County Laois is a county in Ireland. It is part of the Midlands Region and is also located in the province of Leinster, and was formerly known as Queen's County. The modern county takes its name from Loígis, a medieval kingdom.
Laois County Council is the local authority for the county. The population of the county is 80,559, according to the 2011 census - 20% higher than it was in the 2006 census, which is the highest percentage population growth in the country.
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.
Starting 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. The body of Cashel Man indicates that ritual killing took place around 2000 BC.
The county name derives from Loígis, of which the modern county is only a part. In the 11th century, its dynastic rulers adopted the surname Ua/Ó Mórdha. They claimed descent from a member of the Red Branch Knights
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, the western third of Laois was part of the Kingdom of Ossory. The eastern part was divided roughly into seven parts, which were ruled by the Seven Septs of Loígis: O’More (O’Moore), O’Lalor, O’Doran, O’Dowling, O’Devoy (O’Deevy), O’Kelly and McEvoy.
Introduction of Christianity
When Ireland was Christianized, holy men and women founded religious communities in Loígis. St. Ciarán of Saighir (called "The Elder" to distinguish him from the younger St. Ciarán of Clonmacnoise) founded his monastic habitation in the western Slieve Bloom Mountains as the first bishop of Ossory, reputedly before St. Patrick. His mother Liadán had an early convent nearby at what is now Killyon. 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 the chieftains of Loígis caused the Normans to withdraw. The Dempseys seized Lea Castle, while Dunamase came into the ownership of the O’Mores. Examples of tower houses built 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 (Loígis), 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.
Loígis was the subject of two Plantations or colonisations by a mix of Scottish & 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 Scottish & English settlers. However, this only led to a long drawn-out guerilla war in the county and left a small Scottish & English community clustered around garrisons. There was a more successful plantation in the county in the 17th century, which expanded the existing Scottish & English settlement with more landowners and tenants from both Scotland and England. Neither plantation was fully successful due to a lack of tenants and because of continuous raids and attacks by the O'Moores.
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.
The county was formerly known as Queen's County until its name was informally changed on establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. The county's name was formerly spelt as Laoighis and Leix. 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.