During the War of Independence (1919-21), the county was renamed Leix - a variant of Laois - and, following a proposal by a Sinn Féin member of Maryborough Town Commission, the town adopted the name variously spelt as Portlaoighise, Port Laoighise, or Port Laoise (all variants of the Gaelic for 'The fort of Laois'). A local historian, incidentally, attributed the change of name to "a fit of pseudo-patriotism".[6] It took some years for the new name to come into everyday use and, in the late 1940's, the Superior of the local Christian Brothers School 'modernised' the spelling to Portlaoise.

During the 1940's, 50’s and 60’s, Kelly’s Foundry, the Irish Worsted Mills (whose annual workers' pantomime, by the way, was for many years the highlight of seasonal entertainment in the town), the ESB (Electricity Supply Board) and Portlaoise Prison were some of Portlaoise's biggest employers. Today, the Kelly's site is occupied by the Heritage Hotel. Officially opened for business in February 2003, this establishment continues to divide local opinion: for some, it is a grand symbol of the Celtic Tiger (the name given to Ireland’s spectacular economic success since the mid-1990's) and a great addition to the town’s architecture and economy; for others it is an incongruous behemoth, its columned façade a gross example of the triumph of money over good taste. Since 1974, the Worsted Mills building (opened in 1937) houses a telecom company; the ESB shop has been bought by the Bank of Scotland (and remains vacant), and Portlaoise Prison still stands in all its formidable grey glory. It is the prison, in fact, which defines the town of Portlaoise for many people. According to the annual report of the Irish Prison Service, the cost of keeping an offender in what is the country's most secure jail is almost €270,000 per year.[7]

The 1970’s saw considerable industrial development with the arrival of, inter alia, Etschied, German manufacturers of stainless steel equipment, and a tennis-ball factory run by the Swedish company, Tretorn. But it was the following decades that saw most change in the town. With the development of Lyster Square in the Eighties and the opening of Laois Shopping Centre in 1991, many natives felt that the heart had been ripped out of the ‘old town’, that the Main Street, bereft of family businesses and residences would soon become a ‘ghost town’. Families and residences have disappeared alright, but there is little fear of the area becoming a ghost town as certain pubs seem to enjoy carte blanche when it comes to setting up street furniture for their noisy and sometimes obstreperous revellers. But then again, why should I expect Saturday Night in Portlaoise to be any different from Saturday Night anywhere else...

In August 2004, a report by the Irish Businesses Against Litter League (IBAL) organisation condemned the town as being “down-at-heel” with Lyster Square being classed as the dirtiest area. Following the introduction of the ban on smoking in pubs in March, 2004, cigarette butts became the most common form of litter. In all, nine areas of the town were inspected but only the exterior and interior of the Railway Station achieved an A Grade. In apparent contradiction to all this, in the same year’s Tidy Towns Competition, Portlaoise’s mark showed a slight increase. As our transatlantic friends might say: Go figure. In the 2006 competition (where our points tally went up from 235 to 246), the judges remarked that "It was a great pleasure to visit Portlaoise and spend some time exploring its various attractions". Results were even better in the 2007 competition when our "tidy and busy town" scored 254 points.[8] In 2008, 55 cities and towns were surveyed by IBAL and our town was placed in fourth place.[9]

Throughout the last quarter of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st, Portlaoise has undergone tremendous change and ostensibly, great prosperity. We have had a huge influx of commuters attracted by the affordability of housing compared to the astronomical prices in Dublin (a Sunday Times survey published in August 2006, found that, after Dundalk, Drogheda, Newbridge and Athy, Portlaoise was the fifth most popular town for commuters to Dublin); large numbers of immigrants, especially from the Baltic States and Eastern Europe; houses and apartments springing up like the proverbial mushrooms. At the 2002 Census, the population of the town was 12,127 (an increase of 28% on 1996 figures); in 2006, this figure had risen to 14,613. It is estimated that by the year 2020 our town and environs will be home to 30,000 souls.

But in the midst of all this boom (According to a Bank of Ireland survey published in July 2006, Ireland is the second richest country in the world after Japan) we have our share of gloom. Serious doubts have been expressed about the capacity of the sewerage and drainage schemes to cope with the town’s rapid expansion; traffic congestion at peak times is as rife as anti-social behaviour outside certain establishments late at night. We also have a considerable drug problem (in March 2002, at Portlaoise District Court, Judge Mary Martin warned of drug "anarchy" in the town if support services were not put in place), overcrowded primary schools, and gangs of boy racers who seem to be able to jeopardise our streets with impunity.

[6] Laois Association Yearbook, 1991. p. 15
[7] Report in the The Irish Times newspaper. December 21st 2008.
[8] Report in The Leinster Express newspaper. September 26, 2007.
[9] Leinster Express Weekender. June 20, 2008.