Eaten Bread is Soon Forgotten

Portlaw, County Waterford and its association with the Malcomson family have been mentioned here before (see: A Shell, June 28th 2017). The Malcomsons were of Scottish Presbyterian origin but in the mid-18th century one branch became members of the Quaker community. A son of this line, David Malcomson, settled in Clonmel, County Tipperary where from 1793 onwards he became involved in the corn milling industry and enjoyed such success that when Richard Lalor Shiel visited the town in 1828 he could write ‘Malcomson’s Mill is I believe the finest in Ireland. Here half the harvest of the adjoining counties as well as Tipperary is powdered.’ By that date the family, fearful that the Corn Laws (restrictions on the import of grain which favoured domestic production) were to be revoked by parliament, had moved into another business in another part of the country. In 1825 Malcomson took a 999-year lease on a house called Mayfield and the adjacent 16 acres from a local landlord, John Medlycott. A small corn mill, damaged by fire, stood on the site and this was redeveloped as a vast, six-storey cotton mill, building a canal to utilize the power of the adjacent river Clodiagh. The enterprise required large numbers of employees and as a result the little village of Portlaw expanded rapidly. Around the time the Malcomsons began work on the mill, it comprised less than 400 residents living in 71 houses: by 1841 the population of Portlaw had grown to 3,647 souls occupying 458 houses, most of the latter built by the Malcomsons as part of a planned urban settlement. The family lived on the edge of the town and directly above the mill in Mayfield.

The core of Mayfield was a classical house dating from c.1740 and it was here the Malcomsons initially lived. However, in 1849 Joseph Malcomson, who had assumed responsibility for the business, employed architect William Tinsley to enlarge the building. Like his client, Tinsley originally came from Clonmel and had built up a substantial practice in the area, so he was an obvious choice. However, by the time Joseph Malcomson decided on a further expansion of Mayfield, Tinsley was no longer available: in 1851 he had emigrated with his family to the United States where he enjoyed an equally successful career before dying in Cincinnati in 1885. So in 1857 Malcomson instead employed John Skipton Mulvany who specialized in a loosely-Italianate style architecture and who was responsible for giving the house its present appearance. Mulvany added many of Mayfield’s most striking features, not least a three-storey tower that served as an entrance on the house’s eastern front. This rises considerably higher than the rest of the three-storey over basement building which is of seven bays: the tower accordingly provided views both down to the factory and over to the village, allowing the Malcomsons a paternalistic prospect of their workers. Mulvany was also responsible for the single-storey over basement wings on either side of the main block: that to the south served as a conservatory, that to the north held a pair of reception rooms. However the family were not to enjoy this splendor for long, the cotton factory which generated their wealth being ruined in the aftermath of the American Civil War (the Malcomsons had extended credit to the losing side).

In the last quarter of the 19th century the Portlaw factory was adapted for spinning but this enterprise didn’t last long and it was only in the early 1930s that a new purpose was found for the complex when it was acquired to act as a tannery by the Irish Leathers Group. Mayfield, which had for a period been occupied by members of the de la Poer Beresford family of nearby Curraghmore, now became an office premises for the new enterprise, and remained as such for the next half century. The tannery closed in the 1980s, and as a result Mayfield no longer had any purpose, although to the end of that decade a proposal was put forward to convert both factory and house into a retirement home. The scheme never took off and for the past thirty-odd years Mayfield has stood empty, falling into its present state of dereliction. As can be seen, little of the original mid-Victorian interiors remains other than fragments of plasterwork and rotting timbers. The exterior of the building has proven more sturdy, and retains the same appearance found in old photographs. But it is difficult to know what sort of future, if any, Mayfield might have. There is an old Irish expression Ní bhíonn cuimhne ar an arán a hitear, commonly translated as ‘Eaten bread is soon forgotten.’ Portlaw as seen today owes its existence to the enterprise and initiative of the Malcomsons: what a shame that so little has been done to acknowledge their contribution to the area.

9 comments on “Eaten Bread is Soon Forgotten

  1. Vincent Delany says:

    The village of Portlaw is unique in Ireland for the roofs of the houses which were originally covered not in thatch, not with slates, but with a patent product invented by the malcomsons – consisting of bitumen impregnated cotton.
    There are two houses at the edge of Clara town which used the same material.

