Lea Castle, built in 1260 on the site of an earlier fortification by William de Vesey, is an impressive ruin with an eventful history. (Image – www.askaboutireland.ie)
The stronghold, protected by the River Barrow, was torched by the O’Dempseys in 1284, rebuilt by de Vesey in 1290, forfeited to the Crown in 1307, then granted to the FitzGeralds of Kildare, burned along with its town by Edward Bruce‘s army in 1315, burned again by the O’Moores in 1346, captured in 1422 by the O’Dempseys and lost to the Earl of Ormond in 1452. It was used by Silken Thomas Fitzgerald as a refuge in 1535.Mortgaged to Sir Maurice Fitzgerald of Lackagh in 1556, the property was leased to Robert Bath in 1618.
During theWars of the Three Kingdoms, it was used by the Kilkenny Confederacy as a mint until they were driven outby Lord Lisle. Cromwellian soldiers under General Hewson took the castle, stuffed the stairways with explosives and blew up the fortifications.
The last resident of Lea Castle was the rapparee / horse thief Cahir na gCapall / Charles O’Dempsey. His outlawed family, descendants of the Lords of Clanmeliere, were ultimately forced to surrender to a Sheriff’s posse in the Wood of Monasterevan. By then the owner of the castle was Ephraim Dawson MP, ancestor of the Earls of Portarlington.
Only one of the original four bastions remains roughly intact amidst the chaos of broken towers and arches.
Portarlington (Co. Laois / Northeast)
Portarlington (Cúil an tSúdaire -“Tanner’s Corner”) (pop. 7000), straddling the Co. Offaly border at a scenic bend in the River Barrow, was long a rural backwater, but has recently doubled in size with a massive influx of DUBLIN commuters and immigrants from around the world. The town, commonly called “Port” by locals, has a strong GAA tradition.
Aerial view of Portarlington (Photo – Laois County Council)
The location, formerly called Cooletoodera / Cooletooder / Coltodry, was part of the extensive estates of Lewis O’Dempsey, Viscount Clanmaliere, confiscated after the 1641 Irish Rebellion and granted by King Charles II to the English Home Secretary, Sir Henry Bennet, Baron Arlington of Arlington in the County of Middlesex, who had the town laid out by George Rawdon in 1666 and named it after himself. Most of the first townsfolk were the English families of former soldiers in Cromwell’s army.
Lord Arlington sold the lands to Sir Patrick Trant, a supporter of King James II in the Williamite War, after which the lands were confiscated and granted to General Henri de Massue, Marquis de Ruvigny, made Baron Portarlington and Viscount Galway after the Battle of Aughrim in 1691 and Earl of Galway in 1697, who as Lord Justice of Ireland was for a time in practical control of the entire country.
De Ruvigny invited fellow Huguenots, French and Flemish Protestants fleeing persecution after King Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, to settle in Portarlington, and personally financed the construction of over 100 houses of exotic design.
The first wave of French settlers arrived in 1692. Many were pensioned-off soldiers who had fought in the Williamite War; some were members of the officer class, la noblesse d’epée, at that time made up of sons of minor aristocratic families. The most distinguished was Robert d’Ully, Vicomte de Laval, a descendant of Henri de Navarre / King Henri IV.
They were soon followed by a second group of “labourers”, 13 families in all, who arrived from the Swiss cantons where they had taken refuge. The total number of Huguenots settling in Portarlington was about 500.
Although De Ruvigney lost his estates under the Act of Resumption 1702, the legislation protected his Protestant tenants. The town was purchased from the London Hollow Sword Blade Company by the Dawson family, later Earls of Portarlington, who controlled the local administration (and Parliamentry seats) until the late C19th.
Portarlington became established as a thriving comercial centre , especially for silversmiths and banking, with no less than 16 schools (including several Public Classical Schools, where children of well-to-do families learnt the French manners considered desirable in ladies and gentlemen, and Arlington Grammar School, where some claim the future Duke of Wellington and his brother were educated).
Religious differences split the Huguenot community, with over half departing for Dublin and the remainder subsumed into the Church of Ireland or reverting to their ancestral Roman Catholicism. French continued to be spoken locally into the C19th, and surnames such as Blanc, Champ and Deverell are common in the area to this day.
Portarlington has retained several Georgian and Victorian buildingsof exceptional quality. Apart from a tendency for some houses to back onto the street, none of the town’s Huguenot architectural heritage has survived intact; however, the Jargonelle pears grown in local gardens are a delicious legacy of the Gallic refugees.
The church of St Paul (CoI), built as the Eglise Francaise in 1696 and totally reconstructed in the Gothic Revival style in 1851, is still known as the French church, and gives the street its name. The church’s services and congregational affairs were conducted in French until 1817.
