by Sir Erasmus D. Borrowes, Bart.
Early History of the District.
Although the town of Portarlington, so distinguished as the happy home and refuge of the disbanded Huguenot officers of the victorious army of William the Third, may be said in point of fact to have no earlier origin than the foundation laid in 1694 by those gallant settlers, the surrounding district, however, is rich in historic associations of an early and interesting period. Seven miles south of the town stands the remarkable isolated rock of Dunamase -- the "Drachenfels" of Leix, -- inaccessible on all sides except the east, still crowned in imposing grandeur with the huge remains of its Anglo-Norman fortress
"Proud, massive, high, and stretching far,
And held impregnable in war,"
which frowned into obedience the minor powers of the surrounding plain. This commanding rock is said to have been the Dunum of Ptolemy, and to have been made a fortress by Laighseach O'More, about the beginning of the third century; from which time it continued to be the patrimonial residence of the chiefs of the district. In 843 the Danes took the fortress of Dunamase by storm, and cruelly put to the sword the Abbot of Tirdaglas, Prior of Kildare, and many other persons of note who were then sojourning there. It was frequently the residence of the King of Leinster, and on "the coming of the English" it was in the possession of Dermot Mac Murrough. Strongbow having possessed it through his wife Eva, it passed to the Marshalls through his daughter Isabel, wife of "the noble and renowned William Marshal," Earl Marshall of England, the greatest subject of the British crown, and one of the most distinguished personages in Europe. On the death of Strongbow in 1177, William Marshal became Earl of Pembroke, Lord of Leinster, &c., and seems also to have inherited from his renowned father-in-law the Marshalsy of Ireland. In 1207 King John granted Leinster (by patent) to this Earl to hold by the service of 100 knights; in right of which he, his sons, and co-heirs, afterwards erected almost all the corporate, with many of the monastic establishments in Carlow, Kildare, Kilkenny, and Wexford. The brevity of this important charter, consisting of only a few lines, forms a remarkable contrast to the absurd and wearisome repetitions introduced into the legal conveyances of modern times. As a specimen of such laconic instruments, we transcribe, from that curious and valuable book "Excerpta Historica," this singular and unique mandate of the same king. -- "The King to G. De Marisco, Justiciary of Ireland, Health. -- We wonder very much that you have not executed the mandate which we gave you to deliver up the castle of Dunmas to W. Marshal Earl of Pembroke. We command you, therefore, to deliver it up without delay to the deputy of the Earl, bringing this letter together with the Earl's letters patent by this token, that you informed us by brother Nicholas, the Hospitaller, that you would perform our command respecting that castle by delivering it to the Earl, by such token as this, that we took you or you took us by the thumb or arm, but we know not which; nevertheless although we are uncertain upon this point, fail ye not to deliver up the castle to the bearer of these presents. Witnesses, P. Bishop of Winchester. W. Earl of Salisbury. R. Constable of Chester. Ph. De Albin. G. De Neville, Chamberlain. Folkstone, 14 May, 1216." -- This great personage died in 1219, was interred in the new Temple and on his tomb were inscribed the following lines:--
"Sum qui Saturnum sibi sensit Hibernia; Solem Anglia; Mercurium Normannia; Gallia Martem."
"Its knights were dust,
Their good swords rust,
Their souls lay with the saints, I trust."
The garrison encountered the avenging sword of Cromwell; Colonels Hewsen and Reynolds blew up the castle; and little remains now but ponderous masses of disjected masonry to testify to its ancient grandeur, and exemplify the power of its Irish and Anglo Norman chieftains.
Descending into the plain from this beautiful hill-country, and the Rock of Dunamase, -- "the Rock," which far surpasses its famed sister of Cashell in picturesque and precipitous outline, -- and wending our way a few miles northward, we find ourselves in the immediate vicinity of Portarlington, the principal town of the district, which from a very remote period constituted the extensive territory of the great family of O'Dempsey; over it they held sway long antecedent to the invasion of Ireland; and, on the arrival of Earl Strongbow they were in full force, and ready to march their legions into the field. The Anglo-Norman poem in the Palace of Lambeth, on the Conquest of Ireland by Henry the Second, rendered into English by Francisque Michel, makes frequent allusion to the O'Dempseys. The author who is anonymous and unknown, had a good opportunity of becoming acquainted with the events he commemorates, for he sates at the commencement of the poem that he learnt them from the mouth of Maurice Regan, interpreter to King Dermot.
