Historical Account of the Castle of Lea, Queen's County
Including some entertaining antiquities of the rock of Dunamase, the Castle of Geashill, Maryboro'. Carlow, &c. and a description of the town of Portarlington.Copied from an old manuscript in the possession of a gentleman of that town.
THIS article was published in booklet form by the Leinster Express in 1832 and printed by Henry William Talbot the first proprietor of the paper. In the preface no author was given, but Mr. Talbot wrote, copied, from an old manuscript in the possession, of a gentleman of that town (Portarlington). Republished here with the kind permission of the Editor of the Leinster Express, Teddy Fennelly.
The Castle of Lea, Leix, or Leighs as it is variously written by ancient writers and in old records, was one of the early castles erected by the English colonists. These tracts of country, which extend about two or three miles on both sides of the river Barrow, between the King's and Queen's Counties, and the County Kildare, were, in former ages, the macro, or marshes between the ancient Irish principalities of Leix, Offalia, and Mordha, and was, therefore central ground, in which the neighbouring inhabitants hunted, and which the Frans, or national guards were stationed, and consisted chiefly of woods, moors, and bogs.
Even so late as the 17th century,
this district which is situated in the Queen's county, is returned in
Sir William Betty's Down Survey, unprofitable ground, consisting principally
of woods and brushwood, while the opposite side of the Barrow was a continued
chain from Athy to Monasterevin. That part of these marshes which bordered
on the northern confines of Leix, the present Queen's County, was denominated
Ince, from being nearly surrounded by the river, and was the marshes,
or hunting ground of the O'Moores, or Hy Mordha, the
On the arrival of the English in the year 1170, Mac Morough's daughter, Eva, as heiress to his estates by English tenure, but contrary to the ancient Irish constitution, marrying Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke, invested her husband with the principality of Leinster. Earl Strongbow's daughter, by this Irish Princess, married William Maxfield, Earl Mareschal of England, commonly called William Mareschal, he became in her right, Earl of Pembroke, Lord of Leix, and Prince of Leinster, in Ireland.
This William Mareschal established
and English colony in his Lordship of Leix, in a fertile plain, called
by the Irish, Magh Riada, or the pleasant fields, comprehending the present
Heath of Maryborough, and the adjacent country, at that time covered by
woods and bogs. To secure this colony from the aboriginals, he erected
the castle of Donamaas, and formed a barony called the Barony and Manor
of Dunamaas, comprehending the present Baronies of Maryboro' and Stradbally
containing in its dependencies, the Manors of Shane, Rheban, Timahoe and
Dysart whose Lords or proprietors were styled Baronets or Lords of the
Palatinate of Lea, not being Lords of Parliament as the Lords of Rheban
&c. &c. which title of Baronet or lessor Baron, is now extinct
they being made by the Lords of the Palatine and not summoned to parliament
by the King's writ.
Eva, the eldest daughter, inhabited the Manor of Dunamaas and its dependencies; Sybil, the fourth daughter, had for her inheritance, the county of Kildare, and was married to Thomas, Earl of Derby; her daughter by this Earl was married to William de Vesey, which Lord, in her right, became possessed of the Kildare estate as a palatine.
To secure this property from the claims of the other daughters of Earl Mareshal and their heirs, and to protect it from the incursions of the native Irish, the said William de Vesey, built the Castle of Lea, on the banks of the river Barrow, in the Marshes of Ince, about the year 1260, which Castle was, by the Irish, denominated Purt na Ince, or the Castle of Ince; and from whence the present barony of Portnahinch takes its name; but, by the English generally denominate Lea, Ley, or Leigh, from being erected on the confines of Leix.
The architecture of this castle was in the improved style of English building of that period. It consisted of a quadrangular building of three stories, flanked by round bastions. In the rere of the castle was the inner court, or ballium, in which was a tennis court, tilt yard, and other places of recreation and convenience. The outer entrance consisted of a gate, or barbican, defended by a portcullis, and flanked by round bastions. The whole was surrounded by the outer ballium, or court, each corner of which flanked the sides, or curtains, by a round bastion. In this court, or bawn, the horses, cows, and other cattle, were secured during the night. The walls were eight feet thick; surrounding the castle, at about one hundred yards distance from the outer walls, was the wilderness, consisting of a wood, with plashed places, so that no one could enter it except at the avenues, guarded by abetis. In the front of the barbican, or great entrance, was the town, inhabited by the farmers and artificers appertaining to the castle and its domain, which inhabitants formed the ward, or garrison of the castle, under the command of the warden, or govenor.