  2. Maria Walsh says:

    See my book’ Ireland’s Secret Millionaires – from Waterford’ by Maria Wash. Contact Waterford Book Centre or Munster Publising

  3. Shirley Anne Gilman says:

    The Malcolmson family have been well & truly acknowledged within the local village of Portlaw. A visit to Portlaw Heritage Centre is all that is required to confirm this. Also the local square in the centre of the village was renamed Malcolmson Square in their honour. I also recall learning all about the Malcolmsons, the leather money, the cotton mill & tannery when i attended the local primary school. So I’m afraid i’m going to have to disagree with your closing statement in this otherwise informative article. It is a shame to see a once magnificent building fall into such disrepair but perhaps a little further research would shed light on the reason why nobody has purchased this site to date. Maybe check out Mayfield’s sister house Woodlock (also located on the edge of the village) to see just how that was maintained during its years as a nursing home & how it has been restored somewhat to its former glory by AGORA publishing services.

  4. Sharon says:

    A wonderful read. Thank you.

  5. William Fraher says:

    I was interested to read your post on Mayfield with which I am familiar having visited it in the 1980s when it was intact. However, I was surprised at the heading for this article and the comment in the final line – ‘what a shame so little has been done to acknowledge the contribution to the area’. I can assure the author that the people of Portlaw and indeed of the county are well aware of the Malcomson heritage. Portlaw Heritage Centre established in 2005 by the Portlaw Heritage Committee has a detailed display on the family and their contribution to the development of Portlaw. Tom Hunt published a book in 2000 under the Maynooth studies series titled Portlaw – Portrait of an Industrial Village and its Cotton Industry. In 2001 the late Bill Irish published an important work on shipbuilding in Waterford in which the Malcomsons feature prominently. In 2011 Waterford Co Council and the Heritage Council funded a series of information panels in the village in which the Malcomson contribution is acknowledged. These were prepared in conjunction with the Heritage Committee. The family also feature in the displays at Waterford County Museum in Dungarvan. The museum have just published a guide to the Waterford Greenway which has a chapter by Ger Crotty in which the Malcomson story is covered in detail.
    I hope this has enlightened you further on the subject. One final point – the family name is spelt Malcomson.

    • Thanks to everyone who has responded to this piece: it is always a fascination to see which texts excite interest and which do not. To those defending Portlaw and its acknowledgement of the Malcomsons/Malcolmsons (the family name seems to be as often, if not more often, spelled the latter way – including by one of those commenting on this post – hence my option to use this), I entirely sympathise.
      I am aware of the local heritage centre and of the renaming of the main square, also of various texts that have been published over the past twenty years, a number of which I have, and have read. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the physical evidence of the family in the town has been allowed to fall into ruin. Stand in the square that now bears their name, look from there down a street towards the entrance of both the former factory and residence – and you are met with the burnt-out ruins of a lodge: a prelude to what lies beyond the gates. Look to the immediate left of that lodge and another building associated with the family is also in total ruins. As many naming ceremonies can be held, as many books and documents written, and exhibitions organised: the fact remains that the buildings, the manifestations of the family in Portlaw testify to neglect, whoever’s fault that may be. And when those buildings are gone for good, as seems almost inevitable given their calamitous condition, then the most obvious evidence of the Malcolmsons will be gone too. The best way to commemorate these philanthropists is to preserve their tangible legacy, otherwise eaten bread will have no chance of being recalled.

      • Ger Crotty says:

        I find it disappointing to have a generalised statement made that “eaten bread is soon forgotten” and to see someone present such a negative appraisal of us in Portlaw as a community and how we commemorate our past. As a community group the Portlaw Heritage Centre has worked hard to raise the awareness of our industrial past which spanned two centuries of which we are justifiably proud and to that end we have delivered talks, worked on various projects and put our time (and at times our own money) into having a heritage centre brings the story to the local community and wider diaspora. Some of the properties of the Malcomson era are gone, some in disrepair and others well maintained. The property in which the Heritage Centre is housed is of this period, and was to all intents and purposes derelict, and this has been restored thanks the work of local people supported by state agencies. Some of the properties mentioned are in private ownership. The project on the old footbridge repaired the structure and stopped it completely disintegrating. Rather than trying to justify my views I will finish but would invite the author to contact me and I would be glad to meet at the centre and have a look at what has been done and what we want to do. I assure you, based on my daily lived experience in the village of Portlaw, that we have not forgotton the contribution of the Malcomson – nor will we forget.
        Ger Crotty, Chairperson Portlaw Heritage Centre.

      • Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your disappointment, and indeed your work in Portlaw. Nonetheless, it remains the case that the buildings most associated with the Malcomson families are in such serious disrepair that their loss now looks inevitable. And when they are gone, your irritation at what I have written will make not bring them back.
        Thank you also for your kind invitation. When I next find myself in Portlaw with time to spare I should be most happy to meet you. For the present, my best wishes…

  6. Well replied to, Robert!!

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