"Morice Regan iert celui,
Buche â buche parla a lui.
Ki cest jest endita,
L'estorie de lui me mostra."
He informs us that while King Henry remained in Dublin, and after his departure from Ireland Earl Richard, the gentle Count, "Li gentil queus" with his friends and all his forces sojourned at Kildare. When at Ferns Earl Strongbow had one of his daughters married, in the sight of all the Baronage, "veant tut le barnage" to the gallant crusader, Robert de Quincey; to whom he also gave the Duffrey as a marriage portion, with the constableship of Leinster with its standard and banner. At this period the chief of the O'Dempseys was Dermot son of Conbrogda O'Dempsey, Lord of Clanmalier, and the only man of his name that obtained the chieftainship of all Offaly; he founded on the site of an ancient church, about 1178, the great Cistercian Abbey of Rossglass, now Monasterevan, which he richly endowed. The "gentle Earl," having a tender regard for the commissariat department, conceived he could not replenish it more abundantly than by a foray on the herds of O'Dempsey. The Rhymer informs us, that for this purpose he often went into Offaly, of which O'Demsey was called the Lord and Chief.
"Sovent alad en Offali
Pur rober O'Dimesi --
O'Dimesy iert dunc clamé
De Offali sire e avué."
Immediately following he adds, that the Earl with all his chivalry marched forth for this purpose,
"With all their banners bravely spread,
And all their armour flashing high,
Saint George might waken from the dead
To see fair England's standards fly;"
and that O'Dempsey was so proud he would not deign to parley with the Count, nor deliver to him hostages, nor did he wish to come to a peace, and that he with his people bore himself right vassally towards the Count who owned Leinster.
"Li queus alad en Offailie
Od tut la chevalerie
Pur preer e pur rober
O'Dymesi ki tant iert fer
Que al cunte deignout parler,
Ostages ne li volt liverer,
Al cunte ne volt à pès venir.
O'Dymesy od la sue gent
Mult se contint vassalment
O'Dymesy lores, san mentir,
Contre li queus veraiment
A qui Leynestere apent."
The Earl Strongbow, however, on this occasion met with a sad reverse in the loss of his gallant son-in-law, the Constable De Quincey. We shall tell the story, which is not without interest, by giving a literal translation of the lines of the poet:--
"When the Count with all his meyne
Into Offaily had made his entry
Robert (De Quincey) had the whole land
In wood and plain searched for its cows.
When he had collected
The prey of the whole country,
Towards Kildare did they repair
These worthy English Barons.
The Count was in the front forwards,
With a thousand of his vassals doing battle;
The Constable (De Quincey) was with the reserve
Placed in the rere guard.
Exactly at their issuing from the pass
There was an attack made on them on all sides,
An attack by O'Dymesyb
And the Irish of Offaily.
The rear guard have they assailed
All the people of the country.
On that day was slain the gentle Robert De Quincey
Who held the standard and the Pennon
Of the region of Leynester
To whom the Count had given
The Constableship as an inheritance.
Much was he deplored upon my word
The Baron Robert De Quincey;c
And in much deep grief
On account of his death was his worthy Lord. --
-- "Mult fu depleint, sachez de fi
Le Barun Robert de Quenci
E mult esteit en grant tristur
Pur sa mort sun bon seignur." --
Thus fell this gallant soldier of the cross, "of chivalry the flower and pride," who had accompanied Richard 1st to the Holy Land, in 1191, and was also with the Lion-hearted King in his expedition to Normandy.
"O'er better knight on death bier laid,
Torch never flamed, nor mass was said."
The writer proceeds to inform us of the conquests in Leinster of "Li queus gentis de grant valur," and his distribution of its lands; and that he had then on his side, among many others whom he names,
"Omorthe e O'Dymesi
O'Duvegin le veil flori."
To be continued...
[a] These were the minor castles of the surrounding feudatories, or "Baronets" as they were then called; they were garrisoned for the defence of the Lordship.
[b] The Annals of the Four Masters thus record the death of Dermot O'Dempsey "A.D. 1193. Dermot son of Conbroghde O'Diomusaigh, a long time chief of Clan Macilughra a lord of Hy Failge died." [Clanmalier and Offaly.]
[c] He was son of De Quinci, Earl of Winchester. Robert De Quinci bore on his own banner "De gules ung quinte foil hermyn."
The above article is reproduced from the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, vol. 3, 1855.