The History of The Maltings, Portlaoise.
By Mervyn McGahey
The Maltings in Portlaoise was established in 1866 by John Wrafter, Clonaslee, Licensed Maltster. This is according to the stone over one of the main entrances. The site is located at Coote Street, Portlaoise and encompasses approximately 6.5 statute acres. There are indications that malting had taken place prior to this date but I have no knowledge of this. The Wrafters had apparently operated a brewery in Clonaslee, which was discontinued in 1886.
Malting continued in Portlaoise under the ownership of the Wrafters until around 1886 when the premised changed ownership and was procured by the Tyrrell family from Miltown in Dublin, whose premises were located on the site from where Dartry Cleaners operated. Also involved was Robert Gibney who was a relative of the Tyrrells by marriage.
The Gibneys continued to produce malt from six malt houses which were in operation up to 1945. From 1945 to 1965 approximately, four malthouses were in production, and these produced 7,000 tonnes of malt annually. Mr. Walter Tyrrell, a descendant of the original James Tyrrell, came to Portlaoise in the early 1930s as a qualified maltster and continued in that role until malting ceased in 1978. Initially, he was assisted by Mr. Nolan and thereafter by Mr. Dennis Hilliard, who was transferred to Enniscorthy in 1978. Mr. Tyrrell was a prominent member of the Turf Club and is reputed to have purchased the first stallion for the Irish National Stud.
Many people spent their entire working lives employed in the Maltings, Portlaoise. Mr. Nolan, who lived in Railway Street, worked there for 57 years and Mr. Matt Young completed 28 years service. Joe Downey began in 1945 and retired in 1988. His first pay was 19 shillings a week. Joe’s father was also employed in the Maltings for 25 years and his daughter also worked there. Denis Regan, whose father was also employed there before him, had 40 years service and retired in 1984. Ned Cooke, from Rathnamanagh, joined the company in 1971 and completed 33 years service. Robert Tyrrell, a cousin of Walter Tyrrell, who retired in the early eighties, spent over 30 years in Portlaoise Maltings.
It was not unusual for individuals to complete 30 years service or more and the reason for this was stable employment and above average pay for the time. In the early 1960s, the men working on the malt floors had the capability of earning up to £25 per week, including overtime. To put this pay in context the first £100 a week professional footballer in England occurred in 1961. A large number of local farming families have been customers for three or four generations and produced quality malting barley for the Maltings.
In 1949, Walter Tyrrell installed new grain carrying machinery and oil-fired burners for nos. 1 and 2 kilns supplied by a company called Redler and they were installed by George Nesbitt and our own maintenance man, Joe Downey. These machines were still in operation in 2004 and never required any major repairs! Prior to 1949, the source of heat for all kilns came from coal fires. These were last used in 1979 but are still intact within the premises. The chain for the Redler machine at the time of installation cost 25 shillings a foot. Fourteen new machines installed at the time cost £1,000 each.
A major reconstruction was undertaken in the early 1960s when a weighbridge and 8 new bulk outloading bins were installed, each with a capacity of 50 tonnes. This weighbridge was still in operation in 2004 and could accommodate modern-day articulated lorries. The outloading bins were capable of loading a modern-day lorry in 5 minutes which, without doubt, was one of the fastest outloading systems in operation in the country even to this day.
Another reconstruction took place in the early ’70s when nos. 3 and 4 malthouses were segregated into grain storage capable of holding 5,000 tonnes of dried barley. The entire premises, including lofts, had a storage capacity of 10,000 tonnes approximately. This major reconstruction work was completed by Portlaoise builder, Michael Burke. This grain is all supplied from local growers and requires in the region of 5,500 statute acres to produce.
Another major construction was completed in 1980 when a new Monsun continuous flow dryer, capable of drying 14 tonnes per hour, along with two new raw storage bins and intake hopper were installed. This greatly increased the daily intake and drying capacity of the premises. The new dryer replaced an old Penny and Porter, which had been installed in the early 1960s. The malt that was produced was transported in bags by rail up to the early 1950s. The premises had its own private access onto the railway line for loading this malt.
In the early 1950s lorries were introduced and malt was delivered to such countries as Nigeria, Brazil, Spain, Scotland and internally to Guinness in Dublin and Dundalk and to Smithwicks in Kilkenny. The water used for the malting process was obtained originally from an old quarry beside the railway line. In 1970 a well was bored which has a depth of 180 feet. This well remains there to this day.
All malting ceased in 1978 and the premises became just a grain intake, drying and storage depot. The premises remained operational under the name of Gibney until the late 1960s and into the early 1970s when an amalgamation took place with Roche’s of Enniscorthy and New Ross and the company was renamed Roche-Gibney Ltd. Roche-Gibney’s became part of Minch Norton, Athy in 1978 whose head office at that time was in Newmarket in Dublin. Larry Goodman purchased Minch Norton in 1988 for £10 million and we subsequently became part of his Plc Food Industries. Then the Sugar Company purchased Food Industries from Larry Goodman in 1992 and as a result of this, we are now part of the Greencore Group. The premises were sold in August 2003 by Greencore for development and as a result of this sale, the Maltings, as it was initially, has ceased to exist, but hopefully, it will always remain an important part of local history.