On the Town X

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Mountmellick, County Laois is typical of many Irish towns in possessing a more distinguished past than its present circumstances would suggest. Originally a 15th century settlement beside the Owenass river, it underwent expansion after the second half of the 17th century when a number of Quakers arrived in the area. In 1659 the founder of the Society of Friends in this country, a former soldier called William Edmundson came to live close to Mountmellick, soon followed by several other members of the same faith. As a result of their presence and their industry, the town flourished and expanded as a centre for diverse industries so that in the 18th century it came to be known as the ‘Manchester of Ireland.’ In the years prior to the Great Famine of the 1840s, Mountmellick’s population grew to more than 4,500 the majority of them working in tanning and textile businesses run by such Quaker families as the Goodbodys and Pims. At the start of the 19th century there were three large mills and five breweries in the town, and employment provided by these supported the local population. In the mid-1820s a lace-making cottage industry was also initiated in Mountmellick and enjoyed similar success. Needlework was already being taught to girls attending the Quaker school in the town. This had opened in the centre of Mountmellick in 1786 and provided education for both sexes, albeit with different curricula. A government report of 1858 declared the institution ‘deserved the utmost praise and was the most credible managed school of its kind in Ireland.’ Before the end of the 19th century however, boys were being sent instead to Newtown, County Waterford and in 1921 the girls school was sold to the Roman Catholic Presentation Order of nuns.

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Like most of the Quaker families which first brought them into existence, the industries encouraging Mountmellick’s original growth have long since disappeared. Yet evidence of the town’s former prosperity can be found in abundance, not least in the central O’Connell Square, formerly known as Drogheda Square after the Moore family, Earls of Drogheda who owned land in the area. This is lined with large houses dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries and testifies to Mountmellick’s commercial success. So too do many other buildings discovered on surrounding streets, such as the courthouse dating from 1839, a former town hall (now used as a parish hall) of some thirty years later and a Masonic Hall. The different religious denominations once found in the town are all recorded through their diverse properties including a Church of Ireland church which in its present form was built in 1828 to replace an earlier structure. In addition to the large Roman Catholic church, there is also a Methodist chapel, a former Presbyterian church (today a guest hostel), and naturally a large Quaker Meeting House. This however, has long since ceased to be used for its original purpose and is now a Church of Ireland Youth Hall. But the importance of the Quakers to Mountmellick’s development has not been forgotten, with a festival to their memory being held in the town last July. The local community clearly recognizes the benefits of living with such a distinguished history: preserving and celebrating its heritage surely represents one of Mountmellick’s best chances of enjoying a buoyant future. It is unlikely the industries of old will ever return and the town risks becoming a backwater while larger centres of population in the region like Portlaoise expand. Much of the old town remains – albeit in places falling into disrepair – and this ought to be promoted as a prime tourist destination for the Midland region. Compared with many other similar towns around the country Mountmellick is doing well but it has the potential to do even better.

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Apologies for this somewhat truncated On the Town: the Irish Aesthete has been on the road in the USA for the past week. Normal postings resume hereafter…

8 comments on “On the Town X

  1. Tim Corfield says:

    I am interested in the history of the Moore family which you mention here. I am intrigued that they seem to claim to be descended from a heroic noble called Rory O’Moore but I can find little about them in the 18th century. Can you point me in the right direction. Many thanks.

    Tim Corfield Corfield Morris Ltd Advisors in Fine Art, Antiques, Classic Cars London-New York-Guernsey http://www.corfieldmorris.com +44 (0)7798881383

    • Hi Tim; Which Moores do you mean ? There were the Moore’s of Cremorgan Co. Laois who claimed descent from Rory Caech O More, and the More O Ferrals of Balyna who were descended from Rory (Roger) O More of the 1641 rising. The Moore’s Earls of Drogheda were an English family.

    • Thanks for getting in touch. Please see Mairtin’s informative response below which may be of use to you. As he points out, there were diverse families called More (and Moore). That to which I refer here were descended from Sir Edward Moore who came from Kent and settled in Ireland during the reign of Elizabeth I during which time he amassed an estate of some 50,000 acres. As an aside, it was his descendant, the third Earl of Drogheda who first built and named after himself Henry Street, Moore Street, Earl Street, Of Alley (no longer in existence today) and Drogheda Street (the origin of what is now O’Connell Street).

  2. Finola says:

    You’ve motivated me to detour through here next time we pass by. Thanks.

  3. An interesting town. The cinema was opened by Sean T O Kelly as President of Ireland because the parish priest; Fr. Burbage, knew him from his War of indepedence days. The old Railway station yet remains, the Canal Terminus was demolished about 1988. It has a suburb called ‘Irishtown’ and a 1920’s housing area called ‘Hill 60’. When I was a child there was still a Miss Pim living near the church of Ireland.Lovely article as usual; thank you.

    • Thank you as always Mairtin for your additional information. Yes, I knew there was an area called Irishtown – as is usually the case, that is a late-mediaeval name and long-predated the advent of the Quakers. What a shame about the loss of the canal terminus…

      • Dear Robert. I hope to read about Summergrove, and possibly Capard Houses in a forthcoming post. Sorry for soliciting ! Do you know of other Irishtown’s in Ireland (apart from Ringsend) ? The town isn’t marked on the 1565 map of Leix and Offaly but must have come into being very soon after this date.

  4. Dear Mairtin,
    I have not been to Summergrove (such a special house) for some years: you remind me to try and reconnect with it before too long…
    As for Capard, well it is ‘in transition’ at present, so I’m not sure if now is the right time to visit. But I shall, not doubt, again in due course.
    As for Irishtowns – there was one in Limerick in the Middle Ages, and I am sure others (allow me a senior moment). I will revert when more occur to me.

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