Wednesday, 8 January 2020

The Huguenot heritage
of Portarlington, once
the ‘Paris of the Midlands’

Arlington House in Portarlington … the former school has been sadly neglected for over 20 years and is on the ‘high risk’ list (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During one of my journeys between Askeaton and Dublin during the Christmas and New Year season, I stopped to see the town of Portarlington, on the banks of the River Barrow and straddling the borders of Co Laois and Co Offaly, once known as Queen’s County and King’s County.

The town has a population of about 8,500 and is divided by the River Barrow, with Co Offaly on the north bank and Co Laois on the south bank of river.

Portarlington is a relatively new town in Ireland. It was founded in 1666 by Sir Henry Bennet (1618-1685), Earl of Arlington, who had been Home Secretary to Charles II, who granted Bennet the former estates of the O’Dempsey family, confiscated after the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

The River Barrow runs through Portarlington, dividing the Laois and Offaly sides of the town(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Bennet was reputed to have found many of the king’s mistresses, and he had been Charles II’s ambassador to Madrid before and after the Caroline restoration in 1690.

Charles II honoured his friend and agent with the titles of Baron Arlington of Harlington in Middlesex (1665) and Earl of Arlington (1672). The town on his new estates in the Irish Midlands was given the name of Port Arlington, or Portarlington, although it is almost as far from the Irish coast as is imaginable and the River Barrow is barely navigable at this point.

His residence in London was Arlington House, built on the site where Buckingham Palace was eventually built.

Lord Arlington’s government posts included Keeper of the Privy Purse (1661-1662), Secretary of State for the Southern Department (1662-1674), Postmaster General (1667-1685) and Lord Chamberlain (1674-1685).

Arlington died in 1685, and his titles and English estates passed to his daughter, Lady Isballa Bennet, who married Charles II’s illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy (1663-1690), Duke of Grafton. By then, his colony at Portarlington was a failure. But shortly before his death in 1685, Bennet sold his Irish estate to Sir Patrick Trant, a Jacobite whose property was confiscated after the Williamite Wars.

The French Inn and Huguenot House on French Church Street recall the town’s Huguenot and French heritage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Portarlington estate was granted to a leading Huguenot, Henri de Massue (1648-1720), 2nd Marquis de Ruvigny, who had been the last Huguenot representative at the court of Versailles before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Following the Treaty of Limerick (1691), Portarlington was re-established with the settlement of Huguenot refugees.

The titles of Earl of Galway (1697), and Viscount Galway (1692) and Baron Portarlington (1692) were given to de Ruvigny, who financed the building of 130-150 new houses for the Huguenot refugees and established two schools, one for the French children and one for the English who had remained from Lord Arlington’s plantation.

An Act of Resumption deprived de Ruvigny of his estate and threw into doubt all the leases he had granted. By 1702, however, the Huguenots’ leases were legitimised and their presence in Portarlington was secured.

When Lord Galway died in 1720, his titles died out. But the Huguenot settlement on his estate remained unique and has been called the ‘Paris of the Midlands.’ It is said that French continued to be used as a language in Portarlington until the 1820s. One of the main streets is French Church Street, and the Church of Ireland parish church, dating from 1694, is known as the French Church.

Portarlington continues to celebrate its Huguenot heritage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Portarlington sent two MPs to the Irish House of Commons, and in 1785 the title of Earl of Portarlington was given to John Dawson, who had been MP for Portarlington.

After the Act of Union elected one MP, and the 15 members of the town corporation were the sole electors until electoral reforms in the mid-19th century. The MPs for Portarlington included David Ricardo (1819-1824), the first Jewish-born MP elected in Ireland, and various members of the Dawson and Dawson-Damer family from nearby Emo Court and who held the title of Earl of Portarlington.

The borough was finally abolished in 1885.

A pair of restored Georgian houses on Patrick Street, Portarlington (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Pembroke House and Braemar, two lovingly restored Georgian houses on Patrick Street, are positive examples of how Portarlington’s architectural heritage can be conserved.

However, Arlington House on French Church Street, illustrates the sad neglect of Portarlington in more recent years, and is on the ‘High Risk’ list of historic buildings because of its neglect and its ‘very poor’ state of maintenance.

The building is suffering from major conservation problems. Most of the external fabric remains, but there are obvious signs of deterioration such as slipped slates, vegetation growth, broken windows and vandalism. There is no immediate danger of collapse but the condition is such that unless urgent remedial works are carried out the building will sharply deteriorate.

Arlington House was first built in 1697 by a Huguenot settler, Daniel Le Grand Chevalier Seigneur du Petit Bosc, on land previously known as Cruthley’s Close, and he lived there until his death in 1737.

Arlington House was built in two periods, with the original house to the rear. The front section of the house was built around 1760 in what has become known as the Irish Georgian style, with a pedimented centre piece.

The building was a boarding school during the 19th century. Professor John Pentland Mahaffey of Trinity College Dublin once said, ‘this school stands quite at the head of Irish Schools.’

Past students may have included the Duke of Wellington and certainly included in the 1860s Edward Carson, the Unionist leader who was also the prosecutor at the trial of Oscar Wilde.

Another pupil was Feargus O’Connor (1794-1855) from Cork, whose uncle, Arthur O’Connor, had been a prominent United Irishman. O’Connor was expelled from the school in January 1815 for trying to elope with the headmaster’s daughter. He later became an MP and was one of the leaders of the Chartist movement in England.

Despite its history and importance to the town, Arlington House has stood empty for many decades and is now in a state of near-total ruin. After more than 20 years of dereliction, Arlington House is now a shell. It urgently needs new uses to be identified to prevent further deterioration of its character.

The former Market House in the Square looks sad, neglected and isolated (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Other important, but seemingly neglected buildings in the town include the former Market House on the Square, built ca 1740.

This is a detached three-bay two-storey mid-Georgian building. It was renovated in the 1990s for use as garage and a workshop on the ground floor, with residential accommodation above.

The round-headed carriageways on the ground floor have been blocked up, the original fittings removed, and it looks sad and isolated on the Square, a traffic island in the middle of a car park. It is in need of architectural

My visits to Portarlington’s three churches were different experiences. But more about those visits in later posts.

Huguenot House on French Church Street, Portarlington (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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