300 yearsSt Paul's Church300 years

E-Mail: treascon@indigo.ie

One of Ireland's most historic churches is celebrating its 300th anniversary in 1996. The church of Ireland community and indeed the people of the town of Portarlington are marking the tercentenary of "The French Church" which was consecrated in 1696, with a series of special events which have been very successful. "The French Church" is aptly named. It was built to serve the Huguenots - French Protestants who had fled persecution in their native land and who fought on the side of William of Orange in his defeat of the Jacobites. The Huguenots brought with them their hallmarks of industry, architectural style and culture. So strong was their influence that for about 150 years records at the French Church were written in French rather than English or Irish! These fascinating books have been preserved to this day in the church and the information they contain is much sought after by scholars world-wide.

This special anniversary of the French Church is attracting great interest among historians and families of Huguenot descent and it is hoped, in this year of Ireland's presidency of the E.U., will result in an increase in visitors to the Midlands from Europe.
The distinctive Huguenot architecture in Portarlington is one abiding French influence, but so are many family names in the locality, such as Blanc, Champ, Cobbe and Deverell. So strong was their presence in the town and district that the French Church survived the English building which became the parochial hall.
On view during the Tercentenary celebrations will be the original set of Holy Communion silver along with a bronze bell presented by Princess Caroline of Brunswick, then Princess of Wales, in 1714.

Church Register and Prayer Book

The registers begun by Pasteur Gillet in 1694 were written in French and are the most complete and valuable source of information about Portarlington at that time. The first entry was the baptism of Françoise Cesar Neray in June of 1694; the last entry in French was the burial of Jean Henry in September 1816

The Church was honoured recently by the visit of the head of state, President Mary Robinson to celebrate 300 years of worship in the church of St. Paul. She joined with over three hundred parishioners, community representatives, distinguished guests and clergy from all the local churches in a service and reception to mark the tercentenary of the consecration of the French Church in 1696.

Portarlington was one of the last settlements in Ireland of Huguenot refugees who had escaped persecution in France in the late 17th Century. By 1700 a colony of over 500 French people had established themselves along the banks of the River Barrow near the middle of Ireland. President Robinson referred to the particular historical significance of Portarlington as a centre of Huguenot tradition and culture and to the many French named which are still to be found around the town, such as Blanc, Champ and Cobbe.

In an address to the assembled crowds, before planting a commemorative tree in the grounds, she referred to the need for communities to live together in peace and harmony in all parts of Ireland whatever their differences of beliefs. She highlighted the fact that the Huguenots had escaped persecution in France to settle in Ireland where Catholics were similarly persecuted.

Many visitors throughout the summer have visited the beautiful French Church and also the exhibition in the Parochial Hall which has comprehensively portrayed the history of the town of Portarlington and surrounding areas as well as including arts and crafts from local people. This exhibition which has just finished ran from July to September.

Earlier this year the parish of St. Paul’s published a new book on the French Church as a guide and reference for locals and visitors alike. This book is available from Michael Cann, Treascon Lodge, Portarlington, Cp. Laois, postage paid for US$12 or STG£8 per copy. A VHS video of the celebrations will shortly be available. For further information E-Mail to treascon @indigo.ie

For further information contact:

Rev. Scott Peoples, The Rectory, Portarlington, Co. Laois. Tel/Fax: 0502 43063.
Or Michael Cann, Treascon Lodge, Portarlington, Co. Offaly. Tel/Fax:: 0502 43183
E-Mail: treascon@indigo.ie

©Authored by SelfGrow Ltd 1996


were Protestants, many of them followers of John Calvin, who fled France in their thousands following religious persecution initiated around 1661 by the king, Louis XIV, with thousands of them coming to Ireland. The name Huguenot is believed to be derived from St. Hugo a Protestant at the time of the Reformation, although other meanings have been suggested. Persecution had been going on in France sporadically since the middle of the 16th century and on 24th August 1572 the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day had occurred when thousands of Protestants were killed.

By 1662 the number of Protestants in France had grown to over one million; in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes and made Protestantism illegal, with the result that more than 400,000 fled the country. About 500 were settled in Portarlington by 1700. These settlers were mostly from the military, having fought with William of Orange in the wars of the late 17th century against the army of James 11; in conflicts such as the Battle of the Boyne, the Sieges of Limerick and the Battle of Aughrim.

De Ruvigny had been a general in the Williamite forces and seeing himself as a patron of the Huguenot regiments, he settled them and their families on an estate which had been given to him, as a personal gift, by King William. The idea of de Ruvigny and many of his settlers was to recreate a miniature France in Portarlington. Two churches and two schools were established under a covenant; one of each for the French inhabitants and likewise for the fewer English settlers. These churches were chapels-of-ease to the parish church of Lea, three miles east of Portarlington and close to the ruins of Lea Castle, a medieval castle, home to the O’Dempseys. This had once defended the River Barrow, but was destroyed by the forces of Oliver Cromwell in 1651.

It is odd that no church was built when Portarlington was founded in 1666. The traditional territories of the O’Dempsey clan had been confiscated again under Cromwell and were not to be returned despite serious efforts by the clan leader Lord Clanmaliere. The land instead passed to Sir Henry Bennet, Lord Arlington, friend and minister to King Charles 11 of England. The king never visited Ireland, but aimed at creating a colony of industrious Protestants. The venture was not successful, although a map drawn in 1679 showed that weaving had been attempted. The "loome house" was the largest single room in town, spacious enough to hold a congregation. Whether it still had a roof when the French arrived is not known but the site was chosen for the "French Church".

In the 19th Century major renovations were made to the church including changing the axis of the building and increasing the seating areas.

©Authored by SelfGrow Ltd 1996