In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Portarlington was the Paris of the Midlands, a place where French, rather than Irish or English, was spoken on the streets. French Huguenots, escaping persecution in their native land, shaped the culture and the architecture of this bustling Midlands town.
Portarlington was originally founded in 1666 by Henry Bennett, Lord Arlington, on land located in a bend of the River Barrow. Arlington tried to “plant” the town with English and Scottish settlers. He sold the lands to Sir Patrick Trant, a supporter of James II.
After William of Orange defeated James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690), the lands containing Portarlington were seized by the crown and then given to Henri Massue, Marquis de Ruvigny, Earl of Galway and later Baron of Portarlington. Ruvigny decided to offer the town as a refuge to the Huguenots. These French and Flemish protestants had been forced to flee their homes after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which eliminated the right to practice their religion.
By 1702, 500 Huguenots lived in Portarlington. Some were noblesse d’epee, minor aristocrats who traditionally entered military service. The vibrant community they created spread into Offaly and the surrounding countryside. Portarlington became known for its Public Classical Schools, where the children of well-to-do families were taught the French manners considered desirable in ladies and gentlemen.
Today visitors can view houses built in the Huguenot style on French Street and Patrick Street. Their courtyards and gardens sometimes contain Jargonelle pears, a delicious legacy of the Huguenot refugees.
Audioguide to Portarlington by Abarta Heritage
Not far from Portarlington are the ruins of Lea Castle, a Norman fortress that was seized and held by the O’Dempseys until the mid-1600s, when Cromwell’s troops destroyed it. The Castle is not open to the public, but a group of local volunteers are working to conserve it.