The first people in Laois were bands of hunters and gatherers who passed through the county about 8,500 years ago. They hunted in the forests that covered Laois and fished in its rivers, gathering nuts and berries to supplement their diets.
Next came Ireland’s first farmers. These people of the Neolithic period (4000 to 2500 BC) cleared forests and planted crops. Their burial mounds remain in Clonaslee and Cuffsborough.
Around 2500 BC, the people of the Bronze Age lived in Laois. They produced weapons, tools and golden objects. Visitors to the county can see a stone circle they left behind at Monamonry, as well as the remains of their hill forts at Clopook and Monelly. Skirk, near Borris-in-Ossory, has a Bronze Age standing stone and ring fort.
In ancient times the O’Moore tribe name of Ui Laoighis was applied to their territory, this name being derived from a famous Ulster ancestor named Lughaid Laoighesach, descendant of a renowned Conall Cearmach chief of the Red Branch Knights of Ulster.
The next stage is known as the pre-Christian Celtic Iron Age. For the first time iron appeared in Ireland, as factions fought bloody battles for control of the land. At Ballydavis, archaeologists have discovered ring barrows that date from this time period.
By the first century AD, Laois was part of the Kingdom of Ossory. The county was divided roughly into seven parts, which were ruled by the Seven Septs of Laois: O’More (O’Moore), O’Lalor, O’Doran, O’Dowling, O’Devoy (O’Deevy), O’Kelly and McEvoy.
Introduction of Christianity:
When Christianity came to Ireland, holy men and women founded religious communities in Laois. Between 550 and 600, St. Canice founded Aghaboe Abbey and St. Mochua founded a religious community at Timahoe. An early Christian community lived at Dun Masc or Masc’s fort, on the Rock of Dunamase.
The Synod of Rathbreasail that established the Irish dioceses was held near Mountrath in 1111, moving the Church away from its monastic base. As religious orders with strong ties to Rome replaced older religious communities, the wooden buildings of the early Christian churches in Laois gave way to stone monasteries. The Augustinians and Dominicans established themselves at Aghaboe Abbey, while the Cistercians took over an older religious community at Abbeyleix.
The Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169-71 affected Laois as it was a part of the Kingdom of Leinster. In Laois, the fortress on the Rock of Dunamase was part of the dowry of the Irish princess Aoife, who was given in marriage in 1170 to the Norman warrior Strongbow. Advancing Normans surveyed the county from wooden towers built on top of earthen mounds, known as mottes. They also built stone fortresses, such as Lea Castle, just outside Portarlington. Several of the county’s towns were first established as Norman boroughs, including Castletown, Durrow and Timahoe.
From 1175 until about 1325, Normans controlled the best land in the county, while Gaelic society retreated to the bogs, forests and the Slieve Bloom Mountains. The early 14th century saw a Gaelic revival, as a burst of force from the Irish chieftains caused the Normans to withdraw. The Dempseys seized Lea Castle, while Dunamase came into the ownership of the O’Mores. Examples of tower housesbuilt by Irish chieftains are found at Ballaghmore and Cullahill Castle, both decorated with Sheila-na-gigs.
In 1548, English warriors confiscated the lands of the O’Mores, and built “Campa,” known as the Fort of Leix, today’s Portlaoise.
It was shired in 1556 by Queen Mary as Queen’s County, covering the countries of Leix, Slewmarge, Irry, and that part of Glimnaliry on the southwest side of the River Barrow.
Laois received its present Irish language name following the Irish War of Independence. Laois was also sometimes spelt “Leix”. Portlaoise (previously Maryborough) is the county town.
Laois was the subject of two Plantations or colonisations by English settlers. The first occurred in 1556, when Thomas Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex dispossessed the O’Moore clan and attempted to replace them with English settlers. However, this only led to a long drawn-out guerilla war in the county and left a small English community clustered around garrisons. There was a more successful plantation in the county in the 17th century, which expanded the existing English settlement with more landowners and tenants from England. Neither plantation was fully successful due to a lack of tenants and because of continuous raids and attacks by the O’Moores.
In 1659, a group of Quakers settled in Mountmellick, while a group of Huguenots were given refuge in Portarlington in 1666 after their service to William of Orange in the Williamite War in Ireland.
What followed was a period of relative calm. Anglo-Irish landowners enclosed the land and built fine houses, including Durrow Castle, Heywood House and Emo Court. In 1836, a branch of the Grand Canal stretched to Mountmellick, further stimulating industry in that town.
The Great Famine of 1845-49 devastated the county. The county’s workhouses could not cope with the number of destitute people seeking shelter. By the time the workhouse opened at Donaghmore in 1853, many of the poorest had emigrated or died.
Despite the county’s name being upheld as Laois through the 2001 Local Government Act, no legislation was ever enacted after independence explicitly changing the name from Queen’s County, the name formally established under the 1898 Local Government Act which continued to have legal effect. When land is sold in the county the relevant title deeds are still updated as being in Queen’s County.
Local matters are dealt with by Laois County Council which elects 25 members. For the purpose of elections it is divided into five local electoral: Borris-in-Ossory (6), Emo (4), Lugacurran (4), Mountmellick (4) and Portlaoise (7). Laois historically supported Fianna Fáilparty in Irish elections. However in the last local election there was a sharp swing to the opposition Fine Gael party. Laois is in the five seat Laois–Offaly constituency for elections to Dáil Éireann.
