The Pale, a Musical Picnic, a Pigsty and the Complex History of Religion in Ireland.

Edward VI was only nine years old when his father, Henry VIII, died. But he had been well prepared for his role as king by the men who had egged on his father to create an English Church separate from Rome, rejecting those aspects of Catholic worship and belief that the new breed of Protestants found distasteful.

Thomas Cromwell (not to be confused with the unrelated Oliver Cromwell, who would wreak his own form of religious havoc a century later) and Archbishop Cranmer were joined by the king’s uncles, Thomas and Edward Seymour, in moulding the young king to their own patterns, patterns that did not always align.

The Seymour brothers, in particular, had many disagreements, mostly rooted in the older brother’s assumption of the position of ‘Protector’, making him, in effect, regent and head of government. Thomas, consumed with jealously, ended up being accused of treason and the sexual harassment of the young Princess Elizabeth. He was incarcerated in the Tower of London. But it was not long before the older man followed him. In time, both lost their heads to the executioner’s sword.

Meanwhile, the whole of the kingdom was in turmoil, with rebellions of varying severity in several regions of England. Edward Seymour busied himself trying to subdue the Scots, and someone conceived the idea that it was time to do the same to the Irish.

Towards the end of Henry’s reign, Edward Seymour had led a campaign against the French in Boulogne. It is probable that among those alongside him was a young man from a Leicestershire family with growing influence that also occupied land in Nottinghamshire.

Francis Cosby would follow that campaign by joining the vanguard of men charged with facilitating the expansion of English influence beyond the Pale. He may well have been impatient, unwilling to await the demise of his father in order to obtain control of the Nottinghamshire land. Like many another, he hoped to gain more lucrative favours from the king in return for loyal service as a soldier.

Whilst much of what was happening under the reformation, in England as well as Ireland, was ostensibly driven by religious fervour, it was also an unashamed land grab. Church land and assets were confiscated and redistributed to men who had succeeded in earning recognition from the Crown, or from those, like the Seymours, with royal connections. It was this, and the practice of similarly appropriating common land, that stimulated rebellion.

For men like Cosby, if land in England was not readily available, there were new opportunities opening up in Ireland where something similar was taking place.

The land beyond the Pale

Prior to the 1540s, the part of the Irish Midlands now known as Laois and Offaly was controlled by the O’Moores and the O’Connors. Initially an attempt was made to assimilate these families under a legal arrangement termed ‘surrender and re-grant’. The O’Moores and the O’Connors ceded their land rights to the English in exchange for new rights, but only to smaller areas of less fertile land, the remainder being held by the Crown for distribution to English men who could demonstrate a willingness to assert the authority of the Crown against Irish opposition.

Cosby is believed to have first arrived in Ireland around 1546. English outposts, or forts, were established in what would eventually become County Laois. One of these was close to Stradbally in the South East of the county, the other near its centre.

This latter was given the name ‘Fort Protector’, in honour of Edward Seymour whose downfall had yet to occur. Three years later Cosby petitioned for permission to ‘plant’ in Leix. At this time he was living in Monasterevin, in County Kildare, in a house controlled by the Lord Deputy of Ireland.

In 1556, the boundaries of the two counties were established by a commission, of which Cosby was a member, and named ‘Queen’s County’ and ‘King’s County’ in honour of Mary and her husband, Prince Philip of Spain, (who was never granted the title of king). Fort Protector, and the growing township surrounding it, was renamed ‘Maryborough’.

By now Cosby had been granted land in the vicinity of Stradbally, was ‘general’ in charge of a ‘kern’, which seems to have been a platoon, or squadron, of men recruited locally. He was living at Maryborough, from where he fought off an attack by the combined forces of the O’Moores and O’Connors.

Soon after, he was appointed ‘Seneschal’, a post roughly equivalent to sheriff, and began to build a house near the remains of a Franciscan Friary at Stradbally, using reclaimed stone from the friary walls. Does anyone else see some irony in the fact of a man named Francis building his house in the ruins of a Friary dedicated to a Saint of the same name?

