The History of the Queen’s County: Borris

The parish of Borris occupies a considerable division in the Barony of Maryborough East. It has two townlands, respectively denominated Great Borris and Little Borris. On the engraved Map of the Petty Down Survey these are spelled Little Burres and Great Burres. It seems most probable, that there was a still more ancient Irish name for this parish; for it is stated, that Borris, Burris, Burges, or Buirghes, entering into the composition of local denominations in Ireland, was a word introduced by the Anglo-Normans, and applied by them to small borough towns, which they established after the twelfth century. It signifies a burgage, or borough, and it was brought into the Irish language. As Anglicized, it forms the whole or part of names in several of the Leinster, Munster, and Connaught counties; but, it does not occur in Ulster. It is difficult, however, to believe, that in the case of the special local denomination here, it could have had an Anglo-Norman origin, since the history of Leix attests, that only the original Irish inhabitants had control of that territory, until the present Queen\’s County (Laois, Leix, Laoighse) had been formed into shire-ground ; the chief fortress established in it by the English having been called Maryborough (Portlaoise), also, in honour of Queen Mary. This is the only town within the bounds of Borris parish; but it contains some remarkable natural and artificial curiosities.

The parish of Burress, drawn by Ambrose Yorke in 1651, contains the town, castle, and fort of Mariburrough. Cloanrehir and Rathnamanagh appear to have had fortified houses or castles. On another map (admeasured by Ambrose Yorke A.D. 1657) is a trace of Burres parish on a larger scale. There are as denominations, viz., Rathnamanagh, Great and Little Burres, Ballintogan, Gurtin, Rossleachan, Cloanrehir, Monelew, Knocknagrough, Cultoryn, Balitogin, Killeclonhoban, Monebalycaroll, with the commons of Maryburough, consisting of over 300 acres of pasture.(some diffs of spellings are found in Vallency\’s maps copied from the originals in the Nat. Lib., Paris, vol., ii., No. 64, National Archives of Ireland(NAI))

There was a chapel in Kyle townland, also called Kyleclonhobert, in the parish of Borris, about one mile northwards from Maryborough, and on the left side of the road from that town leading to Mountmellick. This was probably a Roman Catholic Chapel in the penal days or somewhat previous. Only a heap of stones now marks its site.

Within the old parish of Borris, to which allusion has been made, the fort of Maryborough had been erected in the middle of the sixteenth century, as a protection for the English settlers introduced, when the Queen\’s County was erected into shire-ground, in the seventh and eighth years of the reign of King Philip and Queen Mary. A town was then commenced, and while, to compliment the latter, the shire was called the Queen\’s, its intended chief town was named Maryborough. An ancient graveyard occupied the site of \” the ridge,\” near the town, but no trace of a former church now remains on that Spot. Extending from Maryborough towards Mountmellick, an elevated ridge or Esker of lime-stone, gravel, and sand is a very remarkable object, and geologists have not hitherto accounted satisfactorily for its formation. The country on both sides of it is level, and in many places moory. On the very summit of this Esker is an ancient highway, known as the \” ridge road.\” (In the beginning of the 19th century is was a leading county road). The Esker runs above eight miles uninterruptedly, and above twenty with small chasms towards Tullamore town (Co. Offaly) and beyond it. Skirting Maryborough towards the east, and issuing from this ridge, near Rathleague, there is a \”holy well,\” (the local denomination of this well was \’Toberagaddy\’ \”the well of the thief\” also later known as the \’Holy well of Maryborough\’) which was formerly much frequented by pilgrims. The ridge appears to have been formed by the ebbing and flowing of water, and in some places it divides the upland from the moor. This natural barrier varies from over two hundred feet to about sixty feet in width at the base, and it slopes gradually to the summit where it measures over twenty or thirty feet in breadth. There are several of these Eskers well-defined – and bearing in different directions throughout the Queen\’s County. These appear to have had no distinct connection with the historic Esker Riada, said to extend from Dublin to Galway. On the site of Great Borris townland not far from Bloomfield House lay the old church, only a heap of stones remaining there to indicate its former site. Some remains of the old Castle of Clonrea still exist in the western part of this parish. It now lies in ruins off the high road leading from Maryborough to Mountmellick, about two miles from the former town. The ruins are to the left on a bye-road. Formerly it seems to have been a fortification of some importance. That old Castle of Clonreher in this parish is found marked on the old map of Leix and Ophaly (Offaly), of earlier date than 1608. A short walk along the ridge. road,\” and over that natural embankment from Maryborough, will bring the tourist to Cnoc-na-greo, a hill which eminently merits its name, for its verdant slopes are covered with the richest pasture, and it is still grazed by cattle. Turning to the right at the foot of this hill, the pedestrian comes to Ranamanna, an old fort presenting several very remarkable features. The fosses that sweep round it are amazingly deep, and its floor is perfectly level, free from shrubs and covered with verdure. It may be fairly termed a magnificent rath, on account of its ambit and considerable elevation.

