OUR TOWN c. 1850 - 2000


Over the years, what Slater's Directory of 1846 described as 'a spacious Market Square with turret and clock' has witnessed Markets, Fair Days, political meetings and religious celebrations. On October 5th, 1879, for instance, 20,000 tenant farmers gathered here for the first of the 'monster meetings' organised by the Land League in the county. Within a year, almost every parish in the area had followed the advice of John Dillon - one of the organisation's leaders - to form a branch and meet every Sunday after mass.

The Markets sold everything from clothes to pots and pans and books of poetry. But you'd also want to be careful that you weren't poisoned: at the Maryborough Petty Sessions of June 1849, a dealer was fined for selling 'putrid and unsound meat'. This, according to the Magistrates, was 'a nuisance more prevalent in Maryborough than in any other market town in Ireland'! Some colourful characters also appeared on Market Day. One such was Seequaw, a sort of dental quack who practised his art in full Red Indian regalia. Apparently, he also had a bugler stationed nearby, not for the entertainment of the masses but to drown out his patients' screams.

The Fair days, which flourished until the late 1950's, took over most of the town centre; cattle in the Square, sheep and pigs further down the Main Street. What many of the people I spoke to seemed to remember most vividly was the smell, and the streets being hosed down afterwards. Some recalled that on Fair Days the town bakers produced special 'curranty buns' to feed their country cousins, while others had stories of beasts escaping from their pens and creating havoc in the town. I suspect that at least one of those runaways was a shaggy dog.

The Market House with its turret and clock (1803-1885) was replaced by the Town Hall which stood in front of the houses above. Designed by the English-born architect, John Hampden Shaw, this magnificent building housed the Town Clerk's office and various other municipal offices, a Concert Hall and a Billiards Room. In a letter to The Nationalist and Leinster Times, someone hiding behind the nom de plume 'Glana' complained about a fancy Dress Ball held here on St Stephen's Night, 1921. [Those of you of a sartorial inclination will be interested to learn that highly commended for their outfits were Mrs O'Connell as Puff Puff and Mr R.G.H. Russell as Chin Chin Chow]. At one stage, the lights were turned off, and God knows what the dancers got up to in the dark, but 'Glana' feared nothing less than 'the heathen practices of Continental atheists'. In his letter, every line of which drips vitriol, he - for some reason I feel certain that 'Glana' was a man - pours his most vicious bile on 'Old Grandfathers who might pass for Santa Clause, baldy heads, and old maids, musty and well seasoned from the shelf, who may be seen nightly enjoying themselves on the floor'.

Its dancing days well over, and in a state of disrepair, the Town Hall burned down in March, 1945. The following September, the Town Commissioners appointed a committee to find a site for a new hall which would "be a credit to the town". One of the suggested sites was Lyster Lane, but this, of course, never happened and, in September 1949, the Leinster Express reported that 'the Town Commission at long last agreed that the unsightly ruins of the Town Hall, the greatest eyesore in Portlaoise was to be demolished'. And so it was in October of that year.

To honour the forthcoming Marian Year of 1954, the Menís Confraternity planned to erect the Shrine of Mary Immaculate, Mother of God. The County Engineer objected on the grounds that a statue would 'reduce the vision of drivers approaching the town from the Mountrath and Abbeyleix Roads', but religious sentiment prevailed1. Most of the ?,500 cost was raised by selling raffle tickets and, amid what the Leinster Express described as 'scenes of piety and fervour never before experienced in the town', the Shrine was blessed and dedicated in December 1953. To mark the occasion, the town was 'gaily decorated with bunting and flags, while miniature shrines, tastefully illuminated, adorned practically every house'. T. C Kelly's loudspeakers relayed the unveiling ceremony throughout the town. The statue itself is made of Carrera marble and the railings are the work of local man, Din Tynan2 whose forge once stood at the corner of Grattan Street and Tea Lane. Employees of the long-gone Irish Worsted Mills sponsored the decorations and lights for the ceremony. Over the years, as well as a place of private devotion, the Shrine has been the venue of an atmospheric Midnight Rosary on New Yearís Eve, and remains a popular landmark. Referring to the moving statues phenomenon which shook the country in 1985, a surviving member of the original Shrine Committee proudly proclaimed that "ours never stirred".

Throughout the 1950's, May and Corpus Christi Processions - austere carnivals of pious schoolchildren, veiled Children of Mary, and the Men's Confraternity with their gilded banners - made their way from Church Avenue, up Main Street to congregate around the Statue in scenes almost medieval in their majesty. All accompanied by prayers and hymns - Tantum ergo Sacramentum Veneremur cernui - broadcast from SS Peter and Paul's by the ubiquitous T. C. Kelly. The prayers, 'given out' in the church and answered by the shuffling faithful occasionally got a bit tangled due to the delay coming through the loudspeakers, but almost everyone I spoke to - even those of a non-religious persuasion - recalled these occasions with a sense of warm nostalgia.

On April 10th 1966, an Easter Rising Golden Jubilee Parade took a more circuitous route: Assembly at the Garda Barracks, across the Square, down Coote Street and Station Road, past the Monument in Tower Hill, turn right into Mill View, right again into Bridge Street, and up Main Street into the Square again. According to the local paper, the town was 'a riot of colour', and people thronged the streets to applaud the colour party, seven bands, Knights of Malta, Civil Defence, public representatives, members of the Old Laois Brigade and a host of other groups and organisations. Five 1916 Veterans were the undoubted stars of the spectacle which culminated in the Market Square - 'a solid mass of people' - with the playing of the National Anthem and the reading of the Proclamation.

Since then, the Square has seen everything from the proverbial good (10,000 people turned out in 1980 to protest against the threatened downgrading of Portlaoise Hospital), the bad (its present status as a glorified car park) and the occasional late-night brawl. A 2008 survey of the town's architectural heritage recommended that "car parking in the Market Square be removed or significantly reduced.... that a high quality landscape design be commissioned, possibly by means of an architectural design competition, to reconfigure the space for the enjoyment of the townspeople".


1 'The Empire struck back' in 1994 when the Council reduced the size of the Shrine to accommodate more parking.

2 He was also responsible for the railings around the present Catholic church.