Portlaoise: Forty Historical Facts

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Portlaoise: Forty Historical Facts. By John Dunne

1. The town grew up around a fort established by English settlers in 1548. In 1557 it was named Maryborough in honour of Queen Mary.

2. In October 1920, the Town Commission passed a resolution that Maryborough be renamed Portlaoise. In recent years, a local historian attributed the change of name to “a fit of pseudo-patriotism”. In 1959, Laois County Councillors were still discussing whether we were living in Maryborough or Portlaoise; Queen’s County or Laois.

3. In the mid 18th century, 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. If you needed a plumber back in 1955, the name was Bond, James Bond, 53, Clonminam.

5. February 1984. Kelly’s Foundry, one of the town’s biggest employers, closes down.

6. In June 2007, Nigerian native, Rotimi Adebari, a Town Councillor since 2004, was elected Mayor of Portlaoise. He thus became the first black mayor in Ireland.

7. A Freemasonry Lodge was established in the town in 1763. Today, the Lodge-rooms are situated in Church Street.

8. Never let it be said that our local politicians lacked vision. After the Town Hall was destroyed by fire in 1945, a Town Commissioner looked into the future and saw an airport in the Market Square. Where the ruined building stood, he predicted, “a plane will probably be leaving for Dublin and another one for Cork”.

9. In July, 1776, prisoners in the gaol in Church Street “nearly effected an escape.” They had tunnelled thirteen feet below the foundation before they were discovered.

10. January 1921. Queen’s County Coursing Club invited people to “come in your thousands to Maryborough and see the best greyhounds in Ireland running for the Midland Cup”.

11. An triú lá déag de Mí an Mheithimh, 1948. Feis Mór Laoise i bPortlaoise. Ceol, Rinncí, Teanga, Amhránaíocht, Bannaí, Stair agus Drámaí.

12. In December 1949, the local James McIntosh Cumann of Fianna Fáil proposed to the Town Commission that Coote Street be renamed Lalor Street (or James Fintan Lalor Street, depending on which local newspaper you read).

13. When Daniel O’Connell visited the town in 1843, the Freeman’s Journal reported that he was menaced by four drunken Orangemen and seven ugly women.

14. While the Revolution was raging in France, pupils in Mrs Trousdell’s Boarding school were learning English, Writing, Arithmetic, Geography, Drawing, Music and Dancing, Tambour, Filigree, Embroidery and “all kinds of fashionable work”. She also undertook to look after “the health and morals of her pupils”.

15. Charles Corcoran, a late 19th century solicitor in the town, was the grandfather of actor Roddy McDowell.

16. The “Gentlemen of the Queen’s County” met in Maryborough on Monday, July 8, 1782, to “consider the most proper and effectual mode of obtaining relief for the sufferers by the late dreadful fire in the town”.

17. After dinner on January 27, 1903, two hundred inmates of the Maryborough Gaol suffered “violent vomiting and paralytic distortions”. It was later discovered that spraying powder used on the prison farm had been repackaged as pepper.

18. Portlaoise Film Society published the first issue of its monthly journal, Scannán, in December, 1945.

19. In December, 1846, a man was found dead in Tea Lane. The subsequent newspaper report was the epitome of Victorian melodrama: “there was neither fire nor candle-light in the wretched hovel; no drink to allay the death-thirst of his parched lips but cold water; while his bed was a wisp of straw on the damp floor….”

20. January 1912. Aeneas Lamont, a Belfast Protestant living in Coote Street, wrote to The Irish Times, expressing his support for Home Rule.

21. April 22, 1777. For robbing a house “of plate and cash to a considerable amount”, Patrick McCann was executed at the Green of Maryborough.

22. In 1850, Frederick Bourne’s inn and coaching establishment at Boughlone was turned into an auxiliary workhouse. Many of the inmates were buried in unmarked graves in the small graveyard there.

23. In 1922, Rowe’s Jewellers (opposite where Dunamaise Arts Centre is today) guaranteed to develop photographs “free from scratches and finger marks”.

24. July 1886. The Parish Priest Dr Phelan told an Inquiry that, of the 36 houses in Lyster Lane, only one was “at all fit for human habitation“.

25. October 1985. Meitheal na Samhna, the first Laois Arts Festival, was launched in the town. Its slogan was ISTHATYOUMOVIN? Can you remember why?

26. November 2, 1813. A “numerous meeting” in the courthouse of the Roman Catholics of the Queen’s County called for “the total and unqualified repeal of all the statutes which infringe, directly or indirectly, the sacred rights of religious freedom”. Secretary of the meeting was John Dunne.

27. Tea Lane is actually a misnomer. It was named because a smaller lane behind the houses in Grattan Street met it, forming the letter T.

28. In 1895, Richard Fennell became the first Catholic Postmaster in the town. According to The Nationalist, this was achieved despite “the bitter opposition and wire-pulling of the local Freemason Lodge”.

29. The Yellow Lough was filled in when the County Hospital was being built.

30. July 30, 1919. the twenty-third annual show of the Queen’s County Agricultural Society was held in the Show Grounds (near the railway station).

31. October 1787. Tenders sought for the supply of 100,000 bricks for the construction of the new courthouse.

32. At a meeting in Stradbally in November 1883, a resolution was adopted to build a tramway between there and Maryborough.

33. August 1914. Russell’s Sawmills – beside the railway bridge in Grattan Street – were completely gutted by fire. Efforts to extinguish the inferno were futile “as there was only one hose procurable”.

34. July 1820. John Butterfield was hanged for stealing five pigs.

35. In his evidence before the House of Commons in 1832, Parish priest Fr. Nicholas O’Connor stated that there were famines in the local area in 1817, 1822 and 1825. The people, he said, were living on the yellow weeds that grew in corn.

36. December 5, 1962. Danceland, owned by late Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and his brother, and boasting “a Canadian Floor, Continental Lighting and The Royal Showband”, opened on the New Road. It was demolished in 1970.

37. Rev. Thomas Harper, commemorated in the lane that bears his name, was Rector of Maryborough 1823-63.

38. August 1914. John Redmond inspected 3,000 National Volunteers in the town. During his address, he mentioned that he had several thousand rifles in his possession for distribution.

39. January 1953. Sixteen women became violently sick from gas poisoning in the Coliseum Cinema.

40. On May 16, 1815, Mr Bartholomew Bull of Maryborough married Miss Charlotte Grandy from Duncannon, County Wexford. It was the groom’s fourth marriage; he was 75, his bride 18.


John Dunne’s new publication, ‘A Book about Portlaoise’ is now available to buy in All Books (2019)

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