The ancient Irish name for Maryborough was Port Laoighse, meaning \”the town of Laoighis.\” This portion of county had been reduced to English subjection by the Earl of Sussex. Then a suitable site was selected within it, to have a fort built for the protection of English settlers, and its name was determined by the circumstance. The Protectour Fort of Maryborough was of oblong quadrangular shape. It had only one opening, at a lane, towards the west of the town. The walls battened upwards for a considerable height from the foundations. A round turret flanked the north-east angle, the castle was well within the walls, near the south-east, a square turret stood at the south-west angle. A draw-well was within the enclosure, and near the round bastion. Soon after the building of the fort, a church seems to have been erected just outside of the enclosure. Whether serving as a Catholic or a Protestant Church, in the early days, it was used for the latter denomination until the beginning of the last century, and a cemetery – now deserted – had been attached. A charter of Queen Elizabeth; granted in the twelfth year of her reign, A.D. 1570, erected this town into a borough, and assigned its municipal bounds. These were an extent of 8,000 feet on every side of the castle, in its centre. It obtained a Corporation, consisting of a burgomaster, two bailiffs, an indefinite number of burgesses, and a commonalty; the burgomaster was constituted a justice of the peace within the borough; it was also granted a court and a market, with tolls and customs.(\’Parliamentary Gazeteer of Ireland, vol. ii., p. 738) The burgomaster was assisted by a town clerk, a sergeant-at-mace, and inferior officers. The burgesses, by a majority of and from their own body, were annually to elect on Michaelmas Day the burgomaster and bailiffs, and they filled up vacancies in their ranks, freemen being admitted only by favour. By charter, the burgomaster and bailiffs were obliged to take the oaths of office before the constable of the fort or castle of Maryborough, or, in his absence, before the burgesses and commons of the borough. The burgomaster, with the two bailiffs, was escheator, clerk of the market, and coroner. The burgomaster appointed the town clerk as sergeant-at-mace, billet-master, and weigh-master.

In 1580, Port Laoighse was plundered, and a party of its keepers was killed, by John, son to the Earl of Desmond. Arms, armour, horses, and other property were carried away. The garrison of Port Laoighis was beleagured in 1590, by the O\’Moores and their confederates. Provisions were required to support the besieged, and, accordingly, the Earl of Ormond organised a considerable force to bring relief. However, on the way, he was met by Owny Mac Rory O\’Moore, Captain Tyrrell and James Burke, (Son of Richard Saxonach Burke) who intercepted the convoy, with a great loss of men, horses, arms, and provisions. The Earl of Ormond being wounded was obliged to fly from the Irish enemy, and he had a narrow escape in not being made a prisoner. In the year 1597, and on the 7th day of December, two bands of soldiers stationed in Port Laoighis were slain by Captains Tyrrell and Nugent, as also by the Kavanaghs, O Moores, O\’Conors Faly, and by the Gaval Ranall, (branch of the O\’Byrnes) who were in a state of insurrection.

A public school had been established at Maryborough, early in the seventeenth century, and in 1616 it was conducted by a schoolmaster named Taylor. Maryborough formerly returned two members to the Irish House of Commons, the burgesses and freemen being the electors. In 1635, the Corporation of Maryborough obtained from King Charles I. a grant of two fairs.

Burrisse was an impropriate rectory to Peter Crosby, in 1616. The serving vicar was David Good, a reading minister. The value of the living was £10. The church and its chancel were in proper repair, and furnished with books. In 1640 this rectory was worth £90 per annum, and the parsonage was worth £60 ; the vicarage was valued at £30, and the whole was then va1ued-at £48 per annum; one-third part of these revenues in this and other parishes was allowed to ministers and for church repairs, the rest was enjoyed by the patron of the parish, who was Sir K. Crosbie, Knt. Then, it had seventeen townlands ; it was also an impropriation, having three acres of glebe. In 1642, Ormond relieved the fort of Maryborough, which had been in danger of falling into the hands of the Confederate Catholics. On the surrender of Birr Castle (Co. Offaly), Jan. 20th, 1643, to the Confederation, William Parsons, the Governor, stipulated for safe-conduct to Maryborough, the fort of which was kept by Sir William Gilbert, Knight. That cessation of arms, dated from Dublin, on the 26th of September, was received by him, and directed in his absence to the chief officer commanding his Majesty\’s forces there.

