Did you know Ireland once had its very own ‘Paris’? It’s true. And we have the Huguenots to thank for it all
When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes (an act giving rights to Protestants in an overwhelmingly Catholic France) in 1685, the Huguenots knew the writing was on the wall. For those who could not escape, men were executed or bonded into slavery; women were imprisoned and young children were secreted away into convents.
For those 200,000 or so that did leave, few could have imagined that they would end up in Ireland – in the ‘Paris of the Midlands’ – Portarlington, County Laois.
This year, in July, Ireland’s ‘Paris’ is welcoming everyone, especially the French, home. The weekend will be a festival of France in Ireland with a Mini Tour dé France, Championship National du Manger L'escargots, heritage talks and much more. It will also be an unmissable chance to remember, discover and continue the story of the French in Portarlington.
And what a story it is…
A bend in the Barrow
Described elegantly by one historian as “A Bend in the River Barrow” Portarlington is slap bang at the core of Ireland’s midlands. For many of us visiting the Festival Francais dé Portarlington, our first date with the town will be its cosy Victorian train station.
For the 17th Century Huguenot’s fleeing persecution in their home country, however, Portarlington was home.
And the 500 or so French Protestants wouldn’t have reached the town by rail.
Their approach would have taken in Laois’ flat fields, recently tilled and turned tenderly to chocolate brown by hardworking farmers. Beach trees, too, would have welcomed them to the land, standing leafy and tall. And, while these days Laois is defined by its profusion of elegant country houses, such as Roundwood, Castle Durrow, Emo Court and Ballyfin, the life of the 17th Century French settlers was not an easy one.
While it’s true that the Huguenot’s had suffered pitiful luck until this point, they did find some good fortune in Ireland. Having defeated the Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne, County Meath, the protestant William of Orange was flush with Ireland’s lands. One man who benefitted from this was the wonderfully named, Henri Massue, Marquis de Ruvigny Earl of Galway and soon to be Baron of Portarlington.
It was from Massue that the Huguenot’s were given the town of Portarlington as a refuge. In fact, almost all of the Huguenot’s who originally settled there were soldiers who had fought for Henri Massue and William at the Boyne.
A bluebell stroll in a County Laois forest
Soldiers and Skills
After only a few years, the Huguenots had made a success not only of themselves, but of the town (William of Orange had hoped that the skilled Huguenot’s would add some much needed revenue to an impoverished Ireland). In fact, the Huguenots’ skill with crafts and business acumen was so strong that it became a hindrance. The market in Ireland became so flooded with their high-quality products that the English Parliament (Ireland was under British rule at the time) banned entirely the export of their woollen goods. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, was enraged and began a very early ‘buy Irish’ campaign.
Style is permanent
As Coco Chanel famously quipped, “Fashion comes and goes, but style lasts forever”. She may well have been speaking of the Huguenots. In County Laois today you will find a handsome Huguenot reminder of a French Church, a place of worship that still holds some Huguenot family registers. The exquisite Coolbanagher Church, designed by the Huguenot architect James Gandon, also still stands just a short drive outside of the town.
Could your ancestry run all the way back to royal warriors, creative souls and the ‘Paris of the Midlands’? Only one thing to do…Find out at the Festival Francais dé Portarlington.