In 1590 a colony of Huguenots was established in the ancient village of Swords near Dublin and they became noted for their knowledge and skill in the manufacture of linen. In 1666 there were numerous Huguenots from France,of wealth and importance living in or near Dublin. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Duke of Ormonde,asked the Archbishop of Dublin to select a suitable consecrated place of worship for the Huguenot congregation and he named St Mary’s Chapel belonging to St Patrick’s Cathedral, the established Protestant Church of Ireland. This was granted for the purpose proposed on December 23,1665.One important priviso being that "the French congregation should be bound by the discipline and canons of the Church of Ireland under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Ireland" The official opening on April 29,1666 had in attendence the Duke and Duchess of Ormonde, the Lord Primate of Ireland, the Lord Archbishop of Ireland, the Lord High Chancellor of Ireland, the Council of State and numerous other high officials as well as many ladies.The service and sermon were in French and the Archbishop of Dublin gave the Benediction in French. The grant was renewed over many subsequent years until 1816.After 150 years services in French were discontinued. - This special anniversary of the French Church is attracting great interest among historians and families of Huguenot descent and it is hoped, in this year of Ireland's presidency of the E.U., will result in an increase in visitors to the Midlands from Europe. The distinctive Huguenot architecture in Portarlington is one abiding French influence, but so are many family names in the locality, such as Blanc, Champ, Cobbe and Deverell. So strong was their presence in the town and district that the French Church survived the English building which became the parochial hall. On view during the Tercentenary celebrations will be the original set of Holy Communion silver along with a bronze bell presented by Princess Caroline of Brunswick, then Princess of Wales, in 1714.
Portarlington was one of the last settlements in Ireland of Huguenot refugees who had escaped persecution in France in the late 17th Century. By 1700 a colony of over 500 French people had established themselves along the banks of the River Barrow near the middle of Ireland. President Robinson referred to the particular historical significance of Portarlington as a centre of Huguenot tradition and culture and to the many French named which are still to be found around the town, such as Blanc, Champ and Cobbe. In an address to the assembled crowds, before planting a commemorative tree in the grounds, she referred to the need for communities to live together in peace and harmony in all parts of Ireland whatever their differences of beliefs. She highlighted the fact that the Huguenots had escaped persecution in France to settle in Ireland where Catholics were similarly persecuted. Many visitors throughout the summer have visited the beautiful French Church and also the exhibition in the Parochial Hall which has comprehensively portrayed the history of the town of Portarlington and surrounding areas as well as including arts and crafts from local people. This exhibition which has just finished ran from July to September. Earlier this year the parish of St. Paul’s published a new book on the French Church as a guide and reference for locals and visitors alike. This book is available from Michael Cann, Treascon Lodge, Portarlington, Cp. Laois, postage paid for US$12 or STG£8 per copy Huguenots were Protestants, many of them followers of John Calvin, who fled France in their thousands following religious persecution initiated around 1661 by the king, Louis XIV, with thousands of them coming to Ireland. The name Huguenot is believed to be derived from St. Hugo a Protestant at the time of the Reformation, although other meanings have been suggested. Persecution had been going on in France sporadically since the middle of the 16th century and on 24th August 1572 the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day had occurred when thousands of Protestants were killed. By 1662 the number of Protestants in France had grown to over one million; in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes and made Protestantism illegal, with the result that more than 400,000 fled the country. About 500 were settled in Portarlington by 1700. These settlers were mostly from the military, having fought with William of Orange in the wars of the late 17th century against the army of James 11; in conflicts such as the Battle of the Boyne, the Sieges of Limerick and the Battle of Aughrim. De Ruvigny had been a general in the Williamite forces and seeing himself as a patron of the Huguenot regiments, he settled them and their families on an estate which had been given to him, as a personal gift, by King William. The idea of de Ruvigny and many of his settlers was to recreate a miniature France in Portarlington. Two churches and two schools were established under a covenant; one of each for the French inhabitants and likewise for the fewer English settlers. These churches were chapels-of-ease to the parish church of Lea, three miles east of Portarlington and close to the ruins of Lea Castle, a medieval castle, home to the O’Dempseys. This had once defended the River Barrow, but was destroyed by the forces of Oliver Cromwell in 1651. It is odd that no church was built when Portarlington was founded in 1666. The traditional territories of the O’Dempsey clan had been confiscated again under Cromwell and were not to be returned despite serious efforts by the clan leader Lord Clanmaliere. The land instead passed to Sir Henry Bennet, Lord Arlington, friend and minister to King Charles 11 of England. The king never visited Ireland, but aimed at creating a colony of industrious Protestants. The venture was not successful, although a map drawn in 1679 showed that weaving had been attempted. The "loome house" was the largest single room in town, spacious enough to hold a congregation. Whether it still had a roof when the French arrived is not known but the site was chosen for the "French Church". In the 19th Century major renovations were made to the church including changing the axis of the building and increasing the seating areas.