It is related, (journal of the Irish Rebellion, 1641) that having received the Papal Nuncio\’s blessing, Owen Roe O\’Neill and his men marched on Monday, September 28th, 1646, \”to Droicead a deignei, and to B. Shean in Laois, where they staid four nights\” Thence they proceeded to Coilleadh a Laois (Coille, a townland about 2 miles eastward of Ballynakill, where there had been an oak-wood, the last of which had been cut down in 1704. Adjoining the same place was a mill, the old church of Dysart Galen, and the remains of an old castle over it called (\’cnoc árd agur\’) and Caislean na Cuilenthoi,(Castle of Cullenagh) The general treated the captain of that place very leniently, and placed a garrison of his own there. From this spot they went to Port Laois. Sir Phelim, Colonel of the Horse, called on the garrison to surrender. They refused to do so, until they saw the general with the cannon. The troops now arriving, a drummer was despatched to demand formally the surrender of that place. The governor demanded hostages from the general, and, accordingly, Brian O\’Neill, McHenry, and McTurlogh of the Fews were sent. Sir William Gilbert then came to the army. On seeing their forces and the cannon, he agreed to capitulate. He received permission for the garrison to carry away all their moveables. Port Laoighse was then given in charge to Felim O\’Neill, McDonnell, and McHenry. Towards the close of that year, Owen Roe O\’Neill, who had failed to effect the capture of Dublin, owing to the imbecility or bad faith of his colleague Preston, returned with his troops to Maryborough. From Kilmensie, in the vicinity of this town, on the 27th of May, 1648, the Papal Nuncio Rinuccini pronounced sentences of excommunication against all who should accept the cessation of Kilkenny. Subsequently the town was retaken by Lord Castlehaven. In 1650, Maryborough was taken by the Parliamentary forces under Colonels Hewson and Reynolds. The fort was then demolished, and the castle was deserted. An agreement, bearing date the 12th of May, 1652, assigns Marlborough to be the place where \”Colonell Lewes Moore\’s foote and some troupes of horse \”should surrender their arms to the Parliamentarians.

According to the Maps and Books of the Down Survey, the forfeited lands of Burres, to the amount of 302 acres of profitable lands, with 6 additional acres, were assigned as commons for the Corporation of Maryborough, after having been surveyed by the Commonwealth surveyors. But this valuable estate was afterwards usurped by the families of De Vesci, Parnell, Coote, &c. This tract was formerly known as the Green of Maryborough. In the days of duelling, it was the scene of several hostile meetings. One of these occurred about 1759, between Colonel Jonah Barrington (Grandfather to Sir Jonah Barrington) of Cullenaghmore and a Mr. Gilbert. It was fought on horseback before a great concourse of persons, with holster pistols and broad-bladed swords, both combatants receiving slight wounds, but escaping with life, and agreeing to shake hands as friends. Another ridiculous affair of the kind, between a Mr. Frank Skelton and an exciseman, occurred in 1783, during an election contest for the Queen\’s County.

The living of Maryborough is a rectory in the diocese of Leighlin. In 1721, it was episcopally united to the rectory and vicarage of Kilcolmanbane, and to the vicarage of Straboe. It was then in the patronage of the bishop.

Formerly a considerable trade in cotton flourished in Maryborough, but it has long since disappeared; still, owing to a favourable position, the town enjoys a fair distribution of local traffic.(National Gazeteer\” vol. ii., p. 700) During the eighteenth century, and far into the last, here and in the neighbouring town of Mountmellick, woollens and durants, or broad stuffs, furnishing a good material for women\’s wear, had been produced; while some extensive flour mills were in and near the town. These have since fallen to decay, and the local trade is now inconsiderable. Fine grain markets on each Thursday and large fairs were known in past years, but these likewise have declined. Many interesting election anecdotes are told of contests for the representation of Maryborough, which, for the last time, was contested by Lord Castlecoote and the famous Sir Jonah Barrington, in the beginning of the year 1800. Before the close of the eighteenth century the borough court of Maryborough – having jurisdiction to any amount was discontinued. When the borough was disfranchised, at the time of the Legislative Union of England and Ireland, Sir John Parnell and the Right Ron. Charles Henry Coote received between them, in two equal portions, the whole of the £15,000 – compensation allowed, as in similar cases of political effacement.

In the eighteenth century, horse races and games\’ were often held on the Green. In the beginning of the 19th century, a great hurling match was played there, between the most celebrated hurlers assembled from all parts of the Queen\’s County. So vast was the concourse of spectators who flocked to witness it, that all the bakers\’ and victuallers\’ shops in Maryborough were run out of bread and meat, while the towns-people and visitors there were obliged to fast for a whole day or more before the shops were again supplied. In the interim, extortionate prices were demanded and given for provisions.

