The Old Fort located within the centre of Portlaoise, from which the modern town has developed from was built by a new wave of English Settlers in 1547/48. It was one of two such forts built in counties Laois and Offaly, with the latter constructed at a pre-existing settlement at Daingean. A similair fort was also built at Leighlin Bridge on the Barrow in Co. Carlow. These forts were designed to hold a considerable garrison of troops, who could be called upon in times of disturbance and rebellion throughout the two counties. At the time the native chiefs of these lands were constantly harassing English plantation settlers who had been granted their lands by the crown. Laois was seen as an important asset to pacify as it was the land link between the Pale and the consolidated Ormonde Kingdom under the Butlers and further south into Desmond Munster. The English wished to incorporate both counties into the Pale and ensure safe passage and economic harmony between the English administration in Dublin and as far away south as Cork. Contemporary accounts from the time tell us that Laois had abundant resources including great ancient forests, which were an important source of high quality timber, “wools, hides, tallow, honey, corn and cattle which were rich and plentiful”. Ever since the support lent by the O’Mores and other Chieftains of Laois and Offaly to the Silken Thomas rebellion in the 1530’s, the English grew suspicious to the activities of the natives in these lands. The stage was set to plant the county, pacify the natives and open up its resource potential to the wider English administration in Ireland.
The choice of Portlaoise as the site for the construction of the Fort is a little puzzling, but may be explained as follows. It may have been its geographical location as a central area in the county which tipped the balance in favour of the laying of its foundations here. An earlier rounded keep type fort was located at the present day convent which was marked on the early maps of the fort from the 1560’s as the “Stone House”.
The presence of the near-by esker ridge known today as “the downs” and the “burnage or Ridge Grave Yard” would have provided a natural routeway in the immediate landscape on which trade and troop movements could be manipulated to and from the fort. This area of the gravel ridge according to Bradley (1986) may have been the site of a pre-plantation church and settlement. The presence of the river triogue to the north and east of the fort would have formed part of the defensive moat which is a visible element on the 1560’s map of the area. Archaeological excavations in 2017 as part of the ongoing conservation project on Protectour, confirmed that this water feature was part of the original defensive construct of the fort, likely with the moat being fed by a stream from the river. The river was also used as a water source to sustain the fort garrison as well as provide power for an early mill present on the site. Remarkably milling on this site lasted into the late 20th Century, with the closer of Oldlums mill in the early 1990’s.
The name of the Fort was Protectour, again mentioned on the earlier maps of the site. This is attributed to the Uncle of the young King Edward VI, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset known as the “Protector of the Realm”. At the time of its construction the King was only nine years of age. The English were fighting a war with the O’Mores who trying to regain their lands lost during the Silken Thomas revolt. St. Leger, the viceroy assisted by a force of over 1,000 troops who landed under the command of Bellingham at Waterford defeated the latest revolt. Bellingham is widely considered to be the man responsible for the building of Fort Protectour, under sponsorship of the crown. He was a notable war leader and had fought in France and even as far away as Hungary in the years before he replaced St. Leger as Viceroy of Ireland in 1548. He was ordered to cut passes in these districts and “keep repair of roads and fords”. By 1550 the O’Mores and other Chiefs had submitted to Bellingham at Dublin, with many of their fighting men including the clan leaders being compelled to join the King’s army in England as part of the surrender conditions. A Lord Chancellor report on Ireland in May 1552 indicated that Laois and Offaly were considered part of the Pale, with Fort Protectour considered as the administrative, economic and military centre of Leix. Reports also emerged that the plantation in the county was costing 7,000 pounds per annum and much of the lands had not been leased. By 1555 a new Lord Deputy or Viceroy emerged on the scene, The Earl of Sussex. His policy of aggression on the natives and the shiring or creation of an official County known as Queens County (in honour of the recently crowned Queen Mary) in the following year was an attempt to underpin the influence of the plantation. Fort Protectour was to become known as Maryborough. As part of the new deal, harsh terms were imposed on the natives, which were to be enforced from the garrison at the fort. Such terms included the pushing of natives on to more marginal lands such as bogs and mountains as well as controlled native marriages and imposing English laws and customs on the Irish. The situation in the county seems to have deescalated for a time as a report from 1560 from the Attorney-General of England recommended a reduction in the garrison to between 500-600 soldiers. Given the tenuous relationship between the natives and the new settlers trouble erupted in 1564 and lasted almost continuously in the county until 1601.