The Irish Princes, however, could not see, without envy, the establishment of military stations so near the confines, and, as they considered, within the precincts of their territories; wherefore, in the year 1284, the new Castle of Lea was besieged by O'Dempsey, and other petty kings of Offalia, comprehending that part of the King's county, N.E. of the Barrow, and burnt it, with the town. Being soon after repaired, it came into the possession of the founder, William de Vesey, Lord Justice of Ireland, who, in the year 1294, finding the support of his Irish estates too troublesome and expensive against the turbulent aboriginals, and that they were threatened to be litigated by the heirs and descendants of the daughters of Earl Mareshal, in particular by those of Eva, the eldest, on a clause in the laws of feudal tenure, which asserted, that in grants held in capita from the crown, and falling by inheritance to daughters, the younger sisters as co-heiresses, and their heirs, should hold the inheritance under the feudal tenure, to the eldest sister and her heirs, and in case fealty was not sworn and relief paid by every heir so claiming possession, the entire property should revert to the Lord Paramount, to whom the feud was due. Under these considerations, the Lord Justice de Vesey delivered up his estates in Ireland, into the hands of the King, who granted them to John Fitz-Thomas Fitz-Gerald, Earl of Kildare, who, in consequence of such grants, became possessed of the Castle of Lea, and its appurtenances, and in which he maintained a ward, a garrison for the King, as Lord of the Marshes.
This circumstances may serve
to correct the silly and false assertion of several English and Irish
historians, that a quarrel arose between the said William de Vesey and
John Fitz-Thomas, who mutually accused each other of treason and malpractices.
The cause was tried in the Court of King's Bench, but appearing very perplexing,
it was left, according to the manners of the age, to the decision of arms
by single combat: prior to the day of entering the lists, de Vesey fled
to France, a procedure which so exasperated the King, that he granted
the lands of the fugitive to his antagonist of Kildare. The truth is,
the contest between the rival Lords came to a hearing in the Court of
the King; but the cause appeared so vexatious and frivolous, that it was
dismissed; and de Vesey, wearied with the confused state of Irish polities,
and wishing to go abroad for the benefit of his health, made the surrender
before mentioned, and resided some time in France.
Soon after, having a dispute with Richard De Burgho, Earl of Ulster, he took that Nobleman prisoner, and confined him in one of the round towers in the Castle of Lea, where he was fed on bread and water, until the meeting of the Irish Parliament at Kilkenny, in 1311, to whom it appearing that the imprisonment of De Burgho arose from private malice, rather than public injury, Kildare was obliged to release him without ransom.
Four years after the Scotch army, under Lord Edward Bruce, arriving in the country burned the castle and new town of Lea, destroyed the steeple, and carried away the bells. During their stay in the country, these northerns, or red-shanks, as they are called by contemporary historians, not only laid waste the district about Lea, and massacred the inhabitants, but on their return to the north, so much desolated the districts through which they passed, that they themselves were nearly perishing in the general calamity of famine, caused by their depredations; and to support a miserable existence, they were obliged to scratch dead bodies out of their graves and in their iron skill-caps, or murions, boil their flesh and feed on it. Indeed, thousands died through famine during the Scotch invasion, and the castle of Lea remained waste for some time, but was at length taken possession of, and repaired by O'Dempsey, a neighbouring chieftain of Offalia, who, however, in the year 1329, surrendered it to Lord John Darcy, Chief Justice, by whom it was restored to the Earl of Kildare, on condition of his keeping ward in it for the King. Some misunderstanding arising between Kildare and O'Dempsey, in the year 1339, the latter once more laid siege to the Castle of Lea, but was defeated by the Earl and a number of his followers drowned in the Barrow.
The Irish, seldom at peace, and ever hostile to the English settlements, under the command of O'Moore, chieftain of Leix, in 1346, burnt the castles Lea and Kilmead, in April, but, in November following, were defeated by Maurice, Earl Kildare, who repaired the castle of Lea, rebuilt the town and the church, but neither the steeple or bells were restored. The castle of Lea, however, continued as a fortress of the marshes, on the borders of the English pale, until the year 1414, when it was taken by surprise by the Irish, under O'Dempsey and O'Moore, and retained as a fortress, from whence they marched, in 1421, to invade the English pale, but were defeated at the castle of Kilkea, near Castledermot, by the Earl of Kildare. Soon after reassembling their forces, they once more attacked the English possessions, but were opposed by James Butler, Earl of Ormond, and defeated with great slaughter, in the red bog of Athy. During the combat, the day was dark and cloudy, but during the pursuit in the evening it cleared up, and the sun shone bright until its setting, which circumstances has caused the ignorant and superstitious of the age to assert, that the sun stood still for three hours, while the English soldiers pursued their enemies.
After this victory, the Earl
of Ormond put the Earl of Kildare again in possession of his castle of
Lea, which remained for some years in quiet possession of the English,
as a fortress of the borders; but at the commencement of the 16th century,
O'Moore, chieftain of Leix, having gained possession of his ancient patrimony
by defeating the English, took the castle of Leix, with most of the others
in the Queen's Co. from which castle, in the year 1521, he marched with
a considerable force towards the north, to join the army of O'Neill, but
was met in a wood not far from his residence, by Thomas Howard, Earl of
Surry, Lord Deputy, when a gunner of O'Moore's party, in order to annoy
the enemy, and to give his Lord an opportunity to effect his retreat,
took post at the entrance of the wood, and on the approach of the Lord
Deputy, fired at him, and struck the visor of his helmet without injuring
him. The gunner was taken, and refusing to surrender, was by the soldiers,
hewn in pieces. By this opposition of his brave and faithful servant,
O'Moore escaped, and the castle of Lea was taken possession of by the
Lord Deputy, and retained for the Crown, but the garrison being at length
all withdrawn, the O'Dempseys' and O'Connors' took possession of it. In
the year 1554, the Lord Deputy, Thomas, Earl of Sussex, having re-conquered
from the O'Meara's, O'Dempsey's and O'Connor's, Lea, Offalia, Irrac, and
Glenmalire, the castle of Lea was taken possession of for the Crown.
On the breaking out of the Irish rebellion in 1611, the castle of Lea was garrisoned by the rebels, who, from thence processed to lay siege to the castle of Geashil, in 1642, then held by Lady Offilia, a daughter of the Earl of Kildare, and relict of Sir Robert Digby, to whom the castle and estate of Gaeshel belonged. This Lady had assumed the title of Offalia by the command of her father, and with the consent of King James I. On the rebel commander summoning her to surrender under the King's authority, she sent the following answer:
On the receipt of this answer, the besiegers began the attack, by firing some cannon, a shot from which, struck the wall of the castle, near the window of the room in which her Ladyship was sitting, without making the least impression on the building. She instantly arose, opened the window, and wiping the place struck by the ball with her handkerchief, told them, an hundred such shots would not in the least intimidate her or make her quit her situation. On the morrow, however, the siege was raised by Lord Lisle, son to the Earl of Leicester, and the courageous lady delivered from her honourable, but dangerous and unpleasant post.
The castle of Geashil and Lea being once more in possession of government, the loyalists of the country, who had been driven from their castles, habitations and estates, repossessed them. Those of Lea re-inhabited and repaired their town and in joyful remembrance of their deliverance, planted in the square, or market place, a young ash tree, which tree, in memory of loyalty, is still growing, and has attained during the period of its existence of near 200 years, an immense size; the trunk being eleven yards in circumference with ten branches fifteen feet in length each, and of a very large diameter proceeding from it forming a shade under its foliage above sixty feet in diameter, and which the rays of the sun can scarce penetrate.
This triumph of the loyalists was of short duration, for the next year, the Castle of Lea and several others in the Queen's County, with that of Carlow, were taken by Lord Castlehaven and held for the confederates, who in the Castle of Lea coined some of that brass money, known by the name of St. Patrick's Halfpence, and which are of the value of a four-thirteenth of a penny sterling; but which, in that period, bore a currency of one shilling, having on the obverse, the Irish Apostle, in the attitude of driving all the reptiles and venemous creatures out of Ireland, with the legend, "Quiescal Plebs;" on the reverse, Kind David, playing on the harp, and looking up at the crown, with the legend "Flora it Rex". Numbers of such coins were struck by order of the Catholic Confederates, but those struck at Lea, and marked with L under the figures of St. Patrick and David, are very scarce.
Their assumed value, however,
did not increase their real value, for the nominal price of goods rose
accordingly, thus a pair of shoes, which before were sold for 2s Od. or
2s 6d. sterling, rose with the confederate money to 4s Od and 5s Od. and
a pot of beer of 1 d. value to 3s. Od. and 3s. 6d. And at the return of
peace numbers of persons were considerable losers by them, as they were
only sold for old brass.
However, on the settlement
of the kingdom, the O'Dempsey property, or at least part of it, comprehending
the Manors of Lea and Brittas, with some tracts of the King's County,
was granted by the crown to Lord Galway, Earl of Arlington, who, on the
reduction of the army, settled on the lands of Lea the remains of his
regiment of French Protestant emigrants, who formed a settlement in a
glade in the centre of a Hazel-nut wood, on the bend of the river Barrow,
about a mile from the Castle of Lea, which, in honour of their commander,
they denominated Portarlington. This grant was afterwards demised in part
to the Hollow Blade Company of sword cutlers in Dublin, and other divisions
to other purchasers.
After the Revolution, the church
of Lea was repaired as the parish church, but not in its original splendour.
This town, the only market town in the district and barony, prior to the
commencement of the eighteenth century, on the establishment of Portarlington,
was neglected and went to decay, and at present it is reduced to a few
wretched cabins. Even the church, which for several centuries was the
only Christian temple in the district, is now in ruins. But a new parish
church has lately been erected on a hill, more in the centre of the parish
of Lea, and consecrated for divine worship in November, 1809.
By these grants the ancient family of the O'Dempseys, who had been for above ten centuries Lords of Glenmalire and Lrrae, and who for ages were the tenor of the western confines of the English Pale, were reduced to the greatest indigence; though some of the family resided in the castle at the commencement of the last century, until one of them, distinguished among the people by the name of Shamuus Coppuil, or James the Horse-stealer, from his depredations committed on that species of cattle, associated with others, who also had been deprived of their properties by the revolution of the times, raised general contributions on the country, so as to be proclaimed by government, and the Posse Comitatus was ordered under the Sheriff to apprehend them; who found them so well posted at their retreat in the wood of Monasterevan, situated in the demesne of the Marquis of Drogheda, at Mooreabby, and at present known by the Dark, or Shamus a Coppuil's Walk, that it was found impracticable to force the pass, until a strategem was conceived by one of the company. The trunk of a large tree was cut, painted and mounted in the form of a cannon, and placed at the entrance of the pass, which so much deceived and intimidated the Rapperees, that they surrendered at discretion, except Captain O'Dempsey, alias Shamus a Coppuil, who made his escape. Soon after the country became tranquil, and the several townlands in the parish of Lea were set to different tenants or leases for ever, at the then considered exorbitant rent of one shilling per acre. Yet such was the value and condition of the lands is the district at that period, (the commencement of the last century) that several of the above leases were given up as being much too dear, though at present every acre of the said land is set out from one to two guineas.
On the foundation of Portarlington and the establishment of a French colony, every encouragement was given to it by the proprietors; a patent was obtained and a charter was granted, erecting it into a borough, sending two members to Parliament.
The establishment consisted
of a French church for the use of the reformed of that nation, according
to the doctrine of Calvin; a classical school for the instruction of the
children of the colony; and also a French school for the same purpose,
for the support of which lands were granted in the King's County, being
part of the original grant of the Glenmalure forfeiture, which lands are
at present set on a lease of lives renewable for ever, at a very low rent,
producing to the church £90, to the classic school £40, and
to the French school £12 per annum; yet if these lands
As the inhabitants increased, and the French colony became mixed with the Irish, and the languages of the town both French and English, the French church jointed the English, and established communion; the parish church of Lea being at too great a distance for the English congregation, a Chapel of Ease was founded, and endowed with land, which chapel being in a ruinous state is now (A.D. 1832) rebuilt. The public buildings at present are, the Town-hall or Court House, in which assembles are occasionally held a French Church, a Chapel of Ease, a Roman Catholic Chapel, and a Methodist Meeting house.
The first master of the French
school was M. Le Fevre, who kept boarders, a
The Protomaster, Le Fevre's son bore a commission in the army, and was that identical Le Fevre of whom Sterne, in his life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, has drawn so good a picture. From the number of resident gentry and respectable families, Portarlington is unique, being the neatest, best built, and genteelest inhabited town, not only in Ireland, but in the British Isles, for its size, containing in the year 1832, nearly 400 Houses, most of which are good and a number elegant. From the returns made Parliament in the year 1800, 148 houses paid taxes amounting to £127 19s. 4i-d. annually and 174 houses and cabins were exempt from payment, -total 322, so that in 32± years the town has increased nearly 80 houses.
H.W. TALBOT, PRINTER, MARYBOROUGH
* The castle of Lea, as well as that of Dunamaas, appears to have been dismantled by gunpowde,ç and no part of it was inhabited aftenvards, except some of the offices.
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