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Rock of Dunamase
Places of interest:
- Slieve Bloom Mountains
- Rock of Dunamase
- Emo Court
- Castle Durrow
- Timahoe Round Tower
- Stradbally House
- Mountmellick Quaker Museum
- Ballyfin House
- Dunamaise Arts Centre, Portlaoise
- Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society
- Portlaoise Leisure Centre
- 18-hole golf courses include: Abbeyleix Road in Portlaoise; The Heritage in Killenard; The Heath; Abbeyleix and Rathdowney.
The population of County Laois is expanding rapidly, given its easy commute to the employment centres of Kildare and Dublin, and affordable housing in pleasant surroundings. Laois’s population growth during the period 2002-2006 (14%) has been stronger than the National average (8.2%), as follows:
- 2002 … 58,774
- 2006 … 67,012 … +14.01%
- 2011 … 80,559
Agricultural activities occupy approximately 70 % of the land area of the county (1,200 km2/460 sq mi). However agriculture’s share of income in the BMW region of which Laois is a part has declined sharply in the past decade, and represented only approximately 3.9% of annual income (GVA) in 2005 Central Statistics Office. The county is home to over 230,000 cattle, three cows for every person. The remaining area includes considerable stretches of raised bog, and the Slieve Bloom mountains, which are partially covered by coniferous forest.
The county has a small industrial base, with industrial parks at Portlaoise, Portarlington and Mountmellick. Over 1500 people work in the industrial sector in County Laois. The county makes up part of the Border Midlands and West region (BMW) for the purposes of EU funding.
Many people in Laois commute to nearby County Kildare, and further afield to County Dublin, where wages are on average higher.
The M7 road runs through County Laois. This is one of the busiest roadways in Ireland connecting Dublin and Limerick and acts as a trunk route for the M8 which connects Cork to Dublin. The M8 joins the M7 to the south of Portlaoise. Road infrastructure has improved greatly in the county over the past decade. Most major interurban routes through Laois have now been upgraded to motorway standard. All major traffic bottlenecks in Laois such as Abbeyleix and Mountrath have been bypassed following the opening of the M7/M8 tolled motorway project in May 2010. Both towns were major intercity bottlenecks for motorists especially Abbeyleixwhere delays of up to 30 minutes or more was common.
Bus Éireann provides regular intercity bus services in the county. The Dublin to Limerick service runs every hour through towns and villages on the old N7 road (now R445) while the Dublin to Cork inter city bus service runs every two hours through towns in the county.
Laois is also well served by rail travel. Iarnród Éireann train services between Heuston station Dublin and Cork/Limerick travel through the county with railway stations at Portlaoise, Portarlington and Ballybrophy.
- John George Adair (1823–1885), builder of Glenveagh Castle and financier of JA Ranch in the Texas Panhandle.
- Darina Allen (1953- ), TV chef.
- John Barrett (1753–1821), Vice Provost, Trinity College, 1807–1821.
- Sir Jonah Barrington (1760–1834).
- Lisa Burke, Sky News weathercaster.
- William Dargan (1799–1867), responsible for the Industrial Exhibition, 1853.
- Cecil Day-Lewis (1904–1972), British Poet-Laureate, 1967–1972.
- Dr. Daniel Delany (1747–1814), Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin.
- Eileen Dunne (1958- ), TV newscaster.
- Oliver J. Flanagan (1920–1987), Minister for Defence, 1976–1977.
- Hon. William Russell Grace (1832–1904), mayor of New York, 1880-1885.
- Stephen Hunt (1981-), professional footballer playing for Reading and Ireland.
- James Fintan Lalor (1807–1849), Young Irelander.
- Peter Lalor (1827–1889), leader of the Eureka Stockade miners revolt, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia.
- Dr. Bartholomew Mosse (1712–1759), founder, Rotunda Maternity Hospital, Dublin.
- Valentine O’Hara (1875–1945), author and authority on Russia and the Baltic states.
- Kevin O’Higgins (1892–1927), Irish Free State Minister for Justice.
- John Shaw (1773–1823), U.S. Naval Officer.
- Kivas Tully (1820–1905), architect, Trinity College, Toronto, the Custom House and the Bank of Montreal.
- Robert Sheehan (1988- ), best known for playing Nathan Young on E4’s comedy drama, Misfits
- Claire Byrne (1976- ), TV presenter/newscaster, best known for co-presenting RTÉ’s The Daily Show
- Bernard O’Shea, comedian, best known for his roles on RTÉ’s Republic of Telly.
- Mark Doheny, comedian
- Evelyn Cusack Met Éireann meteorologist
The weather station at east Durrow was set up in May 2008. The equipment used is a Davis Vantage Pro II that measures temperature, humidity, wind speed, wind direction, rainfall and barometric pressure. This data is transmitted every 2 seconds to the internet website http://www.laoisweather.com where the data can be freely accessed. The station also reports to the Irish Weather Network which displays live weather data from similar stations all around Ireland.
In addition, a Met Eireann climatological station (Number: 472) was installed in September 2010 and the data collected is sent to headquarters in Glasnevin, Dublin on a monthly basis. The climatological station measures rainfall in a manual gauge, soil temperatures at 5 cm, 10 cm and 20 cm depths, air temperature including wet-bulb, daily maximum and daily minimum temperatures. The climatological station is a project that is envisaged to last thirty years and collect a climate profile for Durrow and Laois in general.
Towns and villages:
- The Heath
- The Swan