08 January 2020
The French Church in
Portarlington and its
French records and clergy
Saint Paul’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Portarlington, Co Laois, is known popularly as the ‘French Church.’ It stands on the junction of the Market Square and the town’s main street, French Church Street, on the site of the town’s original French Church, consecrated in 1694 by William Moreton (1641-1715), Bishop of Kildare (1682-1705).
It may seem strange that when Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington, built his new town of Portarlington on the banks of the River Barrow in 1666, he provided the new town with no parish church. A small part of the town was in the parish of Clonehorke, King’s County (Offaly), but it was mainly in the parish of Lea, Queen’s County (Laois). The nearest parish church was then in the neighbouring village of Lea, near Lea Castle and 3 km outside Portarlington.
Portarlington straddles the border between Co Laois and Co Offaly. However, the colony founded by Bennet was an economic and political failure, and he sold off his Irish estates before he died in 1685.
But new life came to Portarlington in the 1690s in the wake of the Williamite Wars. After the Treaty of Limerick (1691), the Portarlington estates were confiscated from Sir Patrick Trant, a Jacobite, and granted to Henri de Massue (1648-1720), Marquis de Ruvigny and Earl of Galway.
Henri de Massue was a Huguenot and a former courtier in Versailles who had fled France as a religious refugee after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. He invited other Huguenot refugees to settle on his new estate from 1692. He realised that the parish church in Lea was too far away and that his expanding town needed new places, he set about building not just one but two new churches in Portarlington.
Two churches and two schools were established: one of each for the French-speaking and English-speaking residents. In 1694, a church was established à la forme ancienne de nos églises de France, in other words Calvinist.
The ‘Loome House’ had been the largest building in the town, and the site was chosen for the ‘French Church.’ Saint Michael’s Church was built on the opposite corner of the Market Square for the English-speaking families.
Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) noted that the two churches built in Portarlington during the reign of William III were dedicated to Saint Paul and Saint Michael. They were endowed with a rent-charge of £40 late on lands in the area.
Saint Paul’s was to serve the French and Flemish families and Saint Michael’s was for the English-speakers; in time, they became known as the ‘French Church’ and the ‘English Church.’ Both churches were chapels of ease within the Parish of Lea.
Saint Paul’s Church was rebuilt by Joseph Welland in 1851 in the Gothic Revival style on a cruciform plan, incorporating the fabric of the earlier church built in 1694-1696. An inscription on a shield-shape plaque on the tower reads: Eglise Grancaise de St Paul Batie L’an 1696 rebuilt 1851.
The church has a double-pitched slate roof, porches, a tower, castellated parapets, corner pinnacles on the tower, pointed-arch windows and doorways with limestone surrounds, diamond-leaded windows, and timber panelled doors.
I was unable to get inside the church during my visit to Portarlington. But inside there are oak-panelled box pews, stained-glass windows, marble wall monuments, a timber organ gallery, clustered columns, and an open timber roof. The raised chancel has a tiled floor, a Caen stone and marble altar and a lectern.
The churchyard has gravestones and headstones dating from the 18th to 20th century, including crosses, round headed, recumbent slabs and table tombs. However, the one surviving French gravestone is a deliberate anachronism of 1804, commemorating the Revd Antoine Fleury, a descendant of Waterford Huguenots.
Pasteur Jacques Gillet opened the register of baptisms, marriages and burials for the French Church in Portarlington in 1694: Nostre ayde soit au nom de Dieu, qui a fait le ciel et la terre, Amen (‘Our help be in the name of God who has made heaven and earth, Amen’).
The registers continued to be written in French until 1816, and include over 1,500 names, with many familiar Huguenot family names, such as Blanc, Lalande, Vignoles or Champagné. The registers are the main source of information about life in the French town; they reveal the places of origin in France, and occupations both military and civil.
Before his escape from France, Pasteur Benjamin de Daillon had been on the run, imprisoned once in the Conciergerie in Paris.
When an Act in 1702 recognised de Ruvigny’s leases, control of the church revenues and endowed rentals in Portarlington was vested with the Bishop of Kildare, and Bishop Moreton insisted that de Daillon be re-ordained and follow the rites of the Church of Ireland. However, de Daillon refused, and left with a small following of mostly the non-noble population.
John Wesley preached in English in Portarlington in 1750 and reported a stilted French service in the French Church.
Technically, the parish church in Lea remained the Church of Ireland parish in the area, even after it was rebuilt ca 1810. In 1869, the French Church became the parish church in Portarlington in place of the English Church.
However, the perpetual curate since 1838, John Worsley, who was also Dean of Kildare, kept the English Church open, and the two churches maintained separate parochial lives until 1887, when the church schools closed and the two churches were amalgamated.
Lea Parish Church, 3 km outside Portarlington, remains open, but is only used from Easter until October, and then with a twice-monthly service.