workers because they thought this would make them more productive.
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Mayfield House was modified by the architect J.S. Mulvany.                               
When the Tannery was opened Mayfield house was used for offices for some of the workers. Mayfield house has 27 chimney spouts sticking out of 6 chimneys as far as we can see from an old photo. After working hours, the caretakers, the Carveys, lived there. A century before that David Malcomson and his family lived there. Their cotton mill, which became the tannery, was at the end of the garden of the house. Mayfield house is a three-storey house.

When I, Shane Power, visited this house lately, it was wrecked. Bits of the roof were strewn around the floor. The floor is missing in part of the building and you can see down into the cellar. There must have been a lot of vandals in it.

mayfield hse2.jpg (44997 bytes)

At the entrance to Mayfield, which is also the entrance to the tannery/cotton mill, there is a gate lodge (below) that was designed by Mulvany. It too, looks like it is ready to fall down because of vandalism. It is a pity that we do not take care of these fine buildings that we have inherited.


pic 5.jpg (26308 bytes)
Mayfield House

Willie 3.jpg (74003 bytes)
Nineteenth Century Industrialist David Malcomson and his wife. Return to Top


My Interview

  Clodagh Power interviewed her Dad about the tannery. Here it is:

I interviewed my Dad, Peter Power.


Where did you work as a boy?
I worked for Mrs.Walker, Springfield, Portlaw.

What did you do there? 
I worked on a farm.

What age were you when you started there?
I was 15 and I worked after school. When I was 16, I got a full time job there until I was 17.

Did you know anyone else who worked there?
Yes, my uncle, he worked there for 40 years .

What kind of work did you do up there?
I looked after the animals and the garden.

Where did you go after you worked there?
I went to the tannery.

What did you work at there?
I worked as a messenger boy.

What did you do as a messenger boy?

Collected the papers and the post from the post office where Liam Walsh’s is now. I had to do all the shopping for the kitchen. I had to sort the post and deliver it around the tannery.

What time did you start at?
Eight in the morning till five in the evening. 

What did you do after that job?
I got a job in the factory.

What did you do in a factory?
The first job I got was in the rubber plant, where I stayed for two years. My second job was trimming hides of the split machine and I worked there until the tannery closed in 1984.  

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                 Go to Step 11


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