St Paul's church, Portarlington, The "French Church". Photo B. Julien
The most significant Huguenot settlement in Ireland, after Dublin, was that of Portarlington in County Laois. Under Charles II of England, the land, which had been confiscated under Cromwell, passed to the king’s friend and minister Sir Henry Bennett, Lord Arlington, giving the town its name. Charles II never visited Ireland; his project to create a colony of industrious Protestants at Portarlington was short-lived, and on his death in 1685 his Irish lands passed to his Catholic brother, James II.
Following the end of the 1689-91 war in Ireland, William III, now in control of the island, rewarded some of his officers and supporters with confiscated Jacobite lands. Henri de Massue de Ruvigny, one of his Huguenot military commanders and the recognised leader of the Huguenot refugees in the British Isles, later known as Earl of Galway, was among the grantees. In 1693 Galway received in custodiam for three years, 36,148 acres of lands confiscated from a prominent Jacobite, Sir Patrick Trant. This estate included Portarlington, and Galway endeavoured to use it to settle Huguenot refugees as soon as he received it. Huguenot veterans, who were granted a pension at the end of the Williamite war in 1691, and who were invalids or old, did settle in these early years. At the time a scheme to resettle refugees from Switzerland to Ireland was also under consideration, and Galway was heavily involved in this endeavour, but it did not materialise beyond a few families.
In 1696, William III converted the custodiam grant into an absolute gift, and Galway received the Portarlington estate on 26 June 1696. At the end of the War of the Grand Alliance, also known as the Nine Years’ War, in 1697, William III’s army was disbanded, the Huguenot regiments were broken, and about 600 reformed officers settled at Portarlington. Their main income was the pensions they received out of the Treasury. By granting them long-term leases at nominal rents on all the houses, plots and lands, Galway effectively established a colony of French Huguenot ex-officers in the Irish midlands.
He is also credited with financing, out of his own money, the construction of two churches, one for the French settlers, St Paul’s, in 1696, and another for the English; a classical and a French school, which were reputed for the standard of their teaching; and over 100 houses, so that by 1703 most of the town had been built. The church register, which had started in 1694, was written in French by a succession of refugee pastors who followed the Calvinist discipline, and provides much biographical information on its parishioners, many of them members of distinguished Huguenot military families.
The colony at Portarlington also served the purpose of making a political statement. It was populated by Williamite supporters in a newly conquered country, who were Protestants, and therefore considered loyal. Such a concentration of veterans also presented the advantage of quickly forming the nucleus of new regiments in case war was to break out again with Louis XIV’s France, as it did in 1702.
However, soon after William III had turned his grant of land to Galway into an absolute gift, the English parliament started to look unfavourably upon the grants the king had made of forfeited land in Ireland. Its argument, which is perfectly valid, was that these lands should be sold in order to absorb the debt created by the war. The parliament was also testing its newly acquired strength, brought about by the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 that had placed William on the throne, and was rife with xenophobia, fuelled by the fact that seven of the grantees were foreigners.
In the end, William III proved powerless in the face of the English parliament, which by 1699 was arguing that these lands ought to be sold off to relieve the national debt. The Commons skilfully attached the resumption of the grants of Irish forfeitures on to another bill which the Crown could not refuse. William III found himself in the position of having to acquiesce to the Act of Resumption that took away the lands he had granted or he would not receive any taxes. The 1700 Act of Resumption effectively deprived his grantees, Huguenot veterans, other foreigners and female favourites alike, of their Irish lands. All the grants to Galway became void and the estate was put up for auction. On this occasion the king wrote to Galway: ‘You may judge what vexation all their extraordinary proceedings gave me and, I assure you, your being deprived of what I gave you with such pleasure was not the least of my griefs’.
In 1702, the Trustees for the Forfeitures resold Galway’s Portarlington lands. Regarding his existing leases, a bill was passed on 25 May which confirmed them as valid in law. It was, at least, a guarantee for the Huguenot settlers. However, the Portarlington Huguenots were forced to conform to the Church of Ireland, with the consecration of St Paul’s as a new church in 1702. Portarlington was confirmed as an Anglican settlement on 29 September of that year. Religious conformity, alongside the demand for soldiers which followed the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession, disrupted the colony and deprived it of a good part of its population. Many of the veterans re-enlisted and followed the Earl of Galway to the front in Portugal.
In 1718, a year after his retirement as Lord Justice of Ireland, the war-wounded Earl of Galway would become the first Governor of the newly created French Hospital, in the parish of St Luke’s, Finsbury. As for the French church he founded at Portarlington, it was rebuilt on a grander scale in the mid-19th century, and in 1869 became the town’s parish church, following the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland.
Further reading :
R.P. Hylton, ‘The Huguenot Settlement at Portarlington, 1691-1771’, in Caldicott, Gough, and Pittion (eds), Huguenots and Ireland.
R.P. Hylton, Ireland’s Huguenots and their Refuge, 1662-1745: An Unlikely Haven.
J.S. Powell, 1696-1996, St Paul’s Church, Portarlington, “The French Church”.
Huguenot Society Quarto Series vol.19, Register of the French Church, Portarlington, Ireland.
Huguenot Society Quarto Series vol. 41, List of Huguenot Pensioners in Ireland.
HSQS volumes 19 and 41 have been digitized and are available on CD-ROM. The PDFs can be accessed online by Huguenot Society members.