French Church

Nostre ayde soit au nom de Dieu, qui a fait le ciel et la terre, Amen.

"Let our help be in the name of God who has made the sky and the earth, Amen." With these words, Pasteur Jacques Gillet completed the heading for the register of baptisms, marriages and burials for the French Church in Portarlington in 1694. Born in Bergerac in the Dordogne area of France and a refugee from religious persecution there, he had been chosen by Henri de Massue (1648 - 1720), who was Marquis de Ruvigny and then Earl of Galway, to care for the spiritual needs of a colony of Huguenots settled in the Irish midlands.

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. 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 at Lea, two miles east of Portarlington and close to the ruins of Lea Castle, a medieval castle, home to the O'Dempseys.

It is strange 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 made by the clan leader Lord Clanmaliere. The land instead passed to Sir Henry Bennet, Lord Arlington, friend and minister to King Charles II 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 the 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."

Grateful Thanks to the Authors of The French Church; John Stocks Powell, Ronnie Matthews and Maeve Robinson.

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