The former church of St Michael (CoI) on Portarlington’s main Square , now a community hall, was founded in the late C17thas the “English” church, and rebuilt c.1830. Both churches were originally chapels of ease associated with the medieval parish church beside Lea Castle. It was not until 1887, after most of the wealthier ex-Huguenot families had departed, that the congregations were amalgamated and the two extant Protestant schools merged. The handsome spire was removed in 1924.
Portalington’s former Market House, built in 1740 and used for a variety of purposes over the years, is now a garage.
The parish church of St Michael (RC), built in 1837, has a tower and steeple visible for miles across the flat countryside around the town.
Portarlington Railway Station, a short way outside the town, was inaugurated in 1850.
The Gospel Hall on Main St. was built in 1904 as a Methodist chapel; the movement’s founder John Wesley visited Portarlington in 1749.
The small People’s Museum housed in the Catholic Club on Main St has several interesting exhibits, including a 4000-year-old axe head and a Bronze Age dagger.
The East End Hotel on Main St is a converted Georgian house, built c.1760, with lovely rococo plasterwork in the entrance hall.
Mario’s Trattoria in the Market Square is an exceptionally good, reasonably priced, authentic (and very popular) Italian restaurant.
Portarlington Antiques & Fine Arts / the Huguenot Gallery on Lower Main St is well worth a visit.
Portarlington Leisure Centre was inaugurated in 2007.
Carrick / Corrig / Spire Hill south of the town is topped by an impressive tower, originally a windmill, remodelled and reroofed in the mid-C18th by William Henry Dawson, later Viscount Carlow, to provide relief work for the poor following a particularly savage winter. The structure was restores in 2004 by Coillte, which runs the surrounding mixed broadleaf woodlands as a popular recreation area, with picnic tables, pleasant walks and some great views.
Derryounce Lake & Walkway just north of the town is an attractive community-initiative leisure amenity.
Portarlington hosts a French Festival in mid-July every year; a highlight is the National Snail-eating Championship.
Ballybrittas (“town of the fortified place”) has a quaint thatched cottage museum that provides an interesting insight into Irish peasant life 200 years ago.
Emo & Coolbanagher (Co. Laois / Northeast)
Emo is a former estate village with some attractive C19th houses.
Emo Court, a beautifully restored neo-classical Georgian masterpiece, was designed by James Gandon in 1790 for John Dawson, Viscount Carlow and later 1st Earl of Portarlington, who died of pneumonia in 1798. (Photo by cherrylassierusty)
His successor and namesake, who fought at the Battle of Waterloo, is credited with the famous remark ”one nought more or less makes no difference to a bill” and reputedly died with only two shillings.
The mansion, with interior decor by Louis Vulliamy, was not completed until about 1860. Its heyday was in the final forty years of the C19th; Lionel Arthur Henry Seymour Dawson-Damer, 6th Earl of Portarlington, sold the estate to the Irish Land Commission in 1920.
After lying derelict for some years, the house was acquired in 1930 by the Jesuits, and the building underwent drastic changes. Benedict Kiely spent a year in Emo as a novice, and later used it as the setting for his novel There Was An Ancient House.
A new lease of life for the 300-acre property began when it was bought by Major Cholmeley Dering Cholmeley-Harrison (1908 – 2008) a successful London stockbroker. He planted many rare trees to create a splendid arboretum, and commissioned Sir Alan Richardson, a leading authority on Georgian architecture, to restore the house, gardens and demesne to their former splendour.
Major Cholmeley-Harrison presented Emo Court to the people of Ireland in 1994, although he continued to live in a private apartment here until his death. The OPW oversees the estate.
The house is built around the Rotunda, an impressive circular pillared hall, and contains remarkable parquetry floors, splendid stucco ceilings, elaborate marble mantelpieces and an interesting collection of paintings and authentic period furniture.
The magnificent walled demesne and gardens, dotted with statuary and featuring the first sequoia avenue in Ireland, are at their best in late spring and mid-autumn. (Photo by Paddy Brennan)
Coolbanagher (Cúil beannchair – “the corner of the pointed hills”) is a tiny community less than a mile from Emo.
St. John the Evangelist church (CoI), built in 1786, was James Gandon’s first commission in Ireland, and also his only complete religious edifice. His client was John Dawson, whose Mausoleum is inside. The interior also features a C15th baptismal font and urns designed by Gandon but only recently moulded and inserted under the auspices of Major Cholmeley Harrison.
Shaen Castle derived its name from Sidheán, a fairy hill. The fortification was one of the eight castles built by Lord Roger Mortimer in 1346 as defences for his main castle at Dunamase. According to tradition, Laoiseach O’More destroyed all eight castles and Dunamase itself in one night! Shaen castle was subsequently rebuilt, but it was demolished in 1650 by Oliver Cromwell‘s army. In the C19th Dean Coote built a fine mansion on the site, now St Brigid’s Hospital for old people.
Coolbanagher monastery, recently tidied up, was where Saint Aengus the Culdee famously had a vision.
Emo & Coolbanagher are