In 1821, the Right Hon. William Wellesley Pole – who had so frequently been returned as member of Parliament for the Queen\’s County-was created Baron of Maryborough. (he was constable of the fort and castle of Maryborough) He was second son of Garrett, first Earl of Mornington, and elder brother to the famous Duke of Wellington. Through his influence at the War Office, he succeeded in getting military commissions for many sons of the Queen\’s County voters, who supported him at the elections. Numbers of those officers distinguished themselves during the Peninsular War, in the regiments composed almost exclusively of Irishmen, and who fought with such determined bravery under the command of Lord Wellington. In 1829, the members of the Corporation of Maryborough had so diminished in number, that no legal election of officers took place; however, the townspeople elected a burgomaster, bailiffs, and other corporate officers. In 1830, one burgess and two freemen of the old Corporation held a meeting, at which the former was elected burgomaster by the latter, who were also elected bailiffs by the former; and the townspeople also elected the same number of officers without having had any legal authority in either case.

During many years preceding the date of the Municipal Inquiry Commission, the only jurisdiction of any kind exercised within the town as a borough was by the burgomaster, simply in his magisterial capacity. When that report was published in 1833, it was stated, \”The internal regulations of the town are deplorably bad. False weights and measures are in general use, by which all classes, and particularly the poor, suffer severely. This is a subject of well-founded and very general complaint. The town is not lighted, and the Act of 9 George IV., cap. 82 has not been put in operation here.\”(Parliamentary Gazeteer of Ireland, vol., ii, p. 738)

About the year 1835, the last vestige of the old castle, that remained within the Fort of Maryborough, was cleared away; but the place where it stood is still pointed out by the old townspeople. It was about 200 ft. distant apt from the rere of a large business house,(it then belonged to a Mr. Coleman) which faced the leading street in Maryborough. However, the office of constable of that fort, although a sinecure, was still retained. (Lewis, vol. II., p. 345)

The area of Maryborough town is about 300 acres. Its principal street is irregular in width; nevertheless it contains some respectable-looking houses. The streets which branch from it are few in number but they contain some good houses with a great many ill-ventilated and wretchedly built, as also many that are scarcely above the class of mere thatched cabins. However, there are some imposing public buildings, among which may be noticed the old gaol (converted into a police barracks and a bridewell) and courthouse, the infirmary(a large building of three storeys and built just outside the town in the beginning of the 19th century, having been opened in 1808), the infantry barracks (intended to accommodate a company of infantry, but seldom occupied by the military), the new county gaol (completed in 1830 at a cost of £18,500. It is built on a radiating plan and surrounded by a high wall), the district lunatic asylum,(intended also for those of Westmeath and Longford. The expense of building and 22 acres of ground was £24,172) the Episcopalian, (The new Protestant church was built in the beginning of the 19th century and the Board of First Fruits contributed £500 towards its erection). Methodist and Roman catholic churches (R.C. church was at first erected by the Very Rev. Nicholas O\’Connor, P.P., but considerable additions made afterwards.) with the Presentation Convent and Christian Brothers\’ Schools. This town is the seat of the Queen\’s County assizes, courts of quarter sessions, during Hilary term, usually in January, during Easter Term, usually in March or April, during Trinity Term, usually in June, and during Michaelmas Term, usually in October, while weekly courts of petty sessions are also held. It is the residence of a stipendiary magistrate, and the head-quarters of the county constabulary force.

In 1831, the population of the town was 2,223, in 1841, it reached to 2,633, in 559 houses. The country around Maryborough is rather level, and devoid of ornamental demesnes. Near it, however, is Rathleague, formerly the fine residence of Sir John Parnell, and later still of his son, Sir Henry Parnell, afterwards Lord Congleton, but it has now greatly gone to decay; Sheffield, the seat of the Cassans; and Lamberton Park, finely wooded and picturesquely surrounded with wide ranges of scenery. The other chief seats in this parish are Annbrook, Portran, Bloomfield, Newpark, and Borris.

Maryborough has a weekly market on Thursday, and fairs on January 1st, February 24th, March 25th, April 14th, May 12th, June 5th, July 5th, August 5th, September 4th, October 23rd, November 13th, and December 4th. In 1831, the population of Borris parish, including the town of Maryborough, is returned as 5,300 ; in 1841, it is set down as 5,264. and living in 806 houses. This parish was a rectory in the diocese of Leighlin, and the tithe composition was £392 6s. 2d. in 1846.

The Triogue River effects the drainage northwards into the River Barrow. In general, the land is only of a middle quality in this parish, and it is chiefly bog in the northern part. The tithes amounted to £392 6s. 2d. in 1837. The glebe in the parish of Kilcolmanbane comprised only one acre, while the gross value of the benefice was £667 16s. 4ld. The value of the Maryborough living is now £450. The Great Southern and Western Railway at present leaves Maryborough within hours\’ run from Dublin metropolis of Ireland.