08 January 2020

The French Church in
Portarlington and its
French records and clergy

Saint Paul’s Church, the French Church in Portarlington, Co Laois … built in 1694-1696 and rebuilt in 1851 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

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.

Saint Paul’s was built to serve the French-speaking and Flemish families of Huguenot refugees (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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 gravestones in the churchyard date from the 18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

The French Church became the parish church in Portarlington in 1869 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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)