By the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558), Maryborough and its fort had a new constable and strongman named Francis Cosby, a English Captain and Lord of the Kerne. Whilst constable there a record from 1565 shows us that part of the garrison at the fort consisted of four petty captains, one drummer, one surgeon and 39 arquebusiers (the elite precursors of musketmen) as well as horseman and foot soldiers. Settlers from England began to arrive in the county to exploit the opportunities created as new lands became available and security improved as a consequence of the Fort. A map from the 1560’s show us that Maryborough was not just a Fort but also a walled town with the Fort at its centre. Houses located outside the walls show some of the first settlers, such as; White, Lamben, Son, Rogers, Good, Harding, Weldon and Chapman, names which are likely still to be found amongst the modern inhabitants of the town. Strong points within the Laois landscape such as castles at Dysart, Stradbally, Blackfort, Shaen and Coolbanagher are all shown on the Cotton map from the period, which were in times of attack often resupplied by the garrison at the Fort. By 1570 the town had been granted an annual market and was granted a charter of incorporation giving it privileges akin to towns such as Dundalk and Drogheda. The town began to prosper during this period and it is likely that the church (on Railway Street) was added to the settlement at this time.
However like the proverbial thorn in the sides of the English Settlers, a new strong and fearsome O’More Chieftain named Rory Oge emerged from the hazel and scrub of the Laois countryside to place fear in the hearts of the settlers. The economic situation of the plantation in the whole county suffered as a result, with cattle raids, crop confiscated and burning of settler dwellings by the Gaelic resurgence. Exchequer reports from the mid-1570’s showed that the plantation was costing much more to maintain than it was providing revenue to the crown. The English response was treacherous and disparate. On New Year’s Day 1577 a parley was arranged between the clans and the English settlers at Mullaghmast near Athy Co. Kildare. It is said that over 400 unarmed members of the Gaelic septs were put to the sword. Rory Oge escaped and laid siege to the town, harassed the English for another year causing the Crown 200,000l in damages over the course of his rebellion, before being finally killed in an ambush by the Lord of Upper Ossory, Barnaby Fitzpatrick. As a result fortifications at Maryborough were not upgraded sufficiently to prevent an attack by the 15th Earl of Desmond in 1582. The town was burnt and plundered with arms, armour, horses and other property carried away. It seems the fort was rebuilt and a new constable called George Harvy was appointed at a cost of 1,041 per annum in 1586. The Country descended into all-out war from 1593-1603 and Laois had an active involvement. Rory Oge’s son, Owney Mac Rory O’More continued the fight and laid siege to Maryborough twice, burning the town on the first occasion and ambushing troops which ventured out of the fort on the second occasion. In 1597/98, the then Captain of the fort Warham Sentleger lost two companies of men in pursuit of the O’More and Captain Tyrrell. O’More and his men returned to the Fort and laid siege until a huge army of 4,000 “horse and foot” was sent from Dublin under the command of the Lord Lieutenant to relieve the garrison. 35 Gaelic swordsmen were captured and their heads were placed along the walls of the Fort. By 1600 Owney had been defeated and the rebellion was over in County Laois. The Fort although battered was repaired and still stood as a bastion of English colonialism for another 50 years. Until it was captured by Owen Roe O’Neill in 1646 and its then governor Sir William Gilbert surrendered. The papal nuncio Cardinal Rinnuccini took refuge in the Fort in 1648, before it was recaptured by Lord Castlehaven in 1649. It is believed that the fort was eventually dismantled in 1650 under the orders of Cromwell to prevent it from falling into the hands of the papists.
Parts of Fort were used as a barracks in the 18th Century for a British Dragoon regiment but by the 19th century much of it had fallen into disrepair, with the Castle as depicted by Grose in 1792 being dismantled in 1835. This would have stood on the southwest section of the fort at what is known as today as Fortunes Corner.
Today a conservation project is under way on the fort, funded by Local Government, the Laois Heritage Society and the Dept. of Heritage. The aim is to preserve and incorporate the fort within the modern fabric of the town. Although built as one of the first Plantation Forts by the English it stands as a reminder to a turbulent past of conquest and control over the native populations. Built as a monument of might and authority it can also be symbolized as a structure which defined the struggle of the native Gaels.
Archaeological Inventory for Co. Laois
Laois: History & Society, Padraig G. Lane, William Nolan (Ed.)
Calendar of Documents Relating to Ireland 1500’s