Visitors to Ireland are more likely to be charmed by the island's smaller towns vice the big cities. The reasons are many -- friendly people, untouched surroundings, and the simple lifestyle. So, while I included a couple of the larger cities among my travelogues, I also wanted to give plenty of time to the smaller towns. I decided the best approach was to group four such towns together in a single travelogue for 'Waterford County', and then choose one town to do in depth.
That town was Portlaw, situated about ten miles west of Waterford City, nestled snuggly against one of the tributaries of the River Suir (pronounced like 'sure'). I chose this town because it has nearly everything one would expect from a small Irish town -- great people and beautiful surroundings. Plus, it is a town where I have roots. My father was born and raised nearby, and I still have relatives there. So, during my visit in the summer of 2002, I spent lots of time in Portlaw, plenty enough to gather material for this travelogue.
Portlaw may be a typical town in some respects, but it is unique in others. It was the site of a once-booming cotton mill. This mill was the entire raison d'ętre for the town in times past. The houses were constructed by the factory, and were arranged along five streets that joined together in the square at one end so the town was shaped like a hand. The purpose was so everyone could see the gates of the mill, such that when the gates were open, the men knew it was time to go to work.
When I visited the town as a boy, I recalled that the houses were varying shades of gray. Indeed, in its earlier days, the town was very plain. That's no longer the case, as the second photo shows. The houses are now fully privatized and painted up in brilliant color. But as there is little or no room for expansion, the overall structure of the downtown is little changed.
The amenities in Portlaw are similar to what you would expect in any Irish town -- a scattering of pubs, grocers, bakeries, and churches closely packed together, with people saying 'hi' to one another as they pass down the street, everyone on a first name basis, and all greetings followed by a fifteen-minute conversation. It wasn't that long ago that Portlaw was still on a party-line telephone system that allowed small-town gossip to move through the town faster than a summer afternoon rain shower. This was the same party line that permitted word of my dropping and breaking three milk bottles in the town grocer to reach my grandmother's house before I got there.
There's rarely a lot of outside activity in towns like this, unlike continental towns. That's because most of the work nowadays is out of town -- Portlaw folk commute to Waterford and other nearby cities for work now that the mill is long closed. Those who do work in town are indoors -- such as the bakery shown in the third photo or the grocer in the fourth. The people you do see are coming or going to these places or just hanging around the square for no reason or perhaps out walking their dogs. The five or so small pubs in town don't really kick in until after working hours.
Unlike Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants co-exist relatively peacefully down in the southeast. Many of the towns and cities have both churches in town, although both are often locked or have restrictive visiting hours (unlike those on the continent). The Catholic church is by far the stronger and more prevalent than the Church of Ireland (one of the most dominant of the protestant denominations in Ireland, it is the Irish branch of the Anglican church).
In Portlaw, the town's Catholic Church sits on a hilltop overlooking the downtown. The church is shown in the fifth photo, which also shows the retaining wall that borders its three cemetaries. Two of the cemetaries are still active, but the oldest, that faces the downtown, is by far the most impressive. Irish memorials of the 17th and 18th centuries were often a large Celtic cross (a traditional Christian cross made ornate and adorned with a circle that perhaps resembles a halo).
The protestant churches are not the only holdover from English royal occupation. Several English royal estates still dot the Irish landscape, although these are clearly way down the royal 'totem pole', one might say. Portlaw is home to one such estate, Curraghmore, whose entrance is shown in the sixth and final photo. Curraghmore House, a modest manor house in the middle of this hundred-acre estate is still occupied by the Lord and Lady Waterford. While still private property, the gates are normally opened during daylight hours to permit road and pedestrian traffic among the smaller shires in the Portlaw area (including the four-house shire of Salaheen, where my father was born and raised).
While still retaining its old character, Portlaw provides an interesting insight to Ireland's changing nature since its involvement in the European Union. Being close to the growing city of Waterford, Portlaw is slowly changing from its industrial roots and becoming more suburban. The downtown is expanding rapidly with a number of housing developments, mostly for the upper-middle class working out of town. Also, individual houses are popping up on the nearby country roads. Many of the older houses in the downtown have been renovated, and several more construction projects (some bearing the EU symbol indicating a source of funding) are underway. Naturally, this has some of the older denizens feeling uneasy, but since when is that untrue in an old town undergoing healthy change?
Still, such changes will probably not be as dramatic nor traumatic as the closing of the mill some decades ago. The river passing through town still shows the remains of the artificial canal used by shallow-water boats to ship cotton in to the mill and textiles out. The canal has grown in, and the people have found work elsewhere. The town has moved on with the times. And so, as the suburbanites move in, the town will likely change, as many others before it have changed. One only hopes that the character of the town -- its simplicity and its people -- don't change too much.
Trip taken 6 August 2002 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin