Portarlington and the Huguenots

In 1685 Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, and exiled all Protestant pastors and forbade the laity from leaving France. Many did leave though. Men who were caught were either executed or sent as galley slaves to the French fleet. Women were imprisoned and their children sent to convents. About 200,000 Huguenots left France, settling in non-Catholic Europe - the Netherlands, Germany, especially Prussia, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and even as far as Russia where Huguenot craftsmen could find customers at the court of the Czars. The Dutch East India Company sent a few hundred to the Cape to develop the vineyards in southern Africa. About 50,000 came to England, perhaps about 10,000 moving on to Ireland almost all of them from La Rochelle in France. They settled in communities in Youghal, Waterford, Cork, Lisburn, Dublin and perhaps most famously in Portarlington in Co Laois.

Portarlington, a town straddling Counties Laois and Offaly, was founded in 1666 by Henry Bennett, Lord Arlington, on land located in a bend of the River Barrow. Arlington tried to “plant” the town with English and Scottish settlers. He sold the lands to Sir Patrick Trant, a supporter of James II. After William of Orange defeated James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690), the lands containing Portarlington were seized by the crown and then given to Henri Massue, Marquis de Ruvigny, Earl of Galway and later Baron of Portarlington. Ruvigny decided to offer the town as a refuge to the Huguenots.

By 1702, 500 Huguenots lived in Portarlington with names such as Blanc, Camelin, Champ, Champagné, Des Voeux, Lalande, Micheau, Pilot, Vignoles. The vibrant community they created spread into Offaly and the surrounding countryside. Portarlington became known for its Public Classical Schools, where the children of well-to-do families were taught the French manners considered desirable in ladies and gentlemen. There were no less than 16 of these schools at one time. The most famous was Arlington (now the vacant Travel Goods factory). Another well-known school, Ecole St. Germain, was in the building now known as the East End Hotel. In the early 18th century, Portarlington was the Paris of the Midlands, a place where French, rather than Irish or English, was spoken on the streets.

The Huguenots brought over French masons and gardeners to re-build the houses and cottages that had been burnt and destroyed during the wars. One historian says that in 1694 - the year the Huguenots were settled in Portarlington - there was no trace of buildings; no English settlers or trade of any form or of accommodation for the newcomers.Their success here in weaving woollen goods and flooding the market with high class products resulted in the English Parliament banning the export of woollen goods entirely - thus incurring the 'savage indignation' of Dean Swift at this cruel blow to Ireland's prosperity.

The Earl of Galway built two churches - a French Church (with the tower) and an English Church (with the spire) - together with schools for his settlers. The French Church is still in use, the English Church is now the Parochial Hall in the Square. Services were held in French until 1817 and the parish records go right back to 1694. "The French Church", built to serve the Huguenots, was consecrated in 1696. Today the French Church survived the English church (the tower has been sold from the English church and it has become the parochial hall).

The Le Blancs came to Portarlington about 1699. There were two families, one of "Le noble homme Louys Le Blanc, Sieur de Perce, Capitaine pensionne", the other Claud Le Blanc, boucher. The latter family existed later under the name of Blong, and a Peter Blang in 1756 placed a tombstone for his family. In addition an Andrew and a Mark Le Blanc from Ales, received their naturalisation in Dublin in 1704.

1854 Blong is of undoubted French origin and was said to be gradually Irishing itself into Blong and is spelt so by the worthy butcher who rejoices now in the name and whose ancestor fled from the fierce dragonade in company with more distinguished emigres - The Dublin university magazine.

1869, the French Church became the parish church in Portarlington in place of the English Church. However the perpetual curate since 1838 Dean John Worsley, Dean of Kildare, kept the English Church open, and the two Protestant churches kept separate existences until 1887 when the church schools closed and the two churches amalgamated.

1871 there were 960 RC and 490 Protestants in Portarlington. Most of the richer Huguenots had already left in 1871 and it was the tradespeople that remained like the Blancs, Champs and Merciers. The Blancs were butchers at this time (in fact Finnegans Wake by James Joyce has a reference to them "Blong's best from Portarlington's Butchery, with a side of riceypeasy " Book III chapter 1.

 

Portarlington Main Street 2008
St Paul's Church 2008
The disused "English Church" in 2008
Inside St Paul's Church, Portarlington 2008

Blancs the Butchers of Portarlington