Big year for one of Portlaoise's historic landmarks as gates return resplendant

Express Reporter

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The past 12 months have been historic for the Old St Peter’s - the oldest place of worship in Portlaoise as well as the tower in the graveyard which is one of the oldest buildings in the town.

The tower was part of a church thought to have been built around 1556. It dominates the skyline and is a defining element in the character of Church Street The site had become very neglected and the town has turned its back on it – this year, Portlaoise Tidy Towns groups started work to reverse that.

In 2016 year with the support of Laois County Council, the committee led by Cllr Jerry Lodge hired an archaeologist to write a Conservation Report for the site, and this year they have started to put that plan into action.

Their work programme for this year included three elements:

·         Conservation of the wrought iron entrance gates;

·         Management of ivy on the graveyard walls and the tower, and reduction in the crown of the mature trees of site

·         Start of conservation of the walls on the site.

Conservation Work

With the help of funding from the Heritage Council and Laois County Council, some of this work is now complete and the remainder is well underway. Following consent from the National Monuments Service, the project started in July with the removal of the wrought iron gates for conservation off-site by specialist blacksmith Edward Bisgood.

These gates were re-hung on site in November.

At the end of the bird nesting season, tree surgery was carried out by Darwin Tree Services to lighten the crowns of the trees without damaging them, and also to tightly trim the ivy on the old stone walls. Finally, this week, stonemason Joe Costello and his team have been repointing the northern boundary wall with lime mortar. All of the work has been overseen by project archaeologist Colm Flynn.

Cllr Jerry Lodge said “We are delighted with the progress that has been made this year, and we look forward to continuing this work next year if funding is available. We need to move on to the church tower itself next. Now that the ivy has been trimmed, we can see how much repair is needed, and we need to get to that before the ivy re-grows.”

Biodiversity

The site is also important for wildlife, with many species of birds and insects using it to breed and shelter. All the work so far has taken this wildlife into account, with management timed to after birds had finished nesting and bat surveys carried out before work started. Plans to enhance the site for breeding birds through installation of swift nest boxes are also underway.

Portlaoise Tidy Towns Committee members paid tribute to all the groups in the county that have assisted so far in the project, including Trojan work by the members of Portlaoise Men’s Shed, wildlife input from the Irish Wildlife Trust Laois-Offaly branch, and great support from the Town Engineer Wes Wilkinson and his team.

The project has been co-ordinated by Heritage Officer with Laois County Council Catherine Casey , and has received national recognition through selection to participate in the Adopt a Monument Scheme. The Committee wishes to thank in particular all the neighbouring businesses and residents, for their patience and support during the various stages of the work.

 Chief Executive of Laois County Council, John Mulholland, said “Old St Peter’s is a very valuable part of the historic core of Portlaoise. Our Public Realm Strategy for the town identified the importance of conservation work at sites like this for the character of the town, and Laois County Council is delighted to partner with Portlaoise Tidy Towns to ensure this active conservation work is carried out”.

 A site full of history

This is the earliest surviving religious site in the town. The church ruin and graveyard with its early gravestones are an important element of the archaeological and social heritage of Portlaoise. A number of notable personalities are said to be buried here including generations of the famous medical family of Jacob, noted clergymen, and the remains of the highwayman Grant, the last man to be publicly hanged in Maryborough in 1816.

 Now thanks to the work of Portlaoise Tidy Towns, the future for Old St Peter’s looks bright.