09 January 2020
The ‘English Church’ in
Portarlington and its
role in a ‘French town’
Saint Michael’s Church, a former Church of Ireland parish church in Portarlington, Co Laois, was once known as the ‘English Church.’ It stands on the east side Market Square, beside the dilapidated former Savoy Cinema, almost hidden behind the former Market House, and diagonally opposite Saint Paul’s, the ‘French Church,’ on the corner of the Square and the town’s main street, French Church Street.
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 no parish church for the new town.
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. 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.
Lord Galway 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. But until the 19th century they remained, officially, chapels of ease to the original parish church 3 km outside Portarlington in the village of Lea.
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 Michael and Saint Paul. They were endowed with a rent-charge of £40 late on lands in the area.
Saint Michael’s Church was for the English-speaking families and Saint Paul’s Church was to serve the French and Flemish families; in time, they became known as the ‘English Church’ and the ‘French Church.’
The income of the French Church was augmented with an annual grant of £50 voted by Parliament, while the former Board of First Fruits increased the stipend of the minister of the English Church to £100 per annum.
Portarlington is in the Diocese of Kildare and both churches were in the patronage of the Bishop of Kildare.
The English church, on the east side of the Square, was rebuilt in the late Georgian style ca 1830. Seven years later, Samuel Lewis noted in 1837 that the English Church ‘has a handsome spire.’
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.
The English Church was then deconsecrated, and the spire was eventually removed in 1924. The former church is now used as community hall.
The former church has a round-headed door opening with replacement timber panelled door, put in place ca 1980, with an over-panel. Inside, the ceiling has a decorative plaster rosette and the chancel has a decorative plaster arch.
The building has coursed rubble limestone walls with an ashlar plinth, quoins, stringcourse and coping. The round-headed windows have limestone sills, limestone voussoirs and replacement metal-framed casement windows that date from ca 1940.
Lea Parish Church, 3 km outside Portarlington, remains open, but is only used from Easter until October, and then with a twice-monthly service.
Saint Michael’s is also the name of the Roman Catholic parish church at the west end of Portarlington, on the Offaly side of the River Barrow.