To mark the beginning of festivities at the Old Fort Festival last Friday, the 28th of June saw the official opening of the newly refurbished Fitzmaurice Place where conservation works on the Fort Protector and the surrounding public realm have taken place.
Cathaoirleach of Laois County Council, Willie Aird officially opened the event and said “This new public space for the people of Portlaoise will help bring life back to this part of town.
“With the wonderful conservation of the Old Fort Walls, the performance space and the wildlife-friendly planting, the new Fitzmaurice Place makes a great contribution to the culture and heritage of the town.
“But this is just part of what is planned for the centre of Portlaoise. It’s one piece of the jigsaw of what’s needed for the heritage-led regeneration of the town”.
The 16th Century fort build in 1547/48 has played a pivotal role not just in local history, but in Irish history and British Colonialism.
Speaking at the formal opening Chairman of the Heritage Council of Ireland Michael Parsons recited the origins of the Fort Protector and it important role.
“The Fort Protector was the first born plantation of the English speaking world. It played a central role in the first plantation of Ireland, in Laois and Offaly. The Fort was built to maintain the authority of the Pale in the middle of Ireland, and to suppress the independent and warlike clans in the area, who were led by the O’Moores.
“The Fort withstood various uprisings by the Septs of Laois, led by the O’Moores and sometimes supported by the O’Connors of Offaly.”
Mr Parsons went on to say that the O’Moores’ were finally ‘banished’ from Laois to Kerry in 1607, and the town of Portlaoise grew around the fort.
“The Fort that was built here in 1547/48 was the forerunner of every British fortification and planted settlement in Ireland and through the later British empire.”
Building on Mr. Parsons remarks Teddy Fennelly, President of Laois Heritage Society highlighted the struggle of the O’Moores and O’Connors clans and what their eventual defeat meant for Ireland.
“The O’Moores and the O’Connors, and the other great clans ………….. who ruled the land here, presented the biggest resistance to Tudor England’s ambitions of suppressing the Irish, and ……… expanding control over the entire country,” said Mr Fennelly.
Referring to the Old Fort walls, Mr Fennelly said: “The final conquest of Ireland started here – inside and outside of those walls. The British blueprint for colonisation started here.”
“We are delighted to see the upgrade in this part of the town, especially in this historic part of Portlaoise.”
The Laois Heritage Society has been working diligently since 2015 to develop a conservation plan for the Fort. This plan played a critical role in their successful application for the Historic Towns Initiative in 2018.
The conservation project was well underway when additional funding was secured through the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund (URDF) in 2019.
The works of Phase 1 were funded by the Heritage Council and the Department of Culture Heritage and the Gaeltacht under the Historic Towns Initiative. This work focused on conservation of the masonry of the round bastion and south wall of the Fort Protector and removal of concrete works carried out by an old mill which once occupied the site. Further improvements were made to the existing public realm surrounding the fort including, paving, lighting, seating, landscaping, installation of a performance space and a new layout.
Phase 2 of the proposed works of the project will include further conservation of the masonry of the Fort Wall extending to Tower Hill and Railway Street, and the extension of the public realm improvements around the remainder of the Fort Wall with funding provided by the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund through Ireland 2040.
The Fort Protector will once again play an essential role in Portlaoise as the key feature in Portlaoises regeneration plans and new cultural quarter.
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