The Cosbys would become the most successful of seven families who became established in Laois at this time. Known as ‘the Seven Septs, or Tribes, of Laois’ they were, in alphabetical order, Barrington, Bowen, Cosby, Hartpole, Hetherington, Hovenden and Ruish. Of these, only the Cosby family retains its land holding in Laois.

Francis, his son Alexander and grandson, also named Francis, continued in violent opposition to the O’Moores over the following half century. Robert Hartpole accompanied him when they massacred a group of O’Moore rebels at Mullaghmast in County Kildare in 1577. Robert’s daughter married Francis’s grandson. Francis senior was killed in action in 1580 when, aged 70, he led a force against another Irish insurgency at Glenmalure in County Wicklow.

The present house was constructed in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, when the family was also responsible for establishing a model town, many of the buildings of which remain at the heart of the town today. At that time, also, a family member was Governor of New York.

In the twenty first century the estate has become home to the Electric Picnic, a festival that can justifiably be called “the Irish Glastonbury”. In the past year a project was completed to renovate a Victorian pigsty.

Religious movement or land grab?

The veracity of any claim that this expansion of English influence beyond the Pale was driven by religion is weakened by the fact that it continued apace under Queen Mary, a devout Catholic who worked hard to reverse many of the religious innovations introduced by her father and brother.

Suppression of the old religion did continue, however, and the faithful established secret meeting places where they held masses. One such, called the Mass Rock, can be seen today, high up in the woods to the south of Stradbally.

The Mass Rock, deep in the woodland on a hill South of Stradbally. Note that it is still regarded as a sacred site by Catholics today who leave rosary beads and other personal items as offerings. (The author’s photograph)

By the beginning of the nineteenth century there was an acceptance that Roman Catholics in Ireland should be permitted to practice their religion, and many new Churches were built so that most communities now have two Church buildings. In Stradbally the two are side by side, the Catholic Church closest to what remains of the former Friary.

Stradbally’s two Churches. The Victorian Catholic Church is on the left, the Church of Ireland (Catholic before the reformation) on the right. Betwen them the former Priest’s House, now a Montessori nursery school. (The author’s photograph.)

Over four centuries after Francis’s death, the Church of Ireland would follow the Church of England and authorise the ordination of women. It appears this reform was a step too far for the current head of the Cosby family.

He was, however, not ready to embrace Catholicism. Instead he joined the Russian Orthodox Church, commissioning the building of a small Orthodox Church within the grounds of Stradbally Hall.

Winter sun glints from the dome of Stradbally’s Russian Orthodox Church in the grounds of Stradbally Hall. (The author’s photograph)

Thus, the descendent of a man who built his home from the ruins of a Roman Catholic religious house was instrumental in the expansion of another branch of Christianity in Ireland. It is one of only three Russian Orthodox Churches in Ireland. It is dedicated to the same local Saint, St. Colman Mac ua Laoise, who established an Abbey near Stradbally in the 6th Century. The majority of celebrants are Romanian immigrants.

The remains of St. Colman’s Abbey on the Southern outskirts of Stradbally. (The author’s photograph)
Another view of the ruins of St. Colman’s Abbey, showing the extraordinary corballed roof. (The author’s photograph)

The local Catholic School is also dedicated to this saint. The Church of Ireland primary school is simply named Cosby school.


In addition to those linked in the text:

Simon Schama: A History of Britain, 3000 BC – AD1603, BBC Worldwide Ltd., 2,000.

7 thoughts on “The Pale, a Musical Picnic, a Pigsty and the Complex History of Religion in Ireland.

    1. As witnessed by David, who knows ” little of the history of Ireland beyond the potato famine and the bad landlords.”, English history, as taught in England and elsewhere, tends to leave Ireland out of the story – at least until it became a problem impacting political discourse in the late nineteenth century with demands for ‘Home Rule’. Part of my ‘mission’, with this blog and (some of) my books, is to rectify this situation.

      Liked by 3 people

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