Co. Laois byway (Photo by liam murphy)
Ballyroan (Co. Laois / South)
Ballyroan (Baile Átha an Róine) (pop. 1000) is a growing village with two churches, two shops, three pubs, an impressive castle ruin and attractive old houses lining the Main Street.
Cullinagh, the highest hill in the area, gave its name to the local residence of the late C18th High Court judge, writer and unreliable historian, Sir Jonah Barrington.
Abbeyleix (Co. Laois / South)
Abbeyleix / Abbey Leix / Abbeylaois (Mainistir Laoise – “Laois Monastery”) (pop. 3500) is a “heritage town” with several good pubs and eateries, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Morrisey’s, a traditional spirits & groceries emporium on the elegant and spacious tree-lined main street.
The main part of Abbeyleix was laid out in the mid-C18th as an estate village, and contains several striking edifices in different styles from over the last two centuries.
Abbeyleix Markethouse (c.1907), recently renovated as a state of the art Library / Exhibition Centre.
Abbeyleix is named for an early Christian monastery founded c.600 AD and re-established as a Cistercian Abbey by Conor O’ More in 1183. The abbey, initially manned by French monks, was officially dedicated to “Beata Maria de Lege Dei,” and commonly known as the “Abbey de Lege / Lex De,” easily confused with the Irish “Mainistir Laoise” to become “the Abbey of Leix”. Its lands, extending into county Dublin, all came to be called the country of Leix.
After King Henry VIII‘s 1540 Dissolution of the Monasteries, the lands passed through the hands of Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond, to later claimants. Some monks stayed on as parish priests, and the abbey church remained in use for a while, but the entire complex eventually crumbled, leaving no trace. Local tradition maintains that it was situated near the edge of the Abbeyleix House demesne, close to the beautiful Nore river crossing known as Monks’ Bridge.
The Manor of Abbey Leix was the subject of the so-called “Hundred Years’ War” of complex litigation in the Irish and English courts of law and both the Irish and English Houses of Lords, which lasted until 1769. The inter-related cases involved the Crown, Sir Edward Massey of Twickenham and of Lisbigny (Abbeyleix), Denny Muschamp, Sir John Temple, Master of the Rolls in Ireland, the 4th Earl of Donegall, and the wife and children of Robert Ridgeway, 4th Earl of Londonderry, who owned the nearby Lordship of Ballynakill. The eventual winners were the Vessey family, who went on to hold the title of Viscounts de Vesci.
The Old Town of Abbey Leix was replaced by the current town in the late C18th, when the 1st Viscount de Vesci decided that the marshy land beside the river was too damp and unhealthy as a place of habitation for his tenants. This was the first known example of the remodelling of a town for the benefit of the mere inhabitants.
Heritage House, formerly a Patrician Monastery and a boys’ school, has been developed as a museum of interesting artefacts illustrating the history of the county from the Bronze Age to the present day. An entire room is dedicated to the carpet factory that flourished in Abbyleix early in the C20th and supplied the floor coverings of the doomed Titanic. (Photo – Kman999)
The Sexton’s House beside the Church of Ireland Parish Centre recreates life in the mid-C19th.
The church of St. Michael & All Angels (CoI) was originally designed by John Semple in 1825, but only the western end with his trademark austerity survives. The rest is by TH Wyatt and dates from 1865. A pleasant strolling route commencing here is known as the Lord’s Walk.
The church of the Most Holy Redeemer (RC), designed on a cruciform plan by prominent ecclesiastical architect William Hague, was completed in 1896. The tower and spire attached to the southern transept give the church an odd appearance.
Abbeyleix also has old Wesleyan (Methodist) and Baptist places of worship.
Abbeyleix, the Town of the Fountains.
The memorial Fountain of the 2nd Viscount De Vesci is an obelisk set on a robust, rusticated plinth in the centre of the Market Square. Designed in 1860 by JS Butler, it was to commemorate the help the De Vesci family gave to the people of Abbeyleix during the Great Famine. The Viscount, in order to lessen the hardships of the times, reduced all rent; the less property occupied, the greater the reduction.
The memorial Fountain of the 3rd Viscount De Vesci is a Gothic, octagonal shrine built after a competition in 1877 to the design of Rawson Carroll, by the widowed Lady Emma De Vesci.
Two other smaller Victorian fountains still stand. One is dedicated to Reverend William Wingfield, Vicar of Abbeyleix 1836-1880.
Dove House, formerly a Brigidine convent, is now a centre for people with disabilities. It has a wonderful Sensory Garden open to the public, featuring chimes, a hidden garden, a maze with raised pavements as its corners, water, natural and sculpted objects, raised flower beds and scented areas throughout. A boules court has been set out in the gardens, one of very few places in Ireland where this gentle French game can be enjoyed.
Abbeyleix House (1773), home to generations of the Vessey family, is a magnificent 4-storey Georgian mansion built by Sir William Chambers to a design by James Wyatt, standing in a beautiful park. (Photo – www.askaboutireland.ie)
The formal gardens were laid out in 1839 by Lady Emma Herbert, based on her memories of her Vorontsov forebears’ gardens at Alupka, near Yalta in the Crimea. Local tradition has it that a Russian relation of hers planted the poplars that line the road to Ballycolla.
A scandalous story told of Abbeyleix House involves a C19th family christening. Apparently the entire company became very inebriated before the ceremony, and while driving the short distance to the church in an open carriage, upended themselves in a ditch. During the ensuing confusion Lady de Vesci’s pet terrier was wrapped in the swaddling clothes instead of the baby and was duly christened in the church.
The property was sold in 1995. Nowadays the estate is only open to the public once annually for local charity.
An old burial ground lies near the C19th CoI church in the Abbeyleix House demesne, probably built on the site of the ancient Abbey church. A box tomb still remains, bearing a full size recumbent effigy in armour, with a Latin inscription around the margin in Gothic lettering, translated as “Malachy O’More, Prince of Leix. May he rest in peace. Amen, 1486.” A slab tomb has a floreated cross on top and a similar inscription – “Here lieth John O’More, A.D., 1502.” There is another grave slab in memory of William O’Kelly (1531), adjacent to and a large quantities of human bones, including a complete skeleton over seven feet in length. An ancient granite circular Baptismal Font in form also remains. The relics are now preserved in a walled garden within the demesne.
A large range of historical structures still stand nearby, from ancient Ring Forts, burial grounds, early monastic buildings, to mediaeval castles, churches and estate houses.
The vicinity offers many tranquil country pleasures. There are many beautiful gardens to visit close to hand, and wonderful fishing River Nore.
Moyne Polo Club, one of the largest in Ireland, offers exhilarating entertainment throughout the summer.
Abbeyleix Manor Hotel has an excellent reputation.
Abbeyleix is linked by the R430 to Mountrath on ByRoute 10 and is close to Spink on ByRoute 8.