County Laois was once a center of Irish religious and cultural life. The ruins of old medieval stone castles dot the countryside, together with the isolated remains of once great monasteries.
Laois is home to meandering country roads, picturesque villages and towns, lonely bog landscapes, red sandstone mountains and lush green pastureland.
Today why not join me on a photographic and informational tour of this beautiful inland county.
County Laois is one of the twelve counties of the ancient province of Leinster.
I’m sure some readers are wondering how to pronounce Laois with it’s string of vowels right in the middle of its name. Phonetically it’s pronounced “Leeesh” with a long, drawn out -eeee in the middle.
Previously known as Queen’s County, the name Laois comes from the medieval kingdom of Loígis.
Another name for the county is the “O’Moore County” in recognition of the ancient Celtic clan who originally ruled the land.
The green pastureland of Laois is dotted with the ruins of ancient monasteries. Monks once referred to this country as “the land of the cow.”
The town of Aghaboe or Achadh Bhó (pronounced Aha-voh) quite literally means the field of the cows in Irish.
And the fields of Laois are fertile farmland to this very day.
Ruins of many large homes from the time the land was owned by English landlords can be found throughout Laois. Some of these great houses survive and are now hotels and country guest houses.
Driving around the highways and byways of Laois you’ll spot many old stone fortresses and keeps dating back to medieval times.
Few of these ruins are open to visitors. They stand as lonely sentinels in the fields of Laois, reminders of the days when Norman lords ruled these lands, and built their homes as fortresses to protect them from their enemies.
Rock of Dunamase:
Built atop a dramatic rocky outcrop the Rock of Dunamase soars above the green fields of central Laois. Before the arrival of Christianity in Ireland this ancient site and the surrounding lands were owned by the O’Moore chieftans.
Merely a short walk from the parking area at the Church with the Red Door, the castle remains are well worth a visit.
This is one of the most ancient sites in Ireland. Believe it or not, it appears on a map created by the Greek cartographer, Ptolemy in AD 140.
This rock and castle, known as Dún Masc (pronounced Doon Mask), has seen many a battle in its day. Plundered by Vikings in the 9th century, it survived, only to be handed over to Strongbow as part of Aoife’s dowry. The O’Moore’s reclaimed it and rebuilt it in the 15th century, only for it to be destroyed by none other than the infamous Cromwell.
Stories of banshees and faerie dogs guarding buried treasure are told about the Rock of Dunamase. But I suppose, these are stories for another day and another blog post.
Built in 1796 by the Earl of Portarlington, Emo Court was designed by the architect James Gandon who is most famous for creating the Custom House and Four Courts buildings in Dublin.
Open to the public, the gardens of the estate are magnificent, and boast many azaleas, rhododendrons and Japanese maples.
Portlaoise (pronounced Port Leeesh) is the county town of Laois. Originally owned by the O’Moores. A great fort called the Fort Protector was built here in 1547 to protect English settlers from the wild Irish.
The O’Moores were dispossessed and sent packing to County Kerry, under the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-1558). The town was renamed Maryborough until 1920.
Heritage House and Museum in Abbeyleix tells the story of the oldest planned estate town in Ireland. Here you can learn many interesting facts about this little town. Luxury carpets were made here for the ill-fated Titanic.
Morrissey’s Pub and Grocery Store in Abbeyleix has been in operation since 1755. Way back when it was first established as a mortuary and public house. The Irish have always loved a drink to commemorate the dead, so why not have a funeral parlor combined with a pub – it makes perfect, Irish, 18th century, business sense.
Heywood Gardens are Italianate in design and were created in 1906 by a famous landscape artist Lutyens.
The circular walled rose garden lies at the center, and is surrounded by leafy walks. Unfortunately the Great House which stood in the demesne was demolished in the 1950’s.
Timahoe Round Tower:
The round tower at Timahoe is one of Ireland’s best preserved examples of these ancient bell towers, which also functioned as lookouts and places of retreat.
The entrance to the tower at Timahoe is 16 feet above ground and a rope or wooden ladder would have been used by monks to enter. Today this tower is intact except it lacks the wooden floors and ladders from centuries past, which have long deteriorated and succumbed to the elements.
The round tower lies on the border with County Carlow, but in today’s tou we’re claiming it for Laois.
Castellated walls in the very centre of the town mark the entrance to Castle Durrow. Today this grand Palladian House dating from 1716 is a hotel.
Durrow was declared part of County Kilkenny by the Duke of Ormonde in the 17th century, and not until the 19th century was it restored to County Laois, by an Act of Parliament.
Durrow was built as a planned estate village, and is very picturesque. Perhaps that’s why the Duke of Ormonde decided he wished it to be part of Kilkenny.
I love this photo of an old mill which stands about 5 m outside the town of Durrow.
Slieve Bloom Mountains:
There is an old legend in County Laois that claims a piper played in the west of the county, causing the rocks and trees to jig up and down to form the Slieve Bloom mountains. What a great tale and a little bit of Legendary Irish Geology.
The Slieve Blooms rise steeply from the surrounding flat plains of County Laois. Although not particularly tall when compared to the mountains of County Kerry, they appear higher because they rise above a flat landscape.
There are miles of tracks and paths throughout the glens, slopes and forests of the Slieve Blooms. These magnificent hills are a walker’s paradise especially on a sunny day.
After the Cromwellian wars in Ireland, many displaced Irish took to the hills and remote glens of the Slieve Blooms to live as outlaws.
An English settler Sir Charles Coote, turned the area around Mountrath beside the Slieve Blooms into a thriving industrial center in the 17th century.
English families were brought in to settle Mountrath, but a shortage of labor forced Sir Charles to obtain special permission to hire 500 of the wild Irish living in the hills above the town. Condition for employment required they live within musket-shot sound of the ironworks.
A descendent of Sir Charles Coote built Ballyfin House in 1826, with exquisite gardens and a lake facing the house. Lying below the Slieve Bloom mountains, today it is a luxury hotel.
The River Barrow, Ireland’s second longest river, rises in Glenbarrow. This remote area offers visitors forest walks, peach and tranquility, and magnificent scenery.
The Glenbarrow Waterfall Trail passes an amazing three tiered waterfall, in a natural woodland setting. According to the Slieve Bloom website the area is ablaze with bluebells in springtime.
Donaghmore Famine Workhouse Museum is housed within an old workhouse which opened in 1853.
This historic and unique attraction tells the stories of families who lived and died before, during and after the Great Hunger of 1845 – 1850.
Tourist Information for County Laois:
And so, I hope this little tour of County Laois gave you a sampling of all it has to offer. Here’s a link for Laois Tourism for anyone wishing to do some planning for an upcoming trip.
And if you’d like to visit any other Irish county check out my post on Ireland’s Thirty Two Counties where you can find links to all the posts I have completed to date.
Happy trails to all!
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)