An exploration of some heritage sites around Portarlington and Co. Laois

An interesting few hours was spent this afternoon in the company of Mr John Stocks Powell, an historian with a particular interest in Portarlington and environs. Having met him by chance about a month ago, whilst out for a walk near Killenard, he invited us to go on a tour of some local places of interest. Unfortunately, Andrew was unable to go as he was working so it was just two of us.

Lea Castle and deserted mediæval village

Branches blocking the way to Lea Churchyard, Co. Laois
The way is blocked: the main street of Lea is inaccessible from the road. Photo: © 2020 Michael McFarland Campbell.

We started our tour by parking in what would have been the village green of the now deserted mediæval village of Lea. We saw the ruins of Lea Castle from the road. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to access the Castle as the landowner has blocked access. Across the village green (or as it now is the road) is the main street of the village that led to the Parish Church at Lea. Sadly we were unable to walk up the main street as there were branches blocking the way (see picture). However, it was possible to walk alongside the main street in the adjoining field and further up, I was able to get into the old road and be able to photograph the archway and steps with coffin rest in the churchyard wall (see picture below).

The arched gateway on the left and the steps and coffin rest in the wall to the right. Photo: © 2020 Michael McFarland Campbell.

We walked right to the back of the churchyard and saw the old road continue along past it on the south of the churchyard. As we returned through the field we had a great view of Lea Castle itself.

The ruins of Lea Castle, Co. Laois, near Portarlington. Photo: © 2020 Michael McFarland Campbell

The mediæval parish church of Lea used to be in the old churchyard here with the first record being in the fifteenth century. but was removed to the new Lea to the south of the town of Portarlington. At the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871, the parish church was changed from Lea to Portarlington (St Paul’s).

Emo Court: Father Browne, the Titanic, and the Earls of Portarlington

The former seat of Lord Portarlington, Emo Court is now in the hands of the Irish State having been also a Jesuit Noviciate, and in private hands when it was restored. Outside the main door of the house are two heraldic tigers holding the arms of Damer. Only one could be see today as the other is still covered up to protect it.

Heraldic tiger supporting the arms of Damer at Emo Court. Photo: © 2020 Michael McFarland Campbell

Although the house is closed at the moment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, within it there is an exhibition about Father Browne who famously photographed the Titanic. Although he had been offered passage by some friends aboard the White Star liner to continue the journey to the United States, when he sought permission from his Jesuit superior he was told to come ashore at Queenstown. As a result, we have the many photographs that he took from the liner.

Emo Court from the garden. Photo © 2020 Michael McFarland Campbell

After a quick cup of tea and some delicious lemon meringue pie in the tea room (highly recommended) we set off for the third place on the itinerary.

The Rock of Dunamase

Today is Gibraltar National Day, so it seemed highly appropriate that wearing a Gibraltar FA top, I visited another “Rock”. At the bottom of the Rock there is a small Church of Ireland church called “Holy Trinity The Rock” but also known as Dysartenos. Unfortunately, it was not open.

Holy Trinity, The Rock, Co. Laois. Photo: © 2020 Michael McFarland Campbell

But the main attraction at this site is the castle that is on the top of the Rock. It must have been some sight when it was still in full glory. It is quite some sight still even though it is now in ruins.

The ruins of the Castle at the Rock of Dunamase. Photo: © 2020 Michael McFarland Campbell

According to the OPW information sign,

Dunamase Castle was founded in the late 12th century on the site of a 9th century dún or fort.

It passed into Anglo-Norman possession on the marriage of Aoife, daughter of Dermot MacMurrough to Strongbow.

OPW Sign at the Rock of Dunamase

The site is quite steep in places and we were very wary of getting stuck and being unable to come back down the gravel paths. So, seeing the two-storey solar at the top of the hill near the rectangular great hall, will have to be for another occasion.

Thanks to my tour guide

My tour guide: John Stocks Powell at Dysartenos church. Photo © 2020 Michael McFarland Campbell

I am really grateful to my tour guide for giving of his time this afternoon to both drive and talk about the sights that we saw. Hopefully, we will be able to hear more and talk more when he is next in the area.

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