Portlaoise is the principal town of County Laois in the Irish midlands. The county is the only one - of 32 - with no English translation of its name. It is also, as every local schoolchild could once rattle off, 'the only county in Ireland that touches a county that doesn’t touch the sea’. The county name derives from Laoiseach Ceannmore, an ancient historical personage whose name may be translated as ‘Laoiseach, great leader’ but definitely not, as one linguistic wag with the cúpla focal had it, ’Laoiseach with the big head’! The Triogue [1] (say 'Try-ogue' to rhyme with 'rogue', with the emphasis on the second syllable), a tributary of the River Barrow, flows through our town and, according to figures produced by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1999, this little stream enjoyed the dubious distinction of being Ireland’s fifth most polluted waterway.

The town grew up around a fort established by English settlers in 1548. This happened half a century before the founding of Jamestown, Virginia - which marked the beginning of English colonisation of America. The fort occupied the area where, inter alia, Fitzmaurice Place and the old Vocational School ('the Tech') stand today. The only visible remains of the fort are a circular tower and small portions of the wall. The fort was initially called Fort Protector in honour of the Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector of England. In 1557 the name was changed to Maryborough in honour of Queen Mary. At the same time, Laois became known as Queen’s County. In 1570 Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter of incorporation and, throughout the second half of the 16th century, Maryborough ("That town of evil omen, founded in the blood of the Irish, the triumphant centre of the first English plantatation."[2]) remained the only town in the county. During the war of 1641, it was captured by Catholic forces and, nine years later, by Oliver Cromwell’s troops. In the late 1650’s, with a population of 198 (150 Irish and 48 English), Maryborough was the third largest town in the county behind Ballinakill (204) and Mountrath (223). [3]

In the 17th century, the town began to expand westwards from the fort, but the street plan that existed up the 1960’s was laid out in the early 18th century. Throughout that century, the administrative life of the town was dominated by the burgomaster who ordained who could or could not be classed a ‘freeman’ (a member of the Corporation). In mid-century, Warner Westenra (Of Dutch extraction, he lived in Heath House, which still stands opposite the Heath Golf Club today), Bartholomew Gilbert and William Dawson formed a triple alliance which controlled the Corporation for sixteen years. The first two gentlemen, incidentally, alternated the office of burgomaster for more than a decade. There were about 400 electors in the town – one of whom, as a fascinating document from 1760 makes clear, would vote for whoever “gives his wife most money”[4] – and, until the Act of Union in 1801, the town returned two members to the Irish (Grattan’s) Parliament in Dublin.

Around the turn of the century, Maryborough had a thriving woollen industry and most houses had a loom, yet an 1833 report is a fairly damning indictment of how the town was being governed: “False weights and measures are in general use, by which all classes, and particularly the poor, suffer severely. The town is not lighted and many of the houses are scarcely above the class of mere thatched cabins”.[5] As is universally the case, such conditions were not allowed interfere with profit-making by the few. Maryborough (also spelt Maryboro, incidentally and usually pronounced by locals as ‘Marbra’) had a considerable flour industry, a soap and candle factory, a tannery and, eight times a year, a fair for “cattle, horses, pigs and pedlery”. Justice in those days was fairly rough indeed; According to the Assizes Record, in 1803, John Lewes was “burned in the hand for stealing 5 shillings worth of hay”. He was lucky compared to Michael Kavanagh, sentenced to death for stealing a watch. It might be said that even he was lucky compared to the poor unfortunate who, in 1827, was sentenced to be hanged and dissected in the County Infirmary.

In graphic evidence given to the House of Commons in 1832, Fr. Nicholas O'Connor, Parish Piest of Maryborough, stated that since he came to the town in 1816, there had been famines in 1817, 1822 and 1825. Many people, he said, were living on the yellow weeds that grew in corn; When administering the Last Sacraments he was obliged to pick the straw from the skins of the dying. In 1847 (‘Black 47’), at the height of the Famine, fever raged in the town, but, thankfully, the population escaped the worst ravages of the cholera epidemic that struck Ireland in 1849 and 1850. Nevertheless, the Famine and its aftermath had a devastating effect on the population of Queen’s County: In 1841 it was 159,930; forty years later it was more than halved to 73,124.

[1] Despite my consultations with accepted authorities (inter alia, the Placenames Branch in the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, and the late Flann O'Riain, the origin of this name remains obscure. If you have suggestions, I would love to hear from you.
[2] Green, A.S. The Making of Ireland and Its Undoing 1200-1600. p. 288. Maunsell & Co. 1919
[3] Pender, Seamus (Editor). A Census of Ireland Circa 1659. Clearfield Company Inc., Baltimore. 1999.
[4] A Handlist of the Voters of Maryborough 1760. National Library of Ireland., MS 1726
[5] Report by the Municipal Enquiry Commission. See Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland, vol